Life Is Wild -- An early look
For real excitement and back-stabbing familial drama in the South African wild, check out the spectacular Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet. My family may be late to the game (Meerkat Manor is now in its third season), but those meerkats have us absolutely riveted. And maybe that's why I had a hard time getting excited by Life Is Wild. There's no real sense of danger. Unfortunately, this fictionalized African drama just can't compete with the real life-and-death struggles of those photogenic meerkats.
Life Is Wild is a show about the Clarke-Weller family, a blended brood that relocates from Manhattan to South Africa for a year -- ostensibly for the dad's job (he's a veterinarian) -- but really to SAVE a family that is reportedly "falling apart." Not that things seem that bad on the outside. Still dad, Danny Clarke (D.W. Moffett), and his second wife, Jo (Stephanie Niznik), hope that a new environment will help bring their unhappy bickering stepchildren closer together. This impulsive move doesn't sit well with his kids (Katie and Chase) or hers (Jesse and Mia) because, well, they're kids. Most kids don't want to move ten feet from their best friends, let alone half way across the world to a place without MySpace or McDonalds.And yet, the kids don't protest all that much, or not as much as you'd expect them to after being relocated to a broken-down lodge in the middle of nowhere. In fact, teen Katie (Leah Pipes) who we're told is "mature beyond her years," is downright saintly about the move. She's also the heart of this story. Leah Pipes looks like a young Robin Wright-Penn, and channels the spunky Alison Lohman in Flicka. She lights up the screen whenever she's present, which just highlights the dullness of her supporting cast. Unfortunately, the inexperienced Pipes seems to be overselling "her likability" at times, which actually undercuts the likability of her character.
However, I do like that Katie is a strong female character (Yay, Girl Power!) who isn't a flaky or superficial, shopping-obsessed gossip gal. In fact, Katie has a lot of adult concerns on her plate. She still hasn't gotten over the death of her mom three years ago (despite what she tells her dad), and she has to contend with a new step-family and a sudden move to Africa, far away from all of her friends. This is certainly enough to make any teen miserable. Yet, Katie hides her unhappiness and tries her best to see the bright side of this situation. But as far as conflict goes, Katie doesn't really appear to have it that bad. She has a great relationship with her dad. She has two possible suitors (one British, one South African) right off the bat. And she easily bonds with her cranky alcoholic grandpa even though he drove her mom away from home with his views on apartheid. The only real obstacle Katie faces is with her rebellious step-bro, Jesse (Andrew St. John), whom she calls "the stepbrother from hell."
We know Jesse is trouble because the first thing he does when he gets to step-grandpa's lodge is swipe some alcohol. He also carries his skateboard everywhere and scowls at authority figures. Mom and dad were so worried by his antics back home (he was expelled and wanted to get his lip pierced) that they bolted from the city and dragged their family out into Africa. Of course, Jesse makes it clear he'd rather be in jail with his real pop, than out in the wild with saintly step-vet-dad. But oh, it won't be long before Jesse's wild heart is tamed by Africa and perhaps a hot blond girl, Emily, whose family owns an upscale lodge that does quite well with tourists. The hot blond happens to have a hot brother, Colin, (Calvin Goldspink) who is one of the above-mentioned suitors for Katie. The only problem is that Jesse and Colin are played by actors who look way too similar and are cut from the same generic teen-hottie cloth. These aren't real guys. They're straight from Central Casting. Sure, they're slightly charming, but they're cutie clones. I could barely keep track of which one was the step-brother and which one was the suitor. And frankly, I'm too old to be looking at them and their perfectly-chiseled abs in the first place.
Katie's 11-year-old brother, Chase (K'sun Ray), really doesn't have much to do in the pilot. He has Danny Partridge's shaggy haircut (an apparent must when casting tweens nowadays), but it only made me mistake him for a girl for the first ten minutes of the show. Jesse's seven-year-old sister, Mia (Mary Matilyn Mouser), has even less to do than Chase. On the positive side, it was nice to see that Chase and Mia weren't turned into two overly-cute precocious (i.e. obnoxious) moppets that infiltrate every Disney and Nickelodeon show. On the minus side, the younger cast members sort of disappeared into the background. At least the folks at Disney and Nickelodeon know you have to cast kids with charisma and star-quality if you want the younger audience to become rabid fans of your show.
Not that there's really much that appeals to us grown-ups either. The parents, as typical on these kinds of tween-centric shows, are the weakest links. To me, D.W. Moffett is interchangeable with Dale Midkiff because neither one of them ever plays a part that leaves a lasting impression on me. Moffett doesn't seem to have any chemistry with Stephanie Niznik, who plays his wife, Jo. Niznik comes off as cold, bony, and brittle. She's supposed to be a "high-powered divorce lawyer" and "a loving mother," but I don't buy her in either role. Reportedly, Midkiff and Niznik weren't originally in the show, and came aboard when the roles were recast. If this is a step up, I wonder how stiff the original actors were. Not that it's all bad. Moffett actually shows signs of a pulse in his father/daughter scenes with Leah Pipes.
I didn't sit down to watch Life Is Wild intending to trash the show. In fact, I actually hoped to find an undiscovered gem. Is it so bad to wish for an interesting family drama that I can enjoy with my kids at the 8 o'clock hour? Unfortunately, there isn't enough action or fun to keep the kiddies interested. And there isn't enough depth or originality to keep me tuned in. I kept expecting (okay, maybe I was hoping) that they'd introduce an adorable meerkat into the mix. At least then, we'd have a character we could really love.
Meerkat obsession aside, I honestly think this show would have worked better if they simplified things a bit by losing the step-family dynamic, and just making it a show about Katie, her veterinarian dad, her rebellious brother, and her alcoholic grandpa all trying to get along in South Africa. There's certainly enough conflict to go around with just those four characters butting heads. Then they could have focused less on the duller family members (Sorry mom, Chase, and Mia), and instead created some interesting multi-dimensional South African characters. It would have then allowed the Clarke family to truly immerse themselves in African culture. Which is what the show is supposed to be about, isn't it?
Instead we get a flash of a Mandela shirt, a mention of apartheid, and various staged encounters with wildlife -- but no real immersion into the culture. A quick scene in a marketplace (complete with a man eating a bug to gross out young Katie) is supposed to provide "local color," as is the existence of Tumelo (Atanddwa Kani), Katie's South African suitor mentioned above. Tumelo is a local kid with a big smile, and even bigger dreams of becoming a veterinarian. And he's the only major cast member (at least in the pilot) who is black. Which is rather unfortunate. You would think that a show that takes place in Africa would have more diversity than say, High School Musical.
But as I said earlier, Life is Wild, is Africa drained of its color. I even received a rough cut of the pilot for review which wasn't color corrected, making the whole thing look muted and dull. Perhaps Africa is vibrant and dangerous and beautiful and full of culture and natural wonder. But you wouldn't know it from watching Life is Wild. For that, you'll have to tune into Meerkat Manor. After all, the recent death of a meerkat leader kept me totally engaged and left me teary-eyed, while the pilot episode of Life Is Wild left me yawning.
Life Is Wild premieres Sunday October 7, 2007 at 8 AM on the CW.