Not long after they’ve crash landed on a remote beach with no help in sight, the teen girl castaways of “The Wilds” put their situation into a perspective they can understand. Brainstorming a way to signal for help, pragmatic leader Dot (Shannon Berry) tosses surly athlete Rachel (Reign Edwards) a makeup mirror from one of their sea-drenched suitcases, insisting that she take it on their hike to reflect the sunlight back into the sky. “I saw them do it on ‘Bear Grylls,'” Dot shrugs, which is good enough for Rachel. As “The Wilds” likes to remind us at every given opportunity, these girls may be resilient, but they’re also just teenagers who were busy dealing with angst and trauma until they stumbled into this bizarre and terrifying new reality. If making it through this experience alive means recalling some bit of expertise from marathoning “Survivor” back home, hey, so be it.
The new Amazon series, from “Daredevil” writer Sarah Streicher, works best in this mode, i.e. letting its teens be recognizable teens. But when it broadens the story to include the nefarious forces that may have landed them on the island, “The Wilds” loses its focus almost entirely. It could have been enough to just watch these characters deal with the horror of being stranded without hope of rescue; throwing them into a messy corporate conspiracy thriller only serves to break up what makes the show most interesting.
Each episode focuses on a different girl, flashing between their everyday lives before the plane crash to their surreal new lives fighting for their lives on the island. As per Amazon, “The Wilds” marks the streaming services first explicitly YA series, a mantle it takes on with an admirably diverse cast — including not one, but two Native American characters with very different backgrounds and personalities — and by throwing as many teen girl tropes at the wall as it can. Some work; some really don’t.
Before the crash, Leah (Sarah Pidgeon) was grappling with her first real heartbreak, courtesy of a 30 year-old author who slept with her the second he thought she turned 18. Dot spent her school days dealing drugs to preppy jocks before going home to take care of her dying father. Rachel was a world class diver before her coach told her she no longer had the necessary slim body proportions, triggering a debilitating eating disorder that worries her twin Nora (Helena Howard) every waking minute. Fatin (Sophia Ali) was a cello virtuoso whose preferred method of dealing with the intense pressure to perform was sleeping with whatever willing frat guys she could find. Shelby (Mia Healey) was an aggressively bubbly Christian pageant queen. Toni (Erana James) was a basketball star with a bleak home life and raging temper, while her best friend Martha (Jenna Clause) tried to see the best in the world, even after the world dealt her an unfairly awful hand.
Each character has standout moments, though Ali and Howard (the breakout star of “Madeleine’s Madeleine”) tend to run away with the show’s most compelling acting choices. All of them have significant burdens to bear that are specific to their situations and personalities. Some stories (like those of Dot, Rachel and Toni) ring truer, or at least more subtly written, than others. (For instance: Shelby, despite a smart debut performance from Healey, never fully clicks as a cohesive character.)
After watching all ten episodes of this first season, it’s clear that Leah stated the series’ thesis statement in its opening minutes when two seemingly kindly men (David Sullivan and Troy Winbush) question her about her time on the island. “When you go looking for the cause of [our damage],” she tells them, “don’t go looking on that fucking island.” As per “The Wilds,” the trauma inherent in being a teenage girl would be enough to send any of us over the edge, plane crash or no — which is probably true, but it’s also definitely true that a plane crash would also amplify that trauma by a factor of about a million.
Without spoiling anything too specific, the show isn’t content with jumping between the vastly disparate worlds of the girls’ lives at home versus their lives on the island. Instead, it also introduces Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths), a terrifying evolution of a #girlboss who believes that pushing teen girls to be their most resourceful selves will bring out the best in them and society at large. Griffiths commits to the part by imbuing Gretchen with admirably bitchy haughtiness, and yet she can’t obscure the fact that just about every plot twist her character introduces is downright ridiculous. Every time Gretchen locks into yet another one of her ostensibly soaring monologues, moments meant to chill me to the bone made me laugh out loud. And by the end of the season, none of her scheming machinations make any sense at all.
But the finale nonetheless leans hard into Gretchen’s role in the story, failing to resolve any of the more interesting dynamics evolving on the island in favor of further complicating the mystery of how the girls got there. If “The Wilds” gets a second season — and I hope it does, if only because I want to know what actually happened in its first — it would do better to get back to the basics that work rather than advancing the complications that don’t.
“The Wilds” premieres Friday, December 11 on Amazon Prime.