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Amazon Prime’s The Wilds is the Unexpected Hit of the Season

At first, the cheesy dialogue and ludicrous set-up of Amazon Prime’s “The Wilds” threw me for a loop. After all, this is a show with an elevator pitch that could basically be reduced to “Young Adult 'LOST' with Teenage Girls,” which sounds inherently ridiculous. And dialogue like “Being a teenage girl in normal ass America—that was the real living Hell” doesn’t help at the beginning. Or maybe it does? It may take you a minute to get on the groove of a show that features an unironic a cappella version of a Pink song after a character dies, but you will enjoy “The Wilds” if you can find its wavelength. And it's a smarter wavelength than it first appears. There’s something incredibly (and increasingly in each episode) watchable about this twisting, silly show that anchors its B-movie charms in truthful, heartfelt characters and performances. It’s a bit rocky sometimes in its midsection when it comes to pacing and the entire ensemble isn’t exactly equal, but I was pretty much hooked by the second episode, and actually changed my schedule because I was so curious to see how it ended.

A group of young women is on a chartered plane to Hawaii for a troubled girls retreat called The Dawn of Eve when the plane goes down, killing the crew and stranding the passengers on an island in the middle of nowhere. As each episode cuts back and forth between time after the island and time before it—usually cut up into learning back story about each girl one per episode—the “LOST” comparison is direct and obvious, especially as the teens discover that there’s more to where they are and how they ended up there than it first appears. And some of the girls brought secrets to the middle of nowhere.

As we learn more and more about the stranded teens, their personalities start to distinguish one from another. If there’s a lead, it’s probably Leah (an excellent Sarah Pidgeon), who gets the first flashback episode and drives the suspicion that things aren’t what they seem on the island, but the show is very balanced with its ensemble. Shelby (Mia Healey) is the pretty girl who seems to have a shallow belief system; Nora (Helena Howard of “Madeline’s Madeline”) is incredibly quiet, especially compared to her sister Rachel (Reign Edwards). Other girls like Fatin (Sophia Ali), Dot (Shannon Berry), Martha (Jenna Clause), and Toni (Erana James) take their own time to come into focus while David Sullivan and Troy Winbush play a couple of investigators interviewing the girls after the fact. And then there’s Rachel Griffiths (“Six Feet Under”), who, well, it’s hard to explain. Without spoilers, "The Wilds" jumps around in time deftly and consistently. You never lose the narrative even as it's bouncing around, a testament to the editing and overall quality.

At its heart, “The Wilds” is really about the many different ways that young women are underestimated, abused, commodified, and lied to in the ‘20s. Creator Sarah Streicher (a writer on Netflix’s “Daredevil”) embraces that YA empowerment tone in the balance of “very serious subject matter” meets “crazy plotting” that the genre requires. It’s a tougher tonal high wire act than it may first appear. The increasingly cuckoo plot twists mean that this show can’t take itself too seriously, but it also needs to make its characters interesting and likable within the construct of its plotting. Making them feel three-dimensional while they navigate the twist-heavy plot is an accomplishment for both the writing and acting here. It’s fun to watch this very well-cast show produce actresses who could become stars like Pidgeon, Ali, and Healey, while also confirming that Howard is the real deal. Some of the back stories are more believable and entertaining than others, but there isn’t anyone who stands out as being an obvious weak link, which is a testament to the entire production.

Streicher and her team—including “Wadjda” director Haifaa Al-Mansour and "Booksmart" writer Susanna Fogel—simply know how to make this guilty pleasure work for its target YA audience in a way that's smart enough to also appeal to their parents. Some of the messaging embedded in the back stories can feel a little thin at times and the island stuff lacks a sense of genuine danger that might have helped, but the show pulls you back in with twists carefully spread through the season to maximize impact. Overall, it has echoes of other projects that were YA on the surface but found ways to transcend that through writing and performance like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Veronica Mars.” It’s not quite in that league yet, but it’s much closer than I expected it to be when it started or when I heard the premise. In many ways, it’s the most surprising show of the season. It's wild.

Whole season screened for review.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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