It’s impossible not to draw comparisons to “Lost” and “The Lord of the Flies” and even “The Truman Show” when watching the ambitious and cutting-edge series “The Wilds,” a 10-part survivalist soap opera on Amazon Prime Video.
• A plane flying over the Pacific Ocean crashes, with a diverse group of passengers miraculously surviving and finding themselves stranded on a remote island that looks like paradise but contains dark secrets. We learn the backstories of the survivors in flashbacks to their lives before the crash.
Checkmark the “Lost” box.
• Young people stranded on an island attempt to establish some sort of democracy and work together for the common good, but it’s not long before they’re at one another’s throats.
Checkmark “The Lord of the Flies” box.
• Something feels … not quite right on the island. There are too many convenient developments, as if someone is manipulating events from afar and might even be watching their every move.
Checkmark “The Truman Show” box.
What’s so impressive about “The Wilds” is how creator Sarah Streicher (“Daredevil”) and the deeply talented young cast members immerse us in this world so quickly and create an almost instant interest and empathy for these eight teenage girls, who on the surface seem to represent various archetypes – the Olympic hopeful, the unsocial bookworm, the quick intense lesbian, the Texas pageant princess, etc. – but turn out to be so much more than what their Instagram bios say.
Filmed on the North Island of New Zealand and on massive sound stages for the nighttime scenes, “The Wilds” features breathtakingly beautiful settings that would have the girls whipping out their phones and snapping shots every minute were it not for the fact the island feels like a prison. (Also, the few phones that survive the crash die out before anyone can call for help.) The group was on a chartered plane heading to some kind of girl-power, self-esteem-boosting retreat called the Dawn of Eve in Hawaii when the plane hit heavy turbulence and crashed just off an uninhabited island. Turns out each one of these girls had been experiencing some serious trauma back home, and they weren’t selected for this trip by accident, and I’ll leave it at that.
“The Wilds” tells us from the start the girls will get off that island, but at what cost, and for what purpose? In the opening scene, we’re in an interrogation room, as a condescending investigator (David Sullivan) explains to a traumatized and bruised girl named Leah (Sarah Pidgeon) that the quarantine will be over soon and her parents are on the way. We see quick-cuts of intense scenes on the island as the investigator continues: “Just to be clear, our primary goal is to conduct an investigation. There’s a lot of haze surrounding your circumstances that we just want to clarify.” She’ll soon be able to return to her life, he assures her.
“What was so f—ing great about the lives we left behind?” Leah asks, and from there we get our first glimpses of the eight survivors, including Olympic high-dive hopeful Rachel (Reign Edwards) and her whip-smart and socially awkward twin sister, Nora (Helena Howard); the tough-talking outcast Dot (Shannon Berry), who is caregiver to her terminally ill father (Greg Byrk); the evangelical optimist Shelby (Mia Healey); the hot-tempered Toni (Erana James); the quiet and sweet Martha (Jenna Clause); and the gorgeous and narcissistic Fatin (Sophia Ali), who packed her thousand-dollar suitcase with makeup and condoms and designer T-shirts.
As the survivors embark on the usual stranded-on-an-island rituals – rationing the little food and drink they have, searching for fresh water, trying to build a shelter – alliances are forged (and broken) and hidden truths emerge. In addition to the engrossing flashback sequences that add so much depth and context to what’s happening on the island, we’re introduced to one Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths), a controversial and slightly mad researcher who is the architect of the Dawn of Eve retreat and has a keen interest in everything that happens to the survivors. It’s complicated, and at times it’s deeply melodramatic and comes close to becoming overwrought, but the writing is strong and the performances are earnest and indelible.
“The Wilds” isn’t afraid to take chances. Gretchen actually invokes the word “gynotopia” to describe a world in which women take their rightful place atop the hierarchy. Robyn Hitchcock’s version of The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You” is featured prominently in one episode that centers on Leah’s sexual history with a man nearly twice her age – a man who believed 16-year-old Leah when she lied and said she was 18. The girls find the torso of a mannequin and name it Marcus, a la Wilson the volleyball in “Castaway.” There’s a shark in the water.
This is one strange, compelling, provocative and deeply involving impromptu sleepover.