What would you do if you wound up stranded on a deserted island? Would you gather your fellow survivors around a conch shell? Shout for help? Build a hut? Or would you carve a pointy end onto a stick and take it from there?
Imagining how people might behave as castaways has been a mainstay in popular entertainment for centuries. In 1719, English trader Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, a fictional autobiography of a man stranded on a tropical island. It launched an enduring literary genre soon dubbed “Robinsonade.” Defoe’s imaginary island wasn’t really deserted at all—Robinson meets a rogue’s gallery of cannibals and mutineers as he struggles to stay alive—but once Crusoe hauled the castaway narrative into popular culture, it never left. Novels riffing on Crusoe’s themes, like Johann David Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, have become famous in their own right. Over 300 years later, Robinsonade flourishes across mediums. People simply cannot get enough of hastily assembled oceanside fires, neo-tribal squabbles, and SOS messages scrawled in the sand. No wonder Survivor is on its 40th season, or that Lost remains a topic of pop-culture debate. People can’t get enough. Now, they have a new addition to the Robinsonade canon: Amazon’s The Wilds, a soapy update on survivalist spectacle.
Like its spiritual predecessor Lost, The Wilds follows a group of apparent plane crash survivors struggling to stay alive on a deserted island full of secrets. And like Lost, the group is a ragtag bunch of attractive strangers from very different backgrounds, and their situation is far more convoluted than a simple accident. But the castaways of The Wilds have something extra in common: They’re all teenage girls. What’s more, they were all traveling to the same upscale retreat in Hawaii, an event called Daughters of Eve, because of recent tumult in their personal lives.
They board the plane in pairs: tomboy Toni and sweetheart Martha are best friends from an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota, rebellious cello prodigy Fatin and heartbroken romantic Leah are classmates from Berkeley; hotheaded competitive diver Rachel and her bookworm twin sister Nora, also from California; tough Dot and beauty queen Shelby are classmates from Texas. (The only solo girl, bubbly Jeanette, doesn’t survive the first episode.) After the jet falters, the girls lose consciousness and wake up either washed up on the shores of the island or clinging to debris in the ocean.
Each girl brings her own history of trauma to the island; it’s a bit preposterous how afflicted they all are. The menu of secrets is wide-ranging and comprehensive; sexual abuse, suicide, rape, eating disorders, parental neglect, homophobia, poverty, and death have roiled our heroes’ recent lives. The show could easily collapse under the staggering weight of its avalanche of teenage crises, but it doesn’t. The more overwrought elements are balanced out by keenly written relationships between the girls and fine-tuned performances from the young cast, especially Martha (Jenna Clause) and Shelby (Mia Healey), who form a demographically unlikely friendship and who both harbor deep shame about their past behavior.
The story features flashbacks filling in each girl’s backstory and explaining how she wound up on the island, as well as flash-forwards to what happens immediately following their rescue. It also weaves in the perspective of Dawn of Eve founder Gretchen Klein, a girlboss-type schemer played by Rachel Griffiths. Let me get this out of the way: The Wilds is an overstuffed story. At times it feels like the product of a pitch meeting where nervous creatives kept adding outlandish plot twist after outlandish plot twist to convince executives it was thrilling enough to greenlight. Plus, some of the dialog is patently goofy. (In the first episode, moody Leah snarls: “If we’re talking about what happened out there, then yeah, there was trauma. But being a teenage girl in normal-ass America? That was the real living hell.”) Despite its flaws, though, The Wilds has more than enough charm to thrive. Shot on location in New Zealand, it is an uncommonly beautiful television show. And although the convoluted storyline teeters right on the edge of ludicrous, The Wilds wears its soapy quality lightly. It doesn’t vie for puzzle-box status; instead, it reveals its secrets generously, and at a quick clip. Like all Robinsonade stories, it begs questions about how people act when plucked out of everyday society and dropped into an extreme scenario. But because it’s as much a teen drama as it is a survivalist story, The Wilds raises some fresher questions too. It doesn’t echo Lord of the Flies but rather Pretty Little Liars, pairing a campy genre sensibility with engrossing portraits of the shifting ententes and quicksilver betrayals of teenagers.