It's not just the little show that could. ABC Family's Wildfire (Mondays at 8 pm/ET) is the little show that changed an entire cable network. Despite a premise that sounds sappy — troubled girl befriends horse and starts a new life — this series doesn't shy away from the hard topics (drugs, sex, suicide) and has pulled strong ratings, especially with teens and young women, since its 2005 debut. It proved that the channel could be more than just a repository for sugary repeats, and soon ABC Family was launching more original programs with edge (Kyle XY, Fallen, the new Lincoln Heights). Wildfire, which kicked off its third season this month, has already been renewed for a fourth.
"We're a throwback to the blue-sky shows of the past, like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, only we're considered modern and cool," says Shawn Piller, who produces Wildfire on location in New Mexico with partner Lloyd Segan (they also helm USA Network's The Dead Zone). "Moms and daughters are watching the show together," notes Piller. "And we're also getting the guys." Adds Segan: "Wildfire is really about second chances, and that appeals to everybody."
At the center of the show is Genevieve Cortese as Kris Furillo, a teen juvie who served time for grand theft auto. In need of a new start, Kris was embraced by the Ritters, a struggling ranch family, and she soon rode her stallion, Wildfire, to several championships. Though steamy love triangles abound, Cortese says, "I don't want to be whoring and showing that it's OK to jump from guy to guy. We have 12-year-olds watching us. Kris makes her mistakes, but through that she learns her boundaries." Alas, her criminal ways will resurface this season. Also, a young heartthrob will die tragically.
"We don't pander and we're not salacious, but we do provoke family discussions," says Nana Visitor, the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine vet who plays matriarch Jean Ritter. "We try to keep it appropriate but still based in reality."
Reality hasn't been kind to this series. Soon after its first season, Wildfire was hit by the cancer death of its cocreator, Shawn Piller's dad, Michael Piller. "We felt orphaned," recalls Visitor. Then series regular Dennis Weaver died. No one even thought of replacing the TV legend, who played the granddad, Henry. "It was like we lost both our patriarchs," says the junior Piller. "By not recasting Dennis, we chose to honor them both. It was an opportunity to show how families deal with loss and, most important, how life must go on."
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