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The teen girl drama gets overcrowded when the boys arrive
The debut season of the YA drama The Wilds — one of 2020's hidden gems loaded with tons of potential — announced its presence immediately with a seriously strong declaration: Being a teenage girl is hard. In the premiere's opening montage flipping through the group of young women viewers were about to witness fight for survival after the plane they're on crash lands on an island, we see the struggles of their normal day-to-day lives: obsessive crushes, changing bodies that make life harder, newfound sexuality, the leering eyes of men, body image issues, heavy responsibility, the desire to be loved, and more. They're problems frequently associated with being a regular teenage girl, but in the opening flash-forward, the authorities are more interested in what happened on the island. One of the survivors, Leah (Sarah Pidgeon), brushes off being left for dead with nothing but their wits and resolve to save them. "But," she says, "being a teenage girl in normal-ass America? That was the real living hell."
It's a punch in the mouth and The Wilds' way of telling the viewer that this YA drama will be about more than learning how to turn palm fronds into skirts and how to make a delicious snack out of a rat. In its first season, The Wilds would go on to confidently stride through 10 episodes of delicious metaphor on the island and aching past experiences in flashbacks, evoking Lost, with a scientific conspiracy led by Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths) looming over it all. Underneath everything was the show's money-making throughline: Being a teenage girl is hard no matter where you are.
But in Season 2, Amazon cut the episode count from 10 to 8 (likely a "financial decision" by the same company that's spending more than $50 million an episode on Lord of the Rings), which kinda ruined everything. Following the Season 1 cliffhanger in which Leah saw footage of a group of boys on an island in a situation similar to the one she was just in, Season 2 of The Wilds loses much of what made Season 1 great. It's weighed down by too many characters to develop and not enough time to do so, the pressure to outdo the first season, and a growing mythology that doesn't matter as much as the strong themes it was originally built on. I can just imagine Leah again, saying, "But making Season 2 with fewer episodes to work with in normal-ass America? That was the real living hell."
This time, it's the boys' turn to recount their experiences to Gretchen and her cronies, and things do not go well for them or the viewer. Whereas the girls were layered individuals who grew during their time on the island and came to celebrate their rare wins together, the boys are mostly caricatures — the emo kid, the aggro jock bro, the dork with allergies, etc. — without the time to get to really know them. Their mainland backstories not only don't tell us enough about who they are, but they're not unique to the experience of growing up as a teenage boy. That negates the genius of The Wilds and its honestly brutal and gender-specific take on adolescence that separated it from other teen dramas.
What Season 2 could have done, if it had more time, is flip the script and give the boys a proper examination, just as it did with Rachel's (Reign Edwards) story about being told she's too curvy to be a diver, or Leah's story about being in love with an older man, or Dot's (Shannon Berry) overbearing responsibility to care for her sick father. Not only are the boys' flashback stories not as emotionally resonant or incisive as the girls', but there isn't enough real estate for all the boys to get their own stories to tell, which leaves us to figure out what makes some of them tick from their puzzling interactions on the island alone. (Though when a boy does get his time, as the gay, woke Ivan [Miles Gutierrez-Riley] does, it's tremendous.)
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It's all a result of trying to do too much with too little time. Following the boys (on the island, in flashbacks, and in interviews at the research center) and the girls (on the island, mostly) with less time (8 episodes, as opposed to Season 1's 10) means we can never get the same depth to the characters that we got in Season 1. (Season 1 had enough hours to check in with each of the girls, revisit Leah's backstory in the middle of the season, and also give us a fun, format-breaking look at one of Gretchen's moles.) It also means what we do get with them is accelerated to less believable lengths while nuance is abandoned at sea. In Season 2, characters act more irrationally to move the plot along and the viewer is expected to accept it; we at least have history with the girls, but for the boys, it just makes them look like clowns.
This is especially apparent in two instances. Early in the first episode, a mind-boggling decision — one sure to upset fans of the series — shapes the rest of the season with little explanation. And midway through the run, The Wilds tackles its most delicate subject matter — you'll know when you get there because it is 😮 — but is unable to give it its proper due because it never tracks the root of the issue in any satisfying manner.
The Wilds had a clear series blueprint — meet the girls in Season 1, meet the boys in Season 2, combine them somehow in Season 3, all while really being about the teenage experience — that could have made it one of the better YA series of the streaming era. But as streaming services put tighter leashes on shows and are less inclined to invest in returning series in the pursuit of the next big thing, corners are cut. There's no way those involved with The Wilds asked for fewer episodes, and the reduction in hours was clearly a financial decision. But in doing so, Amazon Prime Video muzzled a show that had a lot more to say.
Premieres: Friday, May 6 on Amazon Prime Video (all 8 episodes)
Who's in it: Rachel Griffiths, Sarah Pidgeon, Sophia Ali, Reign Edwards, Mia Healey, and more
Who's behind it: Sarah Streicher (creator), Susanna Fogel (EP/director)
For fans of: Yellowjackets, Lord of the Flies, Lost, teen angst
How many episodes we watched: 8 out of 8