Amazon’s ‘The Wilds’ Takes Teen Angst and Gives It a Castaway Dose of Suspense

With “The Wilds” Amazon is again finding new angles for classic pitches. The setting is familiar: A group gets lost somewhere far away from civilization, which gives them time to learn about each other while developing sorely needed survivalist skills. But a good show doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Creator Sarah Streicher is after deeper, more meaningful pursuits with this series. She manages to convey them so well they can almost make you forget the more standard plot devices. The crash and plights are just catalysts for a broader drama about being young today.

Our band of castaways this time around is a group of teenage girls with troubled backgrounds. They’re not necessarily stereotypes, but just kids who have made poor choices or haven’t learned to get their lives in order. They are on a flight to The Dawn of Eve, a girls’ retreat in Hawaii meant to help them. We soon find out something went wrong and the girls are now stranded on an unpopulated island somewhere in the middle of who knows what part of the ocean. Among them are Leah (Sarah Pidgeon), who was left heartbroken by an older man, Rachel (Reign Edwards), a former swimmer with an eating disorder, her twin sister Nora (Helena Howard), Fatin (Sophia Ali), an oversexualized cello virtuoso, Shelby (Mia Healey), a cocky blonde Christian and beauty queen, Toni (Erana James), is a basketball star with a sour attitude, while her friend Martha (Jenna Clause), feels belittled by the world. Now stuck in this island they all tell more about their individual stories while beginning to suspect there’s more to this crash than meets the eye.

Every generation needs its variations of “Lord of the Flies” and “The Wilds” taps into that idea of a collective going crazy while conveying something broader. This show plays like “LOST” for the Gen Z crowd, the plot is simply a fresher way to discuss multiple teenage issues and revisit the drama of being 17 and feeling alone in the world. It is superbly well-directed with eye-catching cinematography that turns the deserted island into beautifully menacing space. Cold, rocky surfaces make way for greener pastures where the girls play out their various strengths and weaknesses, some physical and others psychological. Each episode reveals a bit about each character and how they got on that fateful airplane ride. It is here where Streicher’s writing shines best, in exploring mature teenage themes within the context of the thriller genre. We do want to know how these teens will survive their time on the island, but when the show cuts back to their individual stories it can become more engaging. 

Some of the backstories presented are more honest and ring truer than some standard YA show. Leah’s confidence and sense of self-worth is shattered when she meets the author of her favorite book. She unwisely forgets to tell him she’s almost 17 and sleeps with him. When he finds out he of course shuns her and cuts her out of his life. Rachel’s backstory is equally heartbreaking in a different context. When a coach tells her she’s not meeting weight requirements she descends into an eating disorder that results in a competition mishap almost unbearable to watch in its simple sadness. Other characters deal with subject matters about sex, dealing with controlling parents or something as simple as Shelby hiding her prosthetic teeth. As you can already guess, their time on the island will bring to the fore all of these details.

Where “The Wilds” becomes less engaging is in how Streicher then feels compelled, either by her own tastes or the demands of commerce, to expand the narrative into a sillier, harder to buy premise involving a secret organization possibly running the island and keeping everyone under surveillance. Paranoia brews over what girls might know the truth and which ones are in the dark. Episodes open with the girls being interrogated by men and women in suits who might be mistaken for detectives, but as the show progresses turn out to be something more sinister. The finale ends with a possible escape and a peek at the wider conspiracy unfolding, if there is a wider conspiracy. This is rather disappointing considering “The Wilds” would have been fine as a limited series, as a “Cast Away” about the struggles of high school awakenings. 

Yet “The Wilds” is an absorbing entertainment with a unique blend of wild plotting and believable characters. It also takes its teenager personalities seriously and does not approach them with the kind of condescending tone other adult showrunners have mistakenly exhibited. It understands that being young is a process of many firsts full of lasting, sometimes painful lessons. We tend to talk a lot in popular culture about desert island reading or what music we would take with us to a distant shore, we rarely ponder how our memories and scars won’t be left behind.

The Wilds” season one begins streaming Dec. 11 on Amazon Prime Video.