Life Is Wild

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8-9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7
The CW

"Life Is Wild" is really more "Life Is Sucky" -- at least at the outset.

Here we have the story of a blended family from New York that, seemingly on a whim, moves to a broken-down lodge in South Africa for a year, to the great consternation of the two adolescents who remain in their care. They constantly bicker with each other over their lack of access to MySpace and too much access to this space. They dodge hungry lions. They pine for a dead wife/mother and an imprisoned father.

Then they eye pictures of Nelson Mandela and realize why this seemed a good idea in the first place, which is ... um ... uh ... well, dang, it's still not really clear what the reasoning was behind going off on this wild antelope chase. Oh yeah, it was to forget about mom. Like that's gonna happen out here in the middle of freakin' nowhere.

The pilot plays like "Born Free" meets "7th Heaven" meets "My So-Called Life" meets "Dawson's Creek." There is both everything going on and nothing going on simultaneously in this CW hour, but the series ultimately could click, depending on where things go from here.

The likable D.W. Moffett stars here as Danny Clarke, a veterinarian whose idea it was to jet off to this Godforsaken lodge on a game reserve. He gets to work here with injured lion cubs and heal endangered wildlife, starting with his own. His second wife, Jo (Stephanie Niznik), is a divorce attorney who had to divorce a husband who wound up in the slammer. Once these two married, it became clear that their four kids (two his, two hers) had little in common living under the same roof. For some reason, he thought it would be better if only they were in Africa, which is a bit like believing the marriage would improve if only you'd each have an extramarital affair. This leaving the continent idea is met with predictable hostility by Danny's 16-year-old daughter Katie (Leah Pipes) -- the strong one who never lets you see her sweat -- and Jo's teenage son Jesse (Andrew St. John). There also are a few other smaller kids in there, but they're so young that we don't care.

So anyway, things shift to Africa pretty much immediately in the pilot script from executive producer Michael Rauch. Katie and Jesse are really, really at odds now, and to complicate matters, their raging hormones have to compete with foreign dust and wild beasts. The fish-out-of-water setup is less about social epiphany than inter-familial sniping, but at least that part is realistic. This dynamic is aided greatly by the extraordinary vistas on location in Johannesburg from directors of photography Peter Sinclair and Lance Gewer and their team. This series is never less than beautiful to look at, so much so that you sometimes find yourself rooting for the actors to get out of the way. Not much chance of that happening, however.

Based on the popular "Wild at Heart" series of books in the U.K., "Life Is Wild" is surrounded by a couple of other colorful characters who give it juice: Art (David Butler), the father of Danny's deceased first wife (the lodge is where she grew up), and Colin (Calvin Goldspink), a reckless, Crocodile Dundee-like Brit who looks as if he's going to be trouble for Jo in terms of keeping her hands off of him.

The sense of displacement that shades the premiere is palpable, which is good, yet it's nonetheless difficult to shake the feeling that the backstory -- and this is all backstory -- makes the conceit of chucking it all and running to the other side of the world on a wing and a prayer fairly implausible. It leaves open the question: Will audiences really go for this over "The Simpsons," "Sunday Night Football" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"? It's entirely possible, but only if it can rope in the Disney Channel crowd. And this ain't the Disney Channel.

LIFE IS WILD
The CW
CBS Paramount Network Television, Warner Bros. Television and Company Pictures
Credits:
Executive producers: Michael Rauch, Charlie Pattinson, George Faber
Co-executive producers: Sue Tenney, Dana Baratta, Jim Sadwith
Producers: Lance Samuels, Adam Friedlander, William Shephard
Co-producers: Brad Carpenter, Dan Lieberstein
Teleplay: Michael Rauch
Director: Bryan Gordon
Directors of photography: Peter Sinclair, Lance Gewer
Production designers: Robert van de Coolwuk, Stephen Mark
Costume designers: Pierre Vienings, Karla Stevens
Art director: Grant Carr
Editors: Michael Berenbaum, Stephen Mark
Music: Maurice White, Bob Christianson
Sound mixers: Dieter Keck, Ivan Milborrow
Casting: Lucinda Syson, Moonyeen Lee, Christine Smith Shevchenko, Alexis Frank Koczara
Cast:
Danny Clarke: D.W. Moffett
Jo Clarke: Stephanie Niznik
Katie Clarke: Leah Pipes
Jesse Weller: Andrew St. John
Art: David Butler
Colin Banks: Calvin Goldspink
Tumelo: Atandwa Kani
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