In a heroic attempt to entertain us, the broadcast networks introduced some 20 new shows this month. We have an uber-enhanced Bionic Woman, a sad fellow who temporarily raises the dead, and some hairy men from caves. However, none of the new offerings were the type of show that entertains the entire family, while remaining appropriate for younger children. Except for one. The CW, the same network that released the radioactive and explicit teen soap Gossip Girl, has also given us Life is Wild. This classic Sunday-night family drama addresses modern family life without the cynicism that usually permeates TV, but it had to travel to South Africa to do it.
Katie Clarke (Leah Pipes) was living the good life as a teen in New York City, when her dad Danny (D.W. Moffett) and her stepmother Jo (Stephanie Niznik) uprooted their blended family to move to South Africa. Katie’s new stepbrother Jesse (Andrew St. John) was getting into trouble in the wilds of New York and needed a change of scenery. Jesse and his younger sister Mia (Mary Matilyn Mouser) have a father in jail, but their mother is willing to do whatever it takes to help them mature into responsible adults. Katie and her younger brother Chase (K’Sun Ray) are still reeling from their mother’s death three years before. With all these fragile adolescents, Danny and Jo take desperate measures. They install the family in the ramshackle South African lodge owned by Katie’s boozy grandfather, the very place her mother grew up. Danny, a veterinarian, plans to open a desperately needed clinic. He hopes to do some good for the local community who rely on their livestock in a way that New Yorkers, with their pampered Chihuahuas, probably wouldn’t understand.
The lodge is indeed a wild place: overgrown, unused, and crawling with animals, including a warthog that has the run of the place. In the first episode, the family encounters elephants, a wounded lioness, giraffes, a cheetah, and a fuzzy lion cub. The constant interaction with animals will be enough to sell the show to many children viewers. However, things other than animals haunt the bush. This is a land living in the shadow of apartheid. Katie and Jesse meet Colin (Calvin Goldspink), the teen son of a white family which runs a flourishing tourist resort. Katie also makes friends with Tumelo (Atandwa Kani), a black South African teen who wants to be a veterinarian. With hints of conflict between Colin and Tumelo, shots of African markets and townspeople, views of the Savannah, and all those animals, South Africa itself becomes almost another character in the series. It’s portrayed as a complex but beautiful place, inhabited by vibrant people and infused with hope.
Life is Wild echoes earlier family shows such as 7th Heaven or the classic Little House on the Prairie. It lacks irony, which may make it too tame for modern, cynical tastes. It’s clean, without the veiled innuendo that permeates shows these days, even some game shows that might otherwise be wonderful to watch with kids. (There are a few mild scenes in which Jesse acts out, including stealing alcohol.) The children act like children, not like dissipated adults or smart-mouthed props in an adult world. They clearly need their parents to guide them. The parents are the best part. Jo is not a conniving housewife or conflicted power broker, like many TV moms. She’s a lawyer, but a woman who put her children’s well being on par with her own, if not above. Danny is not a bumbler, a fool, or a deeply flawed failure as are so many TV dads. He is strong, wise, and compassionate.
As parents, Jo and Danny are something rare on TV; they are adults who take their responsibility to family seriously. It’s a shame that they, like the lions and giraffes that surround the lodge, are a rarely observed species in American TV.
– Rebecca Cusey is a writer in Washington, D.C.