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Television Review

Despite its exotic setting, CW's 'Life Is Wild' proves too tame

The family melodrama about Manhattanites who move to the African bush features (from left in the pilot episode) Mary Mouser, Judith Hoag, Brett Cullen, Leah Pipes, Andrew St. John, and K'Sun Ray. The family melodrama about Manhattanites who move to the African bush features (from left in the pilot episode) Mary Mouser, Judith Hoag, Brett Cullen, Leah Pipes, Andrew St. John, and K'Sun Ray. (DAVID BLOOMER/CW NETWORK)

Why does "wholesome" have to mean "bland" when it comes to network TV? To wit, the CW's "Life Is Wild," a family melodrama that's as wild as a bowl of crackers and milk. While the series is meant to be family entertainment on the order of "7th Heaven," so that adults can watch with kids without embarrassment, it feels more like a TV gathering of stick figures from an instruction manual.

The sad part is that the show, which premieres tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 56, really could have been culturally, visually, and psychologically rich. All the potential is there, and yet the writers and producers, including Michael Rauch from the far more original "Love Monkey," leave it untapped.

The Manhattan family in question is troubled by blending issues, as lawyer Jo (Stephanie Niznik) and her two children try unsuccessfully to bond with veterinarian Danny (D.W. Moffett) and his two children. For various reasons, in the premiere they all move to the African bush, to live with Danny's late wife's alcoholic father. I'm not saying these family complexities are insurmountable, but they certainly deserve more than one episode for resolution. This being 2007 and all, we can justifiably expect "Life Is Wild" to have more depth than "The Brady Bunch."

The casting doesn't help the shallowness factor, particularly when it comes to the kids. Teen daughter Katie is played without texture or distinction by Leah Pipes. She's likable enough, and yet completely uninteresting. Her line delivery is cheerfully monotonous. Katie's teen stepbrother, Jesse, is supposed to be a bad-boy skateboarder whose discipline problems partly precipitated the trip to Africa. But Andrew St. John turns him into yet another humdrum teen TV brat with well-defined abs. At one point, Katie and Jesse meet two other teens around a swimming pool, and it's a male-preening scene that could be transposed into a multitude of other generic teen soaps.

"Life Is Wild" is filmed on location in exotic Africa, among elephants, lizards, and one adorable lion cub. It really should look a lot grittier than it does. Certainly there are pretty scenes, and the presence of animals distinguishes the show from most prime-time dramas. But very little here is breathtaking, or more artfully shot than an Animal Planet documentary. When Katie and Jesse come face to face with a lion, the scene is almost laughably lacking in realism and tension.

The family does interact with the locals, particularly when Danny helps them care for their animals. But in the premiere, too many of these interactions have condescending overtones, as if the white Americans are saviors to the cute black peasants. The presence of young vet wannabe Tumelo (Atandwa Kani), who flirts with Katie, could make the racial element of the show more engaging and real, if the writers are willing to dig below the surface and get a little messy. Alas, that is highly unlikely.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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Life Is Wild

Starring: D.W. Moffett, Leah Pipes, Andrew St. John, Stephanie Niznik, David Butler

On: The CW, Channel 56

Time: Tomorrow, 8-9 p.m.

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