Monday, October 08, 2007

Scatterlings In Africa

Care to guess what the most successful series in terms of ratings was on the old WB network? Since I can't hear you shouting out Buffy or Smallville or Everwood I'll tell you. It was 7th Heaven. I remember being amazed/bemused in the various newsgroups for the more "geek" popular WB shows – like Buffy, Angel or Smallville – when the hip young things would wonder at why that piece of (insert preferred noun indicating utter disdain here – I think I'll use crap) was still on the air or had been renewed by the morons at the network when other shows that "they" watched were cancelled. They didn't like having it pointed out that 7th Heaven which they disdained usually pulled about twice the ratings as the shows they liked and perpetually had the highest ratings on the network. (That also explains the durability of Reba by the way, but don't try telling the executives at the CW that they cancelled their most successful comedy while renewing Girlfriends.) I don't know that it should have surprised anybody. 7th Heaven was a show that you could sit down with your spouse and the kids and spend an hour a week watching something that wasn't going to deliver a murder a week, a string of dubious language, or much beyond the hint that people were having sex (they had to have been having sex given the number of pregnancies) and still produce dramatic and entertaining situations. In the '70s there was The Waltons and from the mid-'90s to mid 2007 there was 7th Heaven.

So it's no surprise that after finally putting 7th Heaven to rest (after a frankly ill-advised sudden renewal by for the 2006-07 season) The CW decided to create a show to replace it. Well, maybe create isn't quite the right word. Adapt, adopt, borrow, re-invent – those would be some of the right words, since their new show Life Is Wild is actually taken (another good word) from the popular British series Wild At Heart. No matter; despite some conflict, this seems like a series that even the PTC could love. And while I'm not saying that that's necessarily a recommendation, I would like people to admit that every so often you need a show that you can sit down with the spouse and the kids and enjoy.

The pilot starts with a Land Rover driving down a dirt road in South Africa. Inside are a man, a woman, two teenagers and two younger kids. We're quickly filled in about who these people are courtesy of a voiceover from the teenage girl, Katie Clarke (Leah Pipes). The man is her father veterinarian Danny Clarke (D.W. Moffat) while the woman is her step-mother Jo (Stephanie Niznik). The younger boy is Katie's brother Chase (K'Sun Ray) while the younger girl is their step-sister Mia (Mary Matilyn Mouser). Finally the teenage boy is Jo's rebellious son Jesse. They're a blended family, but the blending is considerably less successful than it was for the Brady Bunch. Which is part of the reason why they're driving down a road in South Africa – it's one of those things that families in crisis do, although for most of them it's a trip to Disneyworld or therapy instead. For them it's living in South Africa for a year while Danny works as a vet. An early incident in the show when they stop to let Mia pee and a large elephant charges at them indicates that Danny has been there before. He met his first wife there, when he was in the Peace Corp. Now they're heading for the Blue Antelope Lodge. The lodge is owned by Danny's former father-in-law, Katie and Chase's grandfather and it's not exactly what anyone is expecting. Instead of a resort with a swimming pool and spa, with a smiling happy staff to greet them and a fully equipped veterinary clinic for Danny to work in there's some derelict cabins, a main building that has seen better days, and an old man who looks like he could be dead but is just drunk. That's Art (David Butler), the kids' grandfather. He and the lodge are retired, or as he says, "It's hard to run a bed and breakfast when you're the only one making the beds."

Almost immediately Danny is called out to the nearby village to treat a sick baby goat. He takes Jesse and Katie along with him. The village isn't one of those postcard villages of mud huts and thatched roofs, but rather a sprawling place of shacks made up of what can be salvaged including a lot of corrugated iron, an apartheid era township. And it's not just one baby goat but instead a virtual parade of critters all waiting for a visiting vet. While Danny treats his patients Jesse and Katie are allowed to wander around the township. Katie hooks up with Tumelo (Atandwa Kani), an African boy of about her age who wants to work with her father so that he can learn to be a vet. Meanwhile Jesse goes into the marketplace where he finds a stall selling whiskey. He wants to steal a bottle but catches sight of someone watching him. Though we don't know his name at this point we later discover that he is Oliver Banks (Calvin Goldspink), son of the owner of the successful lodge in the area. Oliver offers to take Jesse someplace where they can get whiskey, which of course they go off to do without telling anyone – it's part of Jesse's rebelliousness. Needless to say, when Danny finally brings him back to the Blue Antelope Lodge (after Jesse engages in some skateboarding on the paved highway that nearly results in him being hit by a car) there's an argument.

The next day, Chase and Mia find a lion cub outside of the lodge. There's a wounded lioness in the area and as Art explains, in the search for food the lioness will abandon her cub, something that Chase in particular doesn't understand. The Blue Antelope's veterinary clinic is as derelict as the rest of the place so Danny and Art and the rest of the family go to the neighbouring lodge, owned by Colin Banks (Jeremy Sheffield). The lodge has swimming pools, a spa, and all the amenities (including a fully equipped veterinary clinic) that the Blue Antelope doesn't. Art is disdainful about the place, calling it an amusement park where you can see the animals. And indeed there seems to be little real need to leave the place to see animals since they have feeding points set up to bring the giraffes and other animals right up to the buildings. There's even a little something to attract Jesse besides the booze – Colin's sister Emily (Tiffany Mulheron). The lion cub is rather quickly restored to health thanks to an IV.

Chase is unhappy that they're keeping the lion cub in a cage especially after the lioness comes to the lodge and makes an even greater mess of the clinic than it already was. He's sure that the animal is looking for its baby and decides to set the free to find its mother. So he heads out alone into the bush and needless to say can't find his way home. Worried about the wounded animal Art and Danny head out to find Chase, but after they go Katie sets out to find her brother with Jesse chasing after her. They encounter the wounded animal which comes after them. Jesse, remembering how Danny stopped the charging elephant made a similar display which stops the lion in its tracks, just in time for Art to shoot it. Jesse thinks that the old man has killed it but instead he's shot it with a tranquilizer dart. They take the big cat to the clinic in the Banks' family lodge and Danny urges Jesse to help with the surgery to remove the bullet as a sort of veterinary nurse's aide. Jesse seems flustered at first but as he watches Danny work his face seems to register a sort of appreciation for what his stepfather is doing. The episode ends with the family attempting to reunite the lioness with the cub in a pen at the Blue Antelope, an attempt that is successful.

There's plenty of opportunity for exposition in the episode, as well as setting up ongoing storylines. Art has a sort of shrine set up to his daughter, a shrine which Katie can't look at even though she puts up a happy face and claims to be focussed on the present. We learn that Jo is a divorce lawyer (and that Art hates lawyers – I was expecting Jo to come back with a line like "Why should you be any different," when he mentioned that to her) and that her ex-husband is jail back in the States. There's a cute moment when Chase comes into a room with Katie and Art, carrying a T-shirt with a picture of Nelson Mandela on it. It belonged to Art's daughter, but while Katie knows whose face is on it, all Chase knows is its "that guy." Later we learn why Katie's mother ran away to marry Danny – she hated Apartheid and she fought with her father over it. They never reconciled even though he has accepted the facts of how things are. Finally there's an interesting subplot that I hope will be developed further. At one point, when Tumelo comes to see Katie and introduce her to his "sister" – a cheetah that he had rescued as a cub – she mentions that her father is at the Banks' lodge and that if he wants to meet him he could go there. Tumelo's reaction seems to be almost one of fear when he says that he couldn't possibly go there. It ties in with the fact that the local villagers are desperate for the help of a veterinarian despite the fact that the Banks family has a fully equipped facility on their property. I suspect that the only way one of the locals is welcome on the Banks place is as one of the "friendly helpful staff."

It's sort of difficult to evaluate this show. The plot is workmanlike and the family dynamics seem fairly realistic. The problem I have is with how much of this has been brought over from the original British series and how much is original. The scenery and animal footage is spectacular of course, and I do appreciate the sort of honesty that is shown by showing the conditions that the "villagers" live in rather than giving what might be called the "tourism bureau" view of their living conditions. This is particularly interesting given that the show is produced with the assistance of the South African government's industry department. The acting is adequate – there are no really outstanding performances here, at least not yet. I can't really fault the casting; even though D.W. Moffat looks too young to have a teenage daughter he is in fact older than I am. Butler has a suitably grizzled appearance as Art, although if there were one thing I might change it would be to make Art an Afrikaner rather than an English South African – it would somehow make his argument with his daughter over Apartheid seem more realistic. As well, making him an Afrikaner, with deep roots in the country, would make his animosity to the immigrant British Banks family more palpable. But that's quibbling.

My good buddy Toby stated when he voted for Life Is Wild to be the first show of this group to be cancelled that he felt that "Life Is Wild has two strikes against it - it sounds boring and it's on the CW." Having seen the pilot episode I have to say that while it may sound boring I didn't find it to be particularly bad. The CW part may be a much bigger problem for the show. The network has put it on following their two youth oriented shows, CW Live and Online Nation. Those two shows have had absolutely dismal ratings – according to Marc Berman Sunday's Online Nation had an audience of 762,000 and a 0.3/1 share and rating in the 18-49 demographic. Even more than doubling that – as Life Is Wild did (1.64 million viewers and a 0.4/ 1 among adults 18-49) – is a pretty dismal performance. I want to believe that there is a place for a show such as this in prime time and it seems as though The CW is about the only network willing to take a shot with a show like this. It might do better – comparatively at least – on a more important network like CW part owner CBS, but it would also be more likely to be cancelled on a big network for ratings that the executives at The CW would drool over. I don't know what the remedy for this situation is – replacing CW Live and Online Nation with reruns of Smallville or reviving Reba maybe, or perhaps moving Life Is Wild to a different night (like the second hour of Monday to replace Girlfriends and The Game) – but surely there should be someplace on broadcast TV for a show like this. Or do we relegate shows like this to cable networks like Nickelodeon?

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