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Taming Life is Wild: The New Pilot

October 7th, 2007 | Jonathan Gray

LifeIsWild.jpgAs I previously blogged about, Ivan, Derek, Jason Mittell, and I took part in a fantasy draft of the new shows for this TV season. Each of us ended up with 6 shows, one of which is our “Designated Stinker,” a show we earmark for early cancellation. My DS is Life is Wild, whose pilot I soldiered through when it played at the Paley Center in early September. Well, tonight it hit the air. I wanted to check that its odor was sufficiently stinky. What I found was a different show.There have been numerous casting changes. The father is now played by a different actor (D. W. Moffett), and is less stern and more happy. Think of Dr. Abbott in Everwood, and that’s what the dad used to be like (played by Lost‘s Goodwin, Brett Cullen, as in the pic above); he’s now Dr. Smiles. Speaking of Everwood, the mother is now played by that show’s Nina (Stephanie Niznik, not Judith Hoag as in the picture above). The grandpa may or may not be played by the same actor, but his character has received a makeover. In the original pilot, he was a drunk of little utility; now, his accent is less broad, his characterization more subtle, and we even get an additional scene that tells us he supported Apartheid, yet has since learned the errors of his ways. Thus, where he used to be someone still seeking answers, he now seems to have more of them.

The show began in New York when I first saw it, but now we start in South Africa. This shift also allows the producers to axe what was a painfully predictable mystery about why the oldest brother Jesse hit his sister’s boyfriend, an act which supposedly set off the chain reaction that led to the family moving. Before, we learnt at the end that he had found his sister’s boyfriend with someone else, but not before the sister treated us to a very poorly acted “Why is Jill answering your phone, Brad?” phonecall in which she worked this out too.

Indeed, the main character, played by Leah Pipes, is still pretty dire, but nowhere near as horrifically so as before. In the first pilot, she boasted of being strong and needing to keep it together, then had a meltdown at the end. This time around, she tears up, but more subtly. Previously, too, her googoo eyes over the boys she met were frying-pan-in-the-face obvious, and the episode ended with her annoying voiceover protestation that she was giving up on boys, only for her to sit down in school between the two boys she’d been googoo eyeing, provoking a late rejoinder, “Well, maybe.” Now, thankfully, the broadcast audience has been spared this scene. There’s also less voiceover in general. Perhaps with the new father, the producers hired an acting coach and a script doctor?

Added to the show, meanwhile, are many more shots of animals, and a much better soundtrack. The previous soundtrack was an eclectic mix of “African-sounding” music and bad pop songs. I remember being amazed that The CW would put its name on anything without good music. So, sure enough they’ve come through with a better selection, and with lots of cute animals to boot.

I’m still unimpressed, and so are many critics: Variety‘s Brian Lowry quips that “it’s not a good sign that the animal actors are the only ones you’d object to seeing hit with a tranquilizer dart.” But I no longer feel it’s a bonafide stinker at the level of Cavemen, Samantha Who?, Big Bang Theory, or the already-nixed Nashville. It could last half a season, or, if its production crew can continue to improve at the rate they did between the two pilots, maybe more.

Beyond mere evaluation, though, lies the peculiar effect of watching more or less the same episode, yet with twists and changes. Some changes are superficial, but many augment both the nature of the family dynamics (the happy dad, the not-so-sappy big sister, the more reflective grandpa) and the tone of the show (with more animals and more music). It makes me wonder how easily some other problematic shows could be made much better with a modicum of script doctoring.

Let me completely flatter myself with the notion that my earlier blog review of the show shook The CW to their core, inspiring the changes, and thus let me close by offering a suggestion to each network:

  • To NBC, no more pregnant with Deep Meaning Mohinder voiceovers for Heroes
  • To The CW, if you must keep the Kristen Bell voiceover for Gossip Girl, try to limit her reference to herself (“Who loves you? Gossip Girl,” “Gossip Girl here,” “Where will you find out? Gossip Girl”) to once per episode. Mimicking Elmo isn’t a strategy for being cool[I’m not inherently against voiceovers, btw: they work in Pushing Daisies and Desperate Housewives]
  • To FOX, 24‘s Jack Bauer has no family. None. At all
  • To ABC, yes she’s the titular character, but how about Grey’s Anatomy without Meredith Grey?
  • To CBS, if you ever get the chance to make Kid Nation 2, make it a prerequisite that participants’ voices must have dropped – forty high-pitched crying children’s voices do not a pleasurable hour make.

Please feel free to add your own suggestions

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  1. August 23rd, 2008 at 21:22 | #1

    Gossip Girl rocks! Totally love it! The 2nd season is coming right up in September and here’s where you can watch Gossip Girl online episodes if you happen to miss it. Just a heads up :D

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