The opening shot of a series is the most important: it’s the first breath of a new experience that could dominate your life. Stephen King said that opening sentences ‘should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this' and the same is true about TV. But it’s a guilty paradox when that criterion is fulfilled and the shot is poor.
Marnie Dickens’ new Prime Video series Wilderness invites you into its nonsensical world through the bad CGI of a spider. It crawls across a desolate road near the Grand Canyon, and is promptly squashed under the tyres of a blue Ford Mustang – driven by glamorous Brit couple Liv (Jenna Coleman) and Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
It's weird, violent and sub-standard. It was easier to get away with mediocre visual effects in a pre-Game of Thrones world, but nowadays the competition is fierce. And this is just a spider. The shot serves as a decent summary of the two Wilderness episodes available to review: underdone, ridiculous and dated. And yet, like any decent opener, it pulls you in.
Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Will and Jenna Coleman as Liv. Photo: Amazon
Liv narrates this dark tale with smug venom. Coleman's voice adopts a scattered, unconvincing Welsh accent, which contrasts with Jackson-Cohen’s posh, rugby lad intonations. Liv admits in voiceover: ‘If you’d have seen us that day, you’d have hated us’ – a risky line, but a shamefully enticing one. Too bad that much of the episode is dire, frustrating and provides few surprises. The worst aspect is Dickens' inebriated dialogue, which bumps through clichés with bored, unoriginal energy.
Nine months before the spider incident, you see their lives after moving to New York for Will’s work. Under the terms of his visa, Liv can’t continue as a journalist and becomes a housewife. She dabbles in novel-writing while her husband attends affluent PR functions. Can you guess what happens next?
Will cheats, of course. Liv finds out, gets drunk, burns things. He comes back grovelling, offering two tickets for a tour of the American National Parks. She accepts. But after a while, her doubts explode and she forms an ulterior motive: revenge.
Ashley Benson as Cara. Photo: Amazon
The first episode is enough to put you off completely, but it’s worth sticking around for the second. It’s still overprivileged trash, but then Dickens sprinkles in some spice as well as much-needed nuance for the characters. As they stop in a forest, the couple are blindsided by the sexy, slow-mo presence of Will’s mistress Cara (Ashley Benson). A stupid, manipulated choreography of circumstances, sure, but one you can’t look away from.
The sexual tension sizzles alongside Liv’s internalised jealousy and rage, always on the cusp of murder. But is she capable of that? How far is she willing to go to exact her revenge? This is exacerbated by the natural world around them and the primal isolation it inspires. Despite their wealth, these are humans reverting to their animal instincts.
The most persuasive aspect of Wilderness is the performances, accents aside. Coleman and Jackson-Cohen perform as if they’re convinced by the script, rippling with aggressive and sensual chemistry.
You can understand why Jackson-Cohen accepted; he’s become typecast as the Toxic Boyfriend since The Invisible Man remake and The Haunting of Bly Manor. But this is a surprising turn for Coleman, who shot to fame as one of Doctor Who’s best companions and delivered a beautiful performance in The Cry. She’s a proven force, so why is she dealing with television scraps? She deserves better than this silly, if seductive, drive to vengeance. Wilderness is lucky to have her.
Wilderness is available on Prime Video from Friday 15 September.
|What||Wilderness, Prime Video, first look review|
15 Sep 23 – 15 Sep 24, ON PRIME VIDEO
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