Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye on what’s new in TV. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of the new Amazon Prime show Wilderness.
For a few years roughly a decade ago, nearly every mystery or thriller novel to hit shelves was dubbed “the next Gone Girl.” In the wake of the success of Gillian Flynn’s dark, twisty novel about an acrid marriage that turned potentially murderous, there was no limit to the number of books that could be proclaimed the bestseller’s heir apparent. Here’s a twist, though: none of those books were the next Gone Girl – either in terms of shared thematic DNA or basic plot details. Sadly, Wilderness, the buzzy new Prime Video series about a hot couple with dangerous secrets, isn’t the next Gone Girl either, but it at least feels like a well-studied imitator at times. Varyingly engrossing, overwritten, and oddly tame, Wilderness may not be the next big thing in the thriller world – but it’s also not half bad. Or, rather, it’s only half bad.
Wilderness is, first and foremost, good at building a glossy, practiced sort of intrigue. Its well-edited trailer crafts an ambiguous sense of danger around its theme song, Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” and its pilot episode features an equally ominous hook. The show starts with married couple Liv (Doctor Who alum Jenna Coleman) and Will (The Haunting of Bly Manor’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen) cruising across the American Southwest while Liv muses in voiceover about her ability to fake a perfect marriage without showing her true self. Her thought process soon starts to sound more coolly threatening, and a moment later, the pair’s speeding car is shown squishing a Black Widow spider under its tire. Like the best parts of the series, it’s heavy-handed, but it’s pretty fun, too.
Without revealing too much about the show’s plot (which is actually surprisingly straightforward after its first two twist-filled episodes), it’s important to note that Will royally fucked up his marriage, and Liv keeps wishing him dead in the most dramatic way possible. Some of the show’s cleverest moments come early on, when she daydreams every possible way she could murder him – and how each method could go wrong. In one scene in the premiere episode, Liv even stands behind Will at the edge of the Grand Canyon, poised to shove him over the edge. The fact that one misstep could send her careening over the edge with him is beside the point, both because Will is a deeply clueless character and because the show cares more about setting up punchy, dramatic tableaus than it does about maintaining internal logic.
Despite the strange storytelling shallowness that sometimes plagues Wilderness, it’s a well-plotted show, especially by soapy crime drama standards. The six-episode series is no shorter or longer than necessary to tell its tale, and once a murder does finally take place, it’s handled with a surprising amount of maturity. Unfortunately, that maturity grows dull in the show’s somber second half. At times – especially in its first two episodes, the show’s best – Wilderness gestures towards something that matches the campy extravagance of its theme song, but it eventually gets bogged down in the tedious depths of its characters’ guilt and betrayal.
Coleman and Jackson-Cohen put in good performances, as do Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars) and Eric Balfour (Six Feet Under) as another couple that ends up entangled in the central pair’s dangerous game. There’s an odd placidity to Coleman’s performance that is at odds with her often venomous voiceover, though, and it’s more a writing problem than an acting one. Liv is presented as a cold-blooded, ruthless person, yet the series seems to firmly believe her insistence that her actions are those of a loving but wronged woman trapped in a world full of piggish men Even in the show’s most enjoyable moments, it’s impossible to fully connect with Liv, whose over-abundant voiceover ranges from ironic to sociopathic depending on the moment. More often than not, the narration gimmick seems like it would make more sense if Liv possessed a darkly funny streak, but she doesn’t. If the character in B.E. Jones’ source material (the show’s based on a 2019 novel) did, it’s mysteriously absent from the screen adaptation.
Will might not end up going over a cliff, but the show certainly takes a nosedive in its back half. The second half of the series never matches the energy and excitement of the first, and a truly off-putting epilogue evaporated my last vestiges of goodwill towards the show just before the credits rolled. Wilderness ends on a bold stunt that misses the mark completely, one that convinced me once and for all that it would’ve succeeded if it stuck with the thrillingly trashy — yet unambitious — thriller premise it started off with. Instead, the series takes a soapy plot and tries to leverage it into a serious meditation on big ideas about the patriarchy and societal pressure on women. Unfortunately, since Liv’s many voiceover aphorisms sound more silly than convincing, the text simply doesn’t support that line of thought, so the ending just feels ridiculous.
If you want to watch a stylish, twisty, pseudo-feminist modern thriller about a seemingly perfect wife who secretly wants her clueless husband dead, well, it’s a good thing David Fincher already made one in 2014.
Wilderness is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Watch the series trailer here.