In Life is Wild, mild-mannered veterinarian Danny Clarke (D.W. Moffett) has brought together teenaged Katie (Leah Pipes) and tweenaged Chase (K’Sun Ray) with his new wife, high-power lawyer type Jo (Stephanie Niznik), and her similarly aged children, Jesse (Andrew St. John) and Mia (Mary Matilyn Mouser). New Yorkers by history and disposition, the Clarkes find their precarious family life troubled by Jesse’s acting out. A skateboarder recently kicked out of his Manhattan prep school, he’s sullen and snarky, and spends most of the premiere episode trying to find procure illicit hooch.
What to do? Well, considering that Danny’s saintly first wife hailed from South Africa, dad decides that a year working on her estranged father Art’s (David Butler) game reserve, named “The Blue Antelope,” will be just the thing to bring the new family together. And voila: world-weary Westerners will be healed by the exoticism of Africa.
While Life is Wild is structured as a sort of fishes-out-of-water tale, it is more accurately described as a neocolonial masturbatory fantasy. Still, it’s not exactly old school: it does at least acknowledge the realities of contemporary South Africa, namely, systemic poverty and wealth inequalities, ongoing legacies of apartheid and racism.
When the Clarkes visit the nearby Mara game reserve, they find it filled to the gills with white westerners lounging by pools and sipping cocktails whilst gazing on the animal-filled savannah. The owner remarks, “People love Africa, the Continent, the fantasy. The secret is to give them both.” I’m sorry, did you say “Continent,” as in the “Dark Continent”? The comment condenses all the myriad cultures and nations of Africa into one massive Other. The specifics of African nations and cities, and their many peoples apparently do not interest people.” Neither do they interest Life is Wild.
The show does make nearly hysterical efforts to distance itself and us from such prejudices and presumptions. The lodge owner who espouses this estimation of “Africa’s” value in Western eyes is clearly delimited as the “bad” guy. Some time later, Katie pins her newly met grandpa down about what drove him and her mother apart. Guess what: it was apartheid. She was always against it, from the time she was a little girl, and her answer was to run away to America, land of the “free,” at least of racial prejudice (little could she know). It turns out that Art wasn’t so antipathetic to apartheid. But now he’s reformed: “Times have changed, South Africa’s changed,” he announces, “We believed funny things back then.”
Dismissing the violence and injustice of apartheid as “funny things” is callous in the extreme, but necessary to maintain the show’s fiction of Africa. All that racism was just a little something in the past, it’s gone now, and we can enjoy the exotic locale seemingly guilt-free.
Well, not entirely guilt-free, as Katie learns quickly. A local boy, Tumelo (Attandwa Kani), wants to be a vet like her father and tells her, when she suggests he watch her father treat an abandoned lion cub at the Mara reserve’s clinic, that he “can’t go there” and that “it’s complicated.” Not so complicated really: the vestiges of apartheid still adhere, and Westerners still want Africa without black Africans. Like Katie, we are supposed to be surprised and outraged by this.
But Life is Wild doesn’t spend too much time on such troubles. Rather, scenes like this feel obligatory acknowledgements of ongoing colonialism and racism, and they’re quickly shuffled offstage for imagery that directly calls out to a conventional Western imagination. Majestic giraffes, funny baboons, and maternal hippos are set against the background of sunset veldt and natural beauty.
Even worse, Life is Wild shows absolutely no self-consciousness about including parallel storylines in which both Katie and Jesse go “native.” Presented with two age-appropriate heterosexual suitors, Tumelo and white boy Oliver (Calvin Goldspink), Katie is clearly going to choose Tumelo. And Jesse will be similarly attracted to Mbali (Precious Kofi), instead of Oliver’s sister Emily (Tiffany Mulheron).
This is not to say that interracial romance couldn’t or wouldn’t happen, or that it shouldn’t be represented. When it is circumscribed by such obvious Orientalism, however, it becomes one more instance of that most pernicious of colonial representations, the Westerner’s sexual congress with the “native” as metaphor for the West’s continuing and various exploitations of the Other.