[21 September 2010]
On paper, Running Wilde looks like the second coming of Arrested Development. Both shows spring from the creative mind of Mitch Hurwitz, and Running Wilde‘s writing team includes of Arrested alum Will Arnett and James Vallely. Both shows also feature the actors Arnett and David Cross. The premiere of Running Wilde even has Arnett uttering a phrase that fans will recognize as a running gag from Arrested Development: “Maybe I’ve made a huge mistake.”
Arnett’s character, too, is similar to the unforgettable Gob. In Running Wilde, he plays Steven Wilde, a spoiled, entitled, super-rich man completely out of touch with the so-called real world. Having never worked a day in his life, his main pursuit is one-upping his equally rich neighbor by accumulating various ridiculous status symbols, like bigger plaques and smaller horses. Wilde is just as clueless, self-centered, and shallow as Gob: you might imagine he’s what Gob would have turned out had the Bluth Corporation been more successful.
One thing Wilde has that Gob never did, though, is a serious love interest: Emmy Kadubic (Keri Russell). She’s Wilde’s childhood sweetheart, the daughter of one of the family servants. She also has a different political and social sense than he does, and so provides the series with its basic tension: while Wilde devotes his life to excess, Emmy devotes hers to fighting it. At the start of the pilot episode, she and her daughter, Puddle (Stefania Owen), are living in the Amazon rain forest, among one of its most impoverished tribes in an attempt to preserve the tribe’s culture. When Wilde Oil threatens to drill on the tribe’s land, Emmy travels to Wilde’s mansion to ask him in person to stop the drilling. Then, the premise of the show kicks in: Wilde learns that if he wants to win Emmy’s heart, he has to learn to be a better person.
This plot point suggests one reason why Running Wilde is not Arrested Development, where such moral education was framed more cynically, or at least in a manner more aware of TV clichés. Moreover, in its first episode, Running Wilde demonstrates a distinct lack of its predecessor’s lightning speed and intense saturation of jokes. This may be a structural issue: Running Wilde doesn’t offer an intricate ensemble cast, but only the usual sit-commy supporting array, a wacky neighbor and a couple of crazy servants. It’s clear that the show is really just about Wilde and Emmy.
This isn’t to say that Arrested Development fans should despair. The upside is that Running Wilde is still entertaining. Wilde is the kind of scoundrel that Arnett is born to play, and the show keeps setting him up for easy joke home runs, which he delivers with his signature sleazeball style.
In addition, Running Wilde hints at an emotional core that Arrested Development was never quite able to access. Though there are lots of quips between Wilde and Emmy, they share many tender moments as well. When Emmy laments that time as given her nothing but “more edges,” her boyfriend replies, “I think it’s your edges that make you beautiful. Look at me—I’m a joke. Zero edges.” Before we start to worry that he might be going too soft, however, Wilde reverts to form, pointing out the callous on his hand—that he got from golfing. Emotional moments don’t last too long here.
Wilde’s golfing is at once a sign of his egregious wealth and alarming unself-consciousness. Running Wilde is clearly a post-recession show, a response to series where protagonists flaunt their riches and selfishness, too entrenched to acknowledge their own privilege. (Sorry, Gossip Girl.) Wilde’s pursuit of the most inessential items in the world—a horse that can fit into the backseat of a car, for example—makes it easy for an audience of more normal means to laugh at him, as opposed to feel bad about not having what he has.
To its credit, the show doesn’t suggest that Emmy is beyond criticism. She flaunts in her own way, using her lack of wealth to school Wilde. He accuses her of using her lowly station in life to feel superior to others: “You have been lording having nothing over me since the day you found out I had everything.” She explains that she wants to raise her daughter with “values,” but she looks overzealous here. Puddle, having grown up in the Amazon, is just as out-of-touch with average experiences in the U.S. as Wilde.
The interplay between these two different visions of excess is unlike any other series on television. One hopes that Emmy doesn’t have too much success in reforming Wilde into a better man: it’s too much fun to watch Arnett act out.