When someone calls a TV show “a wild ride,” the word “wild” could mean so many different things. The list of kinds of wild is long and varied. Is the ride turbulent wild, fun wild, insane wild, reckless wild, or maybe primitive — as in underdeveloped and clumsy — wild?
“Wilderness,” a new Amazon series that premieres Friday, is a wild ride, by which I mean it is all of those definitions of “wild” as it rides the cheated-on-wife trope for all it’s worth. Played by Jenna Coleman, best known for “Doctor Who” and PBS’s “Victoria,” the wife in question, Liv, is in a marriage to Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) that only appears to be perfect. They look like models, they have a fabulous upscale apartment, and they have wonderful anglophile-friendly UK accents. But it is a pretty façade, and she is a tinderbox of ugly feelings — and for good reason.
The pair has moved from England to New York City for Will’s hotel job, with Liv, a writer, in a new place with no real connection to it. When, through a text on his phone, she discovers Will has slept with a co-worker, Cara (Ashley Benson), she has no old friends nearby to support her and help her process it. He’s a charming fellow, though, and he gaslights her — He only did it once! He still loves her! — with such conviction and such tears. Jackson-Cohen has played this role before, and he is perfect for it, simultaneously slippery and sincere, controlling and alluring. Also, Liv thinks deep down that she truly, madly, deeply loves him in spite of all. So she agrees to go on a vacation to the Arizona desert for some much-needed marital healing.
But thoughts of a convenient accident in the wilderness begin to occur to her, and the reconciliation trip becomes the bunny she just might boil. She begins to imagine all the ways she could kill him and get off scot-free. Things get a lot wilder — as in crazier — when the couple run into Cara and her boyfriend, Garth (Eric Balfour), at one of the stops. Awkward! They hike together, Liv fully aware of who Cara is but keeping that salient bit of information to herself. Poor Garth is the only one in the dark. I won’t give anything else away here, but matters do get more tangled, personalities continue to be amusingly inconsistent, and the questions of why Will is staying with Liv and why Liv is staying with Will in the first place only become more pressing, the answers hazier.
There are some pretenses along the way about Liv as a complicated woman, as she gives a voice-over with lines like, “I’m the heroine. I’m the villain. I’m the everywoman.” Her backstory includes her parents’ bad marriage, which haunts her, and some passivity that she needs to overcome. But Liv’s complexity comes mostly from the script’s habit of making her behave contrary to what you’d expect, merely for surprise’s sake. Adapted from the B.E. Jones novel by Marnie Dickens, the show is a pulpy revenge thriller and not some kind of study of an antiheroine or heroine, and it’s largely peopled with badly-behaved, contradictory characters whose immorality is part of the fun.
Coleman is fine in the role, giving a semblance of an actual person against the odds. But like “Gone Girl,” “Wilderness” isn’t about the acting so much as it’s about the mystery of who will live, who will die, who will go to jail, and so forth.
In so many cases, expectations can determine your experience of a show or movie. If you go into the six-episode “Wilderness” looking forward to a tight, smartly written thriller that takes on a toxic guy like “Bad Sisters” did, you may well be disappointed. The series doesn’t bear up under analysis. Go in with an average bit of mayhem in mind, a distraction for a night or two on the couch, and it just might fit the bill.
Starring: Jenna Coleman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Eric Balfour, Ashley Benson, Talia Balsam
On: Amazon. Premieres Friday