Just a couple of years ago, there were dire predictions that “reality TV” would be the death of scripted television, especially hour-long dramas. Today, in what might seem like a renaissance of scripted television, with such intricately plotted shows as Lost, Veronica Mars, or Battlestar Galactica routinely considered among the best shows on television, those predictions seem to ring hollow. The increased interest in dramatic television has produced a slew of new shows, including the ABC Family “original series” Wildfire.
Often characterized as “Dallas meets the OC,” Wildfire is basically a soap opera featuring young, attractive stars, be they human or equine. Genevieve Cortese stars as Kris Furillo, a “troubled teen” whose latest legal escapade has finally landed her in a juvenile detention center. Kris is your basic angry, disaffected teen with a proverbial heart of gold – all it takes is a horse to make this clear. She takes an interest in Wildfire, a failed racehorse stabled at the center (apparently, if you’re a bust as a racehorse in Texas, they send you to detention).
A local trainer named Pablo (Greg Serano) notices her interest and arranges for her to have a job at the nearby Raintree Horse Farm. The farm is owned by the Ritter family, who are loaded (hence the Dallas/OC references). Kris now has that elusive opportunity for a second chance, but the farm also poses some challenges. She has to get along with Jean Ritter, the head of the Ritter clan, and deal with the emotions surrounding her rising interest in Matt Ritter. The first season documents her transformation from troubled teen to less troubled teen (after all, it’s not a show without troubled teens of some sort).
What’s more, Kris suddenly learns a startling truth (startling to some, at least): more money doesn’t always mean fewer problems. Navigating the sometimes treacherous terrain of her new life occasionally leads to problems, and as soon as she settles in she discovers that the Ritter family harbors a few secrets of their own. Often veering a bit too far into melodrama, the show tries quite hard to be both hip and horsey. From what I can tell, it does quite well with its target demographic of teenage girls.
Originally envisioned as a series for the WB, Wildfire appears to have found a home on ABC Family, where the second season just started. However, the show may well illustrate the existence of the television “Bell Curve” and the principal that not every television show can be “great.” For every well-crafted, fascinating show there seem to be several relatively benign but ultimately forgettable ones. That’s really the category that Wildfire falls into: the C average show that occasionally musters enough energy and enthusiasm to get a B but often just veers into genial cheesiness (you know the cheese factor of which I speak: the one where you can watch it as a parent and go, “Well, I guess it’s not that stupid,” an opinion which hardly mollifies the teenager who considers it akin to War and Peace, presuming they know what War and Peace is).
In a truly brutal comparison, one could measure Wildfire against the BBC version of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which is currently being broadcast on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater (and which will be available on DVD later this month). Dickens was a master of soap operas featuring young, often orphaned waifs such as Kris Furillo; his tales were serialized in newspapers and featured many cliffhanger turns and melodramatic dead ends. But the performances and scripts for Bleak House are simply amazing, rendering lifelike characters from Dickens’ prose. With Wildfire, the commentary on class and social distinction seems often trite and clichéd, while the plotlines are uneven and the characterizations broad and only superficially satisfying.
Ultimately, however, I suppose that such a comparison is unnecessary. Wildfire is generally effective at its desired purpose: a relatively entertaining, if somewhat benign, coming-of-age drama for teens. There is nothing particularly challenging about it, nor anything particularly troubling or offensive. It serves as a feel-good fantasy and as a escapist diversion about pretty people doing pretty things and playing with horses (a love of all things horsey may well be an advantage to those watching the show for the first time). The DVD set includes four discs, a featurette about the horses, some commentaries, and deleted scenes. The video transfer is relatively clear, the images are crisp and bright – the better to see the pretty girls and their cool horses, one expects.