Screen Savors: Down home on the pain

Obviously the folks at CW thought they needed something ? la Highway to Heaven or The Waltons to use as family fare.

First, the good news about Xtra HOT's new CW network import Life is Wild: there are lots of animals. The bad news: there are also humans. Despite a major contribution from about every species native to the area, the family drama about a New York family that moves to South Africa is bush-league fare more suited for one of those after-school specials than a prime spot in Xtra HOT's Wednesday night line-up. Obviously the folks at CW thought they needed something à la Highway to Heaven or The Waltons to use as family fare. Something has to offset all the escapist or oversexed teen stuff on the schedule. This effort is such a hodge-podge - it's like trying to clone an elephant from a rhinoceros. We first meet the Clarks in their van. "Is there anything better than a family trip?" asks mom Jo (Stephanie Ziznik of the other family drama, Everwood). This alone should make any viewer who's ever loaded a family into a minivan suspicious. But hey, it's Africa. Jo and her husband Dr. Danny Clark are seeking a new start. He's a widower and Jo's divorced with a brooding teenage son. The two decide to try out the Dark Continent for a year, living at the same lodge where Danny's first wife was born, which is still run by her crusty father, Art. "It's a chance for us all to get closer or have a real adventure," says Jo, which sounds like a lot of animal droppings to the kids. (Later on, Art demonstrates how to spit animal droppings - not to be tried at home.) The adventure begins with the family almost becoming lunch for a charging elephant. Fortunately, dad's a vet and knows the surest way to stop a charging elephant: wave your hands a lot. I'm not a vet, but I'm still pretty sure that doesn't work. Along for the ride are Danny's kids: teenage daughter Katie, son Chase and younger daughter Mia. Staying true to its CW roots, the neighboring lodge has hunk Oliver and foxy Emily around to raise hormone levels among the new arrivals and the teens watching at home. There's also a local Zulu teen, Tumelo, who develops a crush on Katie. To show his affection he introduces Katie to his friend the cheetah and teaches her the word "kuwai," the African equivalent to "awesome." Call it "The Waltons Go to Africa" or "Little House on the Veldt" - either way, the series develops in predictable fashion. Katie misses MySpace and has a rough time with all the pictures of her late mom on the lodge walls. She wonders why her mom left home and stopped speaking to Art. Jesse, whose problems led the family to come to Africa in the first place ("I'd rather be in jail with my real father than here with you," he tells Danny), starts out by getting in trouble, but ends up saving the day. The younger kids do cute things with animals. Grandpa Art smoothes over what happened between him and Katie's mom, explaining they disagreed about apartheid, offering a brilliant summary of that doctrine: "We believed funny things back then." With the scripted drama about as exciting as watching paint dry, it's a good thing there's such beautiful scenery. But even bad Tarzan movies didn't feature hyped up bongos every time a lion appears - in this case, a lioness searching for its lost cub. Sure enough, Chase helps nurse the cub back to health, to be reunited with the lioness, cured by Danny. Then the whole family watches the reunion, wondering if they too are finally coming together themselves. Unbelievable. While Katie has some lines that offer an occasional glimpse of hope ("One day you're riding the #1 train, the next day you're hanging out with giraffes in Africa"), it's hard to believe anyone at CW stuck their neck out to get this on the air. I mean, whose idea was it to use those horrible teen angst songs every time the youngsters even start thinking about canoodling? Yeesh. Life is Wild didn't make it, brought down after 13 episodes. While it may be one of those rare TV shows you can watch with your kids without reservation - if only for the gorgeous nature shots - ultimately, I found myself wishing that elephant had kept charging. Life is Wild airs on Xtra HOT Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. and nature programs appear on the National Geographic channel.