Will Kris ever ride Wildfire again?
The odds were against it when she last was seen. She was booted from the financially needy Raintree stables for engaging in illegal racing, though she intended to use any profits to help the family that had taken her in and provided her big break on the racing circuit.
The involving ABC Family drama "Wildfire" resumes its fourth season Monday, Jan. 21. Played by Genevieve Cortese, Kris remains on her own, but potentially not for long: A photo taken by his uncle (John Terry) shows ex-boyfriend Matt (Micah Alberti) where Kris is, and it doesn't take him long to go there and urge her to return to Raintree.
Another of her ex-suitors, Junior (Ryan Sypek), is on the verge of proposing to his latest love -- encouraged by his father (James Read), who -- typically -- envisions a business benefit to the marital merger. Nicole Tubiola, Nana Visitor and Greg Serano also continue as cast regulars.
Devotees were left with a cliffhanger last spring, as a car pulled up next to Kris as she was leaving Raintree. Viewers never saw who was behind the wheel, but the person prompted a clearly surprised Kris to ask, "What are you doing here?"
Cortese admits she filmed the moment looking at "a random dude, because we had no idea who it was going to be. I just played it as if (the driver) was a bunch of different people, and it was tough. We have so many different takes of that scene."
The "Wildfire" scenes that put Kris on horseback usually don't involve stunt doubles, since Cortese has ridden for years. "My mom grew up with horses," she says. "We moved from the Bay Area outside San Francisco to Montana -- and later to Sun Valley, Idaho -- so we could have a more rustic, outdoor lifestyle. It was really my mom's sport; for me, it was more like, 'Let's go out and have some fun.'"
"Wildfire" largely is overseen by consulting producer Bradford May, also a frequent director of episodes. An Emmy-winning cinematographer as well, he lends his cameraman's sensibility to the look of the series, particularly in the racing sequences, which the drama is smart not to overuse.
"I'm very proud of the style I've brought to it," says May, who joined "Wildfire" in its first year after directing almost 30 "JAG" episodes. "For the amount of money we do it for, it's almost unheard of."
The show is shot in and around Albuquerque, N.M., and while May prefers not to be away from his Los Angeles-based wife and children, he enjoys "working with young talent, not as a father figure, just as a mentor. I instill a lot of love and understanding with them, and that's what I'm most proud of."
May knows every trick in the book when it comes to capturing atmosphere, particularly if Mother Nature exercises her whims. "All day long, we just keep rotating with the sun, which is why the show has such a golden look," he explains. "I think that lends to what Genevieve has to do. She always strives to be better and to be the leader of the group, and that's hard to do."
So is accommodating a pregnant co-star. Tubiola and husband Kieren Hutchison, who played sports agent Kerry in the second year of "Wildfire," were expecting their first baby while season four was being made. The decision was made not to have Tubiola's alter ego, Dani, with child as well.
"She informed us about four weeks in," May says, "so we were working really hard to cover her pregnancy. The network didn't want to go that way (with the character), so here's this terrific actress and I'm putting her behind boxes and counters. I did the same thing with Catherine Bell on 'JAG,' and it was tough to make it work, but we did."
Cortese finds her "Wildfire" fan mail comes from various sectors. "There's a huge 'horse audience' out there that really identifies with the show on many different levels," she says. "Either they grew up with horses or discovered them through certain programs, and I think they understand that connection my character has. It's important to them.
"Also, a lot of people identify with Kris' independence and her sense of adventure in trying to take responsibility and become a woman. She goes from being someone who's on shaky ground to someone who stops apologizing for everything, and that's really important to me. Now we're seeing if she's learned from her past mistakes. I think many viewers enjoy that, too."
ABC Family has scheduled "Wildfire" to continue through mid-March, then take a break -- when the slot will be filled by the new unscripted series "America's Prom Queen" -- and return April 28 to finish out its season. Filming was completed well before the writers strike began, and both Cortese and May hope the show will be invited back for a fifth year.
"I think we have one of the best casts and crews in television," Cortese says. "On the other hand, we also end (this season) on a really cool note. I'd be glad to go back and get to work again with people I love, but if not, at least I'll know we did a great job."