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‘Life Is Wild’ is anything but

Times Staff Writer

A family drama set in the South African bush, the CW’s “Life Is Wild” seems meant to recall shows like “7th Heaven” and “Party of Five,” whose more-or-less wholesome, pull-together spirit is currently absent from TV’s major leagues. As currently defined on the broadcast networks, “family drama” means something like a soap opera featuring well-to-do older parents, their troublesome adult children, a teenager or two for demographic heat and some little kids as parsley.

This is not that. Although the generational spread is similar, the series, which premieres Sunday night, feels targeted toward 12-year-olds: mature enough to be interested in what their elders are up to but still easily distracted by a cute animal. (And by extension, it’s aimed at parents looking for something to watch with their kids.) In spite of massive teen bait -- hot girls! hot boys! bathing suits! -- I wouldn’t expect actual teenagers to bite.

The show follows New York veterinarian Danny Clarke (D.W. Moffett) and his blended family -- they’re like “The Brady Bunch” minus the middle children -- as they try to make a more rewarding and harmonious life among the wart hogs and wildebeests. (That Danny is bringing his new wife and stepchildren to live with his former father-in-law in the childhood home of his dead first wife -- a decrepit lodge called the Blue Antelope -- is something no one finds odd.) Manhattan wasn’t really working out, we’re told, especially for sullen skateboarding stepson Jesse (Andrew St. John). But daughter-narrator Katie (Leah Pipes, in the Marcia position) has issues too, beneath her apparent composure. Jesse and Katie don’t get along -- “How do you say ‘ho’ in Zulu?” he asks, just because there are two boys who like her -- but by the end of the first episode, the healing will begin.

A sanctioned remake of the current British series “Wild at Heart,” “Life Is Wild” also belongs to a longer tradition of stories about families dragged off in the name of adventure and togetherness, and there is at least a distant echo of “Daktari,” the late-'60s series that starred Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion. Here, there is a cute lion cub that little Mia (Mary Matilyn Mouser) wants to name “Mittens” and over which little Chase (K’Sun Ray) frets considerably. There are giraffes, a cheetah, goats. A big lizard lives in the house. “Usually when they’re this close to my feet they have a strap and heel,” says stepmother Jo (Stephanie Niznik), who was a divorce lawyer back in the concrete jungle.

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I am all for anything that makes people think well of animals or portrays the world beyond our borders as worth living in, and I reflexively endorse any series that is actually filmed in the place it’s set. I also believe that broadcast networks have a legal duty to provide what, for lack of a better phrase, I’ll call “family entertainment.” So I would like to like this show more. But “Life Is Wild” is anything but wild -- it’s wan and bland, somehow dead even to its spectacular setting.

Most of the actors, who admittedly don’t have much to work with, seem to be visiting rather than inhabiting their parts. Notable exceptions are Atandwa Kani as Tumelo, a local lad and aspiring vet -- I can’t tell where the enthusiasm of the actor ends and the enthusiasm of the character begins -- and David Butler as South African grandpa Art, whose rectifiable seediness mirrors that of the Blue Antelope.

Nelson Mandela makes a cameo appearance on a T-shirt. Apartheid is made a plot point, somewhat softening the show’s vaguely colonial premise.

All in all, a trip to the zoo will serve you better.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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‘Life Is Wild’

Where: The CW

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When: 8 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)


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