Life is tame in the 'Wild'

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"The Brady Bunch" of the bush!

"7th Heaven" in the Sahara!

The CW's "Life Is Wild" (8 tonight, WPCW) is a decent but not exceptional family drama set in South Africa. Regardless of its quality, for some viewers, it's better than nothing -- and nothing is what there would be in the way of traditional family shows on broadcast networks if not for this series.

Tonight's premiere begins as a blended family arrives in Africa. Widower veterinarian dad Danny (D.W. Moffat, "Hidden Palms") is newly married to divorce lawyer Jo (Stephanie Niznik, "Everwood"). His children, uber-upbeat teen Katie (Leah Pipes) and 11-year-old Chase (K'sun Ray), don't always get along with Jo's kids, rebellious teen Jesse (Andrew St. John) and 7-year-old Mia (Mary Matilyn Mouser).

The first scene is rather inauspicious: Dad flails his arms and stops a charging elephant.

   
'Life is Wild'

When: 8 tonight, WPCW.
Starring: D.W. Moffat.

   

Katie narrates, explaining that the family has moved from Manhattan to South Africa to get closer and escape the troubles that dog Jesse, whom Katie christens "the step-brother from hell."

The family moves into an African lodge owned by Art (David Butler), Katie's and Chase's grandfather. Their now-deceased mother left South Africa years ago and never returned for reasons that are a mystery, at least until the end of this episode.

Katie continues to mourn her mother but puts on a sunny face to overcompensate. It appears she'll fall into a love triangle, torn between a slightly shady Brit, Oliver (Calvin Goldspink), and a native, Tumelo (Atandwa Kani), who wants to become a vet.

Several of the adult actors from the original pilot were replaced, and the new version seems to come with added teen angst as headstrong Jesse rages to his stepfather, "I'd rather be in jail with my real father than here with you!"

It's a no-win line of dialogue, but the delivery doesn't help.

Niznik is a welcome presence here, adding some verve to the show. Her Jo is strong but not impervious, particularly when a lizard wanders through the lodge.

"Usually when they're this close to my feet there's a strap and heels attached," she says.

Filmed outside Johannesburg, "Life is Wild" may seem familiar to BBC America viewers; indeed, it's based on the British series "Wild at Heart," which has its second season premiere at 7 p.m. Oct. 14 on BBC America. The original "Life is Wild" pilot was filmed on the "Wild at Heart" sets, and the two shows now co-exist, filming within a half-mile of each other.

"Once we got picked up, we built our own house that is a very similar model," explained "Life Is Wild" executive producer Michael Rauch ("Beautiful People," "Love Monkey"), "but because it's American, it's bigger."

Bigger isn't necessarily better, but "Life is Wild" at least offers up its American teen theatrics with beautiful vistas and cuddly animals.

'Wizards of Waverly Place'

Of course, "Life as Wild" looks like an Emmy front-runner compared to Disney Channel's latest sitcom, an insipid attempt to glom onto the "Harry Potter" craze.

The premiere episode of "Wizards of Waverly Place" (9:30 p.m. Friday) opens with dad Jerry (David DeLuise) leading a class on spells for his children, Alex (Selena Gomez), Justin (David Henrie) and Max (Jake T. Austin). He gives an example of a duplication spell by turning one rabbit into two.

"What's the big deal?" says Max, who's probably 9 years old. "Wait five minutes and they'll duplicate by themselves."

Har-dee-har-har. Would any kid really say that? It's doubtful.

Why are these kids wizards? Is it an inherited skill? Who knows. The first episode offers no set-up.

Alex, the show's lead, wants to skip a wizarding class so she can attend a sale at Suburban Outfitters and prevent her school rival from buying the jacket she wants. Alex makes a duplicate of herself, which doesn't work out well for her.

More disturbing than the lame humor and lack of a back story, it's yet another show with a dumb daddy, and added to that, a moronic mommy (Maria Canals Barrera) who embarrasses herself when trying to be cool.

Predictable, pandering and painful-to-watch, there's nothing magical about these wizards.

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.



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