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Without Horns

by Brandon Edmonds / 18.04.2011

Game reserves occupy a contested space in the South African mental environment. They straddle a confluence of contemporary issues. Beneath the idyllic, clichéd African savannah vista resplendent with flat top Acacias and giraffes grazing in the sunset, lurk much darker currents. Take, for example the unmitigated destruction of the natural environment by human development, or the tide of poaching fuelled by lucrative Asian and local muti markets, then think of the land claims and the fact that game reserves are still the preserve of the privileged, moneyed classes. Yes, this is fertile territory for a popular, daily TV series.

Alas poaching is the only vaguely compelling narrative thread of Mnet’s new soap The Wild. Set in a chi-chi game lodge, the channel’s pockets are deep enough to have bought land in Heidelberg to escape the stolid studio-bound limits of every other local tele-novella – giving episodes a welcome naturalism and expansiveness. Cloud shadow moves across landscape in real time. The sun actually sets. Evening feels like evening. Night night. Pity the cast haven’t inhaled the hale air.

It’s as if they’re fostering an outbreak of dendrophilia (the love of trees, ignoramus) so tentative and wooden is the acting. You magazine’s heralded glamour-couple, Connie and Shona Ferguson, are both awful. He’s all tattoos and sunglasses – signifiers of a new South African something or other, but that hipness hasn’t sunk into his body language, his presence or sensibility. His lines don’t feel like they’ve spent any time in his brain.

The Wild

Which may have something to do with the old single writer per episode syndrome. It’s an abiding weakness of local television, the absence of packs of quality writers bouncing shit off each other to tweak language beyond a sort of rote, functional speech. It means everyone pretty much talks the same. The dialogue never flips back on itself like Tarantino. There’s none of the jarring, surprising flow of actual speech. Dull talk passes between characters like herpes.

Shona’s squeeze, Connie, is less agonizingly wracked and melodramatic than she was in Generations, but she’s an actress incapable of relaxing, her default mode is fretful, as if the sky is about to fall on her pretty head. Maybe it should – the show certainly needs soapier elementals (miscarriages, evil twins, erotic sabotage) than the pabulum it’s first week served up. Whether some groomed patriarch enjoyed the marula cake is hardly drama. A fist fight…nearly breaks out. The tribal land concession granting the lodge use of the range might not be signed.

The Wild

All I can say is Jersey Shore. People got drunk and partied. There was no hedging, no guess-work. It’s what they live to do. Good TV is all about conviction. Tony Soprano will kill you. Liz Lemon will get the show out. Don Draper does not suffer fools. Our lives are already compromised by half-measures and mediocrity – don’t rub it in our faces. Give us drama. Soap opera. Get operatic. People need to collapse in pain. Hearts must be broken. Lives ruined. Dreams shredded. Am I wrong?

Instead a fat old white guy almost attacks his demented, repulsive wife after she’s spent the day flinging massive wobbly double-entendre’s at a suspiciously Amazing Black Ranger guy. Suspicious because the series is funded, designed, written and directed by well-connected white people. Sorry to go there but the Amazing Black Ranger guy is a glaring case of guilty over-compensation. There’s a rare self-reflexive moment that neatly punctures the post-racial ease when pretty Lelo flirts with the chief’s son at a party as Afrikaans pop tinkles in the background:

“You’re not dancing?”
“To this?”

The Wild

The series’ opening week paled before its off-screen drama. The chief’s son was originally played by Tony Kgoroge (Blood Diamond and Hotel Rwanda) who was fired after wavering on a contract with Mnet that apparently cedes “residual (and rebroadcast) payments” to the company “in perpetuity”. Kgoroge said: “I refuse to sign a letter of intent saying I must give away my royalties to Mnet for a lifetime.” The contract allegedly cuts actors out of international royalties. A serious loss given how the subscriber channel spreads its content throughout Africa. Similar residual payment issues shut down Hollywood in 2008 during the Writer’s strike. The Creative Workers Union subsequently picketed The Wild launch held at Montecasino and weighed in with the usual clanging rhetoric, declaring a war against Mnet for “its continued racist, exploitative measures and undermining of South African talent.” About 28 people showed up.

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It would have been great if they’d protested the Soapie as such. A TV format that seldom asks much of its audience beyond prurience and “aspirational” envy. When a fashion features editor on heat in The Wild – “I’m an extrovert!” – plops kaal into an outdoor tub before a smug ranger hunk, the redundant commercial banality of the entire soapie format feels oppressive. They must fuck because they’re young and work out a lot. They must fuck so the series can velcro the tag “sexy” to its hide for advertisers to festoon face cream and fast food around. They must fuck because hey ladies don’t you wish it was you in the hot tub… Meh.

Imagine soapies re-engineered to put the mass attention and habitual devotion they enjoy (especially in “emerging economies” like our own) to work – critically exploring the dramatic global forces behind our social lives. That sounds like dreary Stalinist social realism, but it doesn’t have to be.

Take China, Naspers and poaching. 300 rhinos were killed for their horns in SA alone last year. The World Wildlife Fund suggests these deaths are “actually driven by the black market demand for rhino horn in East Asia.” 90% of the rhino population has been wiped out over the last 40 years – a pattern paralleling the Chinese turn to market capitalism. Traditional medicine routinely uses endangered species and demand is high. A single rhino horn is worth thirty thousand dollars. By weight, that’s better than gold.

Naspers, the multinational media behemoth, incubated in the dark days of high apartheid, and the owners of Mnet, made R15.8bn early last year (most of it generated by Multichoice subscription fees). It’s the money behind The Wild – a show almost about poaching. Naspers also owns 30% of Tencent, as FIN24 puts it, “China’s biggest internet company by market value.” This makes Naspers a small part of the story of emergent China. A country with folkways deaf to contemporary conservation ethics and a thriving black market for rhino horn. Naspers has ultimately financed a series dramatizing poaching partly with capital made in a country driving the same illegal practice! That’s global capitalism. These are the real dynamics behind the days of our lives and they’re crying out for radical new forms of popular storytelling.

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