Wayward Pines is the Best and Worst of Shyamalan

Wayward Pines premiered Thursday on Fox

I’ve been waiting for the new Lost.

It’s not to say there haven’t been any good shows since we first visited the Island. In Lost‘s wake we’ve seen House of Cards, Breaking Bad and American Horror Story. They are all complex, creative stories unfolding unexpectedly, beat by beat, so we can’t look away. But none of these have quite sent us in a panic to the Internet to read conspiracy theories and nurture our own. True Detective came close, but we didn’t have six seasons to develop relationships with dozens of characters, knowing their past, their future and their alternate universe selves.

Wayward Pines, which premiered Thursday on Fox, is trying to take us back to that special place of unyielding attention and unrelenting twists. The series is based on the books of The Wayward Pines Trilogy by Blake Crouch and produced by everyone’s favorite loathsome director, M. Night Shyamalan—the king of the twist, some might say (emphasis on the “some”).

It’s the story of a man named Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) who wakes up, bloody and disoriented, in a strange town in Idaho. In the opening frames, we see an eye. It opens, a broken vessel flooding the inner corner. He stands up, dressed in a suit and stranded in a damp wooded area.

Stay with me—as familiar as this sounds, I’m still talking about Wayward Pines.

WWP_FIRST_LOOK_2500_1280x720_253950531900Ethan staggers toward not a beach, but a town: Wayward Pines, “Where paradise is home.” We soon learn that he has come to this town with a clear purpose. But as he tries to move toward his goal, his mind wavers—why is he really here? Where are his belongings? Why are these people so strange? The hospital is eerily empty. With no explanation, a kind bartender named Beverly (Juliette Lewis) leads him to an abandoned house containing a dead body. The local sheriff, Pope (Terrence Howard) is of no help, as he sits slurping an ice cream cone, his feet propped up on his empty desk.

In keeping with the spirit of the mystery, I’ll say no more.

The aesthetic has Shyamalan written all over it: full of abandoned buildings overgrown with moss, perpetually shrouded in rain and ominous music. (If I wasn’t certain I was watching a new TV show, I would have sworn I had walked onto the set of The Village.) And around every corner, there is a quintessentially Shyamalanian twist. If you’ve seen his best films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs), you’ll know what I mean: He was dead all along! He caused the accident! “Swing away, Merrill!” For his television debut, Shyamalan has chosen a story that fits well with his twisty M.O..

Though its turns kept me intrigued throughout, as Lost’s maddening developments did, Wayward Pines is missing what made Lost so exceptional: humanity. All of the Wayward Pines‘ characters—Ethan, the bartender, the doctor, the nurse, Ethan’s wife and son, his colleagues and friends, the townspeople—are made of plywood. There is no dimension to their inner lives or their relationships.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much development in a pilot episode. But the “event series” format is working both for and against Wayward Pines. On the plus side, it’s only trying to tell one guy’s story. It will end, presumably with a satisfying conclusion. The unwieldy premise doesn’t have to go on forever—a problem that, in the end, crippled Lost—and it feels right from the start like it won’t. Can’t. Doesn’t want to. The pilot’s pacing almost feels like a short film, like maybe you’ll get to the end of the action by the end of the hour.

But with the focus on the action, there’s no time for character building. Without some reason to root for these characters, what’s to keep us watching for even ten short episodes? If Shyamalan’s best films are a credit to his creativity, his worst films (The Last Airbender, Lady in the Water) are a testament to his habit of floating above the story, away from the messiness of true human connection. Wayward Pines, so far, has given no reason to care what happens to anyone.

We can “ooo” and “ahh” at the special effects, recoil at the terror of finding oneself lost and nameless in a strange town, or scratch our heads at who’s really running Wayward Pines. But we won’t be inclined to wring our hands until Ethan and his wife are reunited, like we were when Jin and Sun were separated. We won’t care that Beverly is a rebel risking her life when we know nothing about her—not like we did when Charlie smashed his hand against that glass, crossed himself and floated away.

For now, I’ll hang on. It is the summer entertainment season, after all, full of blockbusters and popcorn fodder to pass the time on a rainy day. Like Sheriff Pope, I’ll put up my feet, eat my ice cream and wait until it’s time to go back to real life.

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