Fox’s ‘Wayward Pines’ Balances the Confusion of an M. Night Shyamalan Story With Dark Summer Fun

I recommend Wayward Pines with some hesitation, and not just because I spent the majority of the first five episodes trying to figure out what the hell was happening on Wayward Pines. Fox’s limited, ten-episode event series is a bizarre one, which isn’t surprising for an M. Night Shyamalan project, and it only gets weirder as it digs itself deeper, ultimately evolving into a somewhat different show by the fifth episode. Premiering Thursday, it’s a series that requires patience and demands that viewers stick around for the whole season — even if you may want to check out early.

The tricky thing about reviewing a show like Wayward Pines is trying to figure out exactly how much to reveal: too little wouldn’t pique interest; too much would ruin the fun. So let’s start with the basics: Special Agent Ethan (Matt Dillon, easily one of the top two Dillons) goes to a small, bucolic town in Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents, including Carla Gugino’s Kate, who was more than just a partner. After a car accident, he wakes up in the hospital with nothing — no phone, no wallet, no badge — and slowly begins to realize that the only way out of Wayward Pines is death. “The more you see, the less anything makes sense in this town,” he’s told early on, and the words stick. Soon, his wife (Shannyn Sossamon) and son (Charlie Tahan) show up and also become stuck there.

The easiest comparison is to Twin Peaks (Fox’s promo materials boast about the similarities), though Wayward Pines certainly isn’t yet as memorable as that series’ first season. But it is appropriately eerie, centered on a town full of mysteries (not even the crickets are real) and creepy, possibly murderous citizens — including an unsettling nurse (Melissa Leo), an angry sheriff (Terrence Howard sporting an indecipherable accent), and a teacher (Hope Davis) who provides a midseason info dump on three new students that will likely either make or break the series for most viewers (I still haven’t decided which way to swing). This is a place that literally offers no way out — the town is surrounded by an electric fence. Citizens aren’t allowed to talk about the past, and there is a three-strike rule for breaking the law; the punishment is sometimes public execution.

WAYWARD PINES:  Ethan (Matt Dillon, R) has questions for Kate (Carla Gugino, L) in the "Where Paradise is Home" Event Series Premiere episode of WAYWARD PINES airing Thursday, May 14 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.  ©2015 Ed Araquel/FOX
WAYWARD PINES: Ethan (Matt Dillon, R) has questions for Kate (Carla Gugino, L) in the “Where Paradise is Home” Event Series Premiere episode of WAYWARD PINES airing Thursday, May 14 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Ed Araquel/FOX

Shyamalan serves as executive producer and director of the premiere episode, and his influence hangs heavily over the series. Wayward Pines is intriguing and twisty, showing that maybe the filmmaker is better suited for television than for his increasingly disappointing movies. He creates a deliciously dark atmosphere in a secretive town where every word spoken and every reactive look has a double meaning. But it’s hard to be fully on board; with Shyamalan’s reputation, I might prefer to see him work on the first two-thirds of a TV season and leave the ending up to someone else.

The townspeople of Wayward Pines, many of whom, it seems, just show up there randomly after car accidents, quickly assimilate to their new environment — basically forgetting their past and forging ahead in this Stepford-like town — because that’s the only way to survive. In a similar way, Wayward Pines asks viewers to calmly assimilate to the series, to quietly accept everything that’s happening and keep forging ahead in hopes that it will be worth it. (The first episodes can be a little slow if, like me, you’re incredibly impatient when it comes to waiting for a big reveal.)

Exactly halfway through the series (Fox sent out five of the ten episodes for review), Wayward Pines makes for pretty good summer television. It’s not exactly groundbreaking, and it’s certainly not flawless, but it’s incredibly fun and just dumb enough to be entertaining, with nice visuals and sometimes great acting (the dialogue doesn’t help). No, it’s not Twin Peaks, but why should it be? It has its own puzzle, its own mythology, and its own agenda. It’s ridiculous fun and a cool introduction to summer TV. And at only ten episodes, what do you have to lose?