What happens when supernatural screenwriter and director, M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs), collaborates with Blake Crouch, the horror novelist and creator of the critically acclaimed Pines trilogy? You get FOX's Wayward Pines, a psychological thriller about a mentally unstable secret service agent who finds himself trapped in bizarro-land where all kinds of scary, unimaginable circumstances lead him to question his own sanity and stage a seemingly futile escape. We're questioning that sanity as well, especially since Shyamalan's trademark is the shocking surprise denouement. Is it worth a watch? Let's take a look.
Add to the mix, executive producer Chad Hodge, whose The Playboy Club and Runaway were prematurely cancelled before they even got their feet wet. Let's just hope Hodge's multi-million dollar education makes his third time a charm.
FOX Dips Its Toes in the Water
This seems to be the trend of the millennium: short-run episodic television that allows broadcasters the chance to see if concept, tone, acting and plot are sustainable enough for further investment. These series have a beginning and an end, the edgy concept encapsulated in 10-13 episodes. Knowing that all the answers will be delivered within a short period of time is attractive for social-media obsessed 18-49-year-olds with short attention spans. These fast-paced butt-clenchers have been successful for their accelerated pace which creates a thrilling sense of urgency for both viewers as well as production.
Some, like 24, have been able to milk eight seasons out of their time in the limelight by employing similar storylines and continuing the course of a particular character. It's a smart way to go in such a tenuous time for primetime producers and broadcasters. Better yet, produce the thing in-studio, which is exactly what FOX has done with Wayward Pines.
An Estimable Cast Led by Matt Dillon and Features Juliette Lewis and Terrence Howard
Wayward Pines has a solid cast led by versatile movie star Matt Dillon. Dillon has delivered such diverse characters as Officer John Ryan in Crash, Dallas Winston in The Outsiders, and the hilariously entertaining shylock, Pat Healy, in There's Something About Mary. His delivery as disoriented and edgy Ethan Burke living a nightmare is spot on.
Multi-Emmy Award nominee Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear) who, like Howard, is currently headlining as severe and capable Detective Andrea Cornell in ABC's controversial primetime series, Secrets and Lies, portrays Beverly, Ethan's hapless and jittery time-warped cohort.
Beverly is the only person in Wayward Pines to admit the truth about the macabre situation Ethan finds himself in and is there to help him in any way. Lewis plays the frightened kitten, who may be more of a liability than an asset as the plot progresses.
Starring with Dillon and Lewis is Terence Howard, currently portraying the diseased and dying patriarch Lucious Lyon in FOX's wildly successful primetime drama, Empire
. Here, Howard plays the seemingly lackadaisical Sheriff Pope, a controlling and violent enforcer who might be the orchestrator behind Burke's nightmare. For some reason, he's always eating Rum Raisin ice cream. Remember that.
Also attracting eyeballs to the screen is a cast of award-winning and seasoned actors. Academy and Emmy Award winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter) portrays Nurse Pam, a sinister caretaker whose character harkens back to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Nurse Ratched. Freaky, I tell you. Carla Gugino (Entourage) portrays Kate Hewson, Ethan's former partner and lover.
An Intriguing Plot of the Twilight Zone Variety
Wayward Pines, Idaho is some kind of manufactured Mayberry where the inhabitants behave strangely. The hospital is vacant except for a deranged nurse and sinister psychiatrist, contact with the outside world is non existent, and all of the inhabitants live according to an imposed list of absurd rules enforced by a disquieting, calm Sheriff who seems to have the run of the town.
Ethan lands accidentally in Wayward Pines while searching for two missing federal agents including his ex-lover, Kate. Ethan's traveling companion and one of the missing agents are mysteriously dead. As another time-warped character, Kate has succumbed to the strictures imposed limitations of Sheriff Pop's fiefdom. She pretends to have lived in Wayward Pines for 12 years. Kate drops her facade briefly, but pleads with Ethan to leave.
Ethan is also continually tormented by the evil nurse and Dr. Jenkins, the local psychiatrist, who insists Ethan has had a psychotic break and he must have surgery to open his head and relieve the pressure of an expanding hematoma.
The Past Must Hold the Key
Through flashbacks of Ethan's wife, Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon), his affair with Kate and his sessions with a secret service-appointed shrink, we learn about Ethan's psychological trauma after failing to save hundreds of lives during a classified mission. Ethan has suffered nightmares and hallucinations -- which are basically nightmares while he's awake -- as a result of his obsession with the victims of his failed mission. We also learn about how the now-terminated affair with Kate began and his efforts to restore his broken marriage.
The Left Behinders Substantiate Ethan's Sanity
In addition to the flashbacks are scenes of what's going on in the present day with Theresa and his secret service supervisor, Agent Adam Hassler, who is reluctant to share any facts with Theresa, calling everything classified. Mysteriously, there is no trace of Ethan ever having been in the crashed vehicle -- or so Hassler tells Theresa. We learn soon that Hassler isn't as innocent as he seems, nor are several of the other characters, some of which participate in life both inside and outside of Wayward Pines simultaneously.
There are some plot elements that do not add up yet, and seem to be either sloppy writing or brilliant web-weaving. It's going to take 10 episodes to find out which. Beverly obviously works at a bar, but the bar owner denies it. Ethan visits her there several times. Beverly is able to create a meal for Ethan in two seconds flat -- which is weird. Ethan is antagonized by Nurse Pam, knocking her out to escape the hospital, yet he walks fearlessly through the streets of Wayward Pines without fear of being captured and taken back to the hospital.
Shyamalan is the Cat, You are the Mouse: Itchy Questions
More questions remain, but are to be expected from a supernatural producer and a horror novelist. Is it safe to assume that these scenes with Theresa and Hassler prove that Ethan really is missing, rather than delusional or dead as has been the fate of some of Shyamalan's previous protagonists? What are we to think of the early mention of Ethan's mental health issues? How closely does Wayward Pines follow the trajectory and finale of the Pines trilogy? Will the answers delivered in the finale be satisfying or will we feel like someone has played an enormous joke on us, wasting 10 hours of our time that we can never get back?
Should You Watch Wayward Pines?
Let me preface this by saying that I am not a fan of physical horror as is depicted in slasher films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. I need my sleep, folks. My active imagination would deny me that if it were fed that kind of fodder. Wayward Pines, though dark, (I'm not a big fan of dark either), and disturbing, is good entertainment and intrigue for the brain. It's what, in my crude youth, one might call a mindf*ck. Yes, some of it doesn't make sense yet, but there is enough action, plot twists and turns to keep you close to, if not on the edge of your seat the whole time. It's a lovely puzzle for those who love a good mystery. So far, there's not much "slasheriness" going on, though I can't promise that it won't pop up in the future.
So, if you need sexual tension, unicorn farts and romance in your entertainment in order to feel satisfied, Wayward Pines is not the series for you. However, if you enjoy the surreality of M. Night Shyamalan, the psychological horror of Stephen King, the sociopathic cruelty of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the suggestive alternativeness of The X-Files, the morally questionable acts of government-sanctioned entities, and, well, a really juicy mystery -- you should definitely give Wayward Pines a shot.
Wayward Pines premieres Thursday May 14 at 9pm on FOX.
(Images courtesy of FOX)