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How The Final Twist of ‘Wayward Pines’ Spells Doom For Broadcast Television

How The Final Twist of 'Wayward Pines' Spells Doom For Broadcast Television

After nine weeks of fairly effective build-up, the end of “Wayward Pines” arrived Thursday night. Or did it? Despite claims that Thursday night’s tenth episode would be the last — Fox even billed it as a “series finale” in ads and on the show’s official site — interviews with the showrunner, Chad Hodge, and executive producer M. Night Shyamalan appeared online minutes after the episode ended claiming a follow-up season could still happen. While Hodge said there had been “no official discussion” about a second season in his interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Shyamalan told Deadline he and Hodge met and came up with an “idea” for Season 2. 

On the one hand, this is hardly a surprise. The ratings for “Wayward Pines” have been stellar, with the premiere setting a record for Fox and following episodes showing solid growth in DVR viewings. Audiences were staying current with the mystery series, and that’s a valuable commodity in today’s day and age of binge-viewing via subscription services rather than watching on a show’s first-run. Any kind of success is bound to be replicated, so hearing substantiated rumors of Season 2 makes perfect sense.

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While it also makes sense from a story standpoint, it’s a massive miscalculation creatively. [SPOILERS ahead] Last night’s season or series finale — whichever it turns out to be — killed off two main characters, but not all the questions raised throughout the first 10 episodes were answered. Worse yet, the final shot not only left things open for a follow-up, but essentially demanded one. After vigilante-turned-sheriff Ethan Burke (Matt Dillion) sacrificed himself to save the rest of the survivors from an onslaught of “Abbies,” his son, Ben (Charlie Tahan), was knocked out from falling debris. Cut to three years later, and Ben wakes up to a restored version of Wayward Pines, complete with a statue to the villainous founder David Pilcher (Toby Jones) and a hanging man reminiscent of “Group A” (the first group of survivors who committed suicide after learning the truth about their situation). 

What happened to the good intentions of Kate (Carla Gugino) and Pam (Melissa Leo) from only a few moments earlier? How did the First Generation manage to seize control from them, and, more importantly, what are we supposed to assume happens from that point forward? Will Ben lead a resistance much like his father, or will he fall in line with the rest of his classmates? Are the citizens of Wayward Pines doomed to live under an unseen dictatorship for the rest of their days? Is this the accepted fate of all mankind; to be ruled by a power greater than us? Are we to learn that rebellion is pointless, as the cyclical nature of absolute power corrupting absolutely will eventually win out? 

Or are we just supposed to wait for Season 2?

Clearly, these questions weren’t left open-ended by accident, but one could see how they spiral out of control if there really is no Season 2. Despite some flaws in the bonkers nature of “Wayward Pines,” it wasn’t a bad show. For a while, it was even a pretty good show exhibiting a few fascinating developments that actually paid off in their own, subjectively-interpreted ways. (Reversing the roles of protagonist and antagonist while simultaneously making you question your choices was a fun extra layer of mind games. I honestly didn’t know if I should be rooting for or against the well-cast Dillion for most of the season’s second-half.)

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But these questions weren’t left unanswered for the betterment of this season, this story and these characters. They’re only there to hook viewers into coming back for another season. While a fine and fair practice for most television programs, the end felt like a bait and switch for “Wayward Pines.” Since its inception, Shyamalan and Hodge’s project was billed as an “event series,” a “limited series” or an “anthology series.” While the creators would casually mention how they could return for another season if the show was a hit, they focused on the idea that this was a story with “a beginning, middle and an end.” Even at the Winter TCAs, when a press member asked bluntly if they “would anticipate a second season,” Hodge said, “Bring it on, yeah. It would be great.” But Shyamalan ducked the question, expounding on the difference between TV and film before stating, “We won’t do it unless it’s organically and creatively correct.”

This kind of intentional confusion as to what “Wayward Pines” is — a miniseries? a limited series? an anthology series? a regular series? — is the story’s biggest issue. Whether you knew a second season was coming after the show caught on with viewers or you believed the marketing and were only investing for the short term, the 10th episode of the season needed to give us closure, and it didn’t. We were promised, if not a finale with finality, than at least a conclusion to this particular story. While one could argue that story ended with Ethan’s death, it’s a pill that’s hard to swallow with so many other adult characters in crio-stasis waiting to be woken up for Season 2 and the cycle essentially starting over for the town itself (which is, after all, what the show is really about). 

As effective as “Wayward Pines” was with its mysterious allure for 10 episodes, this kind of bonkers story is best wrapped up quickly. Shyamalan, Hodge and other members of the “Wayward Pines” team tried to distance themselves from shows like “Under the Dome” or “Extant,” selling their program as a bite-size snack that may be bad for you, but without the long-term calories of ongoing guilty pleasures. Instead, it’s already become something worse: a lying tease.

In its marketing efforts, Fox wanted viewers to think of another more-acclaimed “event series” when they saw ads for “Wayward Pines”: “True Detective.” With a cast made up of four Oscar nominees (including one winner in Melissa Leo), a central cop character (or two, if you count Terrence Howard), a mystery to unravel and a “limited” run, “Wayward Pines” was Fox’s response to the “limited series” craze sweeping through television. By lowering the total number of episodes ordered and leaving actors unrestricted to pursue other parts once production wrapped, “Wayward Pines” was able to attract better talent (like other cable-based anthology series, like “American Horror Story” or “Fargo”). This new summer offering would work as a grand experiment without any of the high stakes associated with a new recurring fall series. 

Yet unlike those giants of the premium and basic cable worlds, Fox — and thus Shyamalan and Hodge, if not them first — got greedy with “Wayward Pines.” Instead of ending it with a finality of those bold cable programs, they limped off into the night eager to lick their wounds and return stronger than before. Rather than properly replicate what viewers are so eager to see on cable, they stuck to the same traditional tendencies that have made them a consistent runner-up at awards shows, in cultural conversation, and even in the ratings (lest we forget, “The Walking Dead” is the most-watched show on television). 

Now, broadcast executives are stuck weighing the ratings failure of “American Crime” against its Emmys haul instead of seeing that cable shows can work on broadcast television. Like John Ridley’s series, other creator-driven broadcast dramas have had a hard time gaining ratings points (“Hannibal”). “Wayward Pines” never had that issue. It may not have been an awards contender, but Shyamalan’s series could have exemplified that a wide audience is ready for this type of short-term storytelling, leading networks to invest in similarly addictive stories with talented casts. Instead, it only reinforced the idea that broadcast networks are stuck in the past when they so desperately need to look to the future.

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