“Wayward Pines,” the first big television venture by M. Night Shyamalan (whose career went from legendary to, ahem, troubled after a string of creatively and financially disastrous films) has been on our much-anticipated list for some time. Not just because of the talent involved, but because if it was awesome, it could serve as some sort of wonderful “Twin Peaks”-esque diversion this summer. So yesterday’s surprise announcement that the first episode would be available globally for a week-long sneak preview was welcome news; as soon as it went live, we were watching.
Unfortunately, what could have been something really special makes a few wrong turns.
“Wayward Pines” stars Matt Dillon as Ethan Burke, a Secret Service agent who finds himself trapped in a quaint little town where no one is what they seem, including his former partner (Carla Gugino), who’s playing a Stepford Wife. Is Burke’s troubled past, including a history of mental illness, catching up with him? Or has he found himself caught up in a much bigger conspiracy?
It’s a great premise; unfortunately, “Wayward Pines” makes a massive misstep almost immediately. Instead of keeping the action trapped inside the town, embedding the audience into Burke’s paranoia and terror, the show moves between the town and Seattle, where Burke’s disappearance is under investigation and his wife (Shannyn Sossamon) is being kept in the dark.
Television has, more than ever these days, the opportunity to really drag us into a character’s head, make us feel his isolation and dread. Comparing “Wayward Pines” to this feels deeply unfair, but when “Breaking Bad” stranded Walter White in the middle of “Granite State,” the audience was with him every step of the way. Here, we never even get the chance to wonder whether this is all in Burke’s head, whether we’ve been dragged into his paranoid delusions; instead of allowing for the opportunity for some real weirdness to sink in, we’re presented with straightforward truths, right away. That choice represents such a missed opportunity that it leads to serious questions about the show’s potential going forward.
Were the creators worried we’d get bored? Did they want to make sure we knew everything we could about Burke and his life prior to his arrival? Because if they were, maybe they might have instead made better use of the flashbacks also built into the structure of the show. Establishing the world outside Wayward Pines is essential to supporting one of the episode’s biggest final twists, but it’s a twist that could have been saved for Episode 2 or later. A pilot is an opportunity to establish the tone and mystique of a show above all else, and “Wayward Pines” is crippled out of the gate.
We do know, for sure, that answers are coming. At the TCAs earlier this year, the producers were forthright about how the major reveals of “Wayward Pines” come out mid-way through the season, which means the show is promising to build to more than just a shocking twist; the ramifications of that reveal will drive the drama for the rest of the season.
Across the board, the casting is stellar, though it’s Melissa Leo as the quasi-deranged Nurse Pam who’s the stand-out, as her mercurial shifts represent the very best elements of the premise’s potential. Okay, Terrence Howard’s not bad either, bringing the right level of bland menace to the part, though he’s a less prominent presence in this episode.
And Matt Dillon fits so perfectly into the role— not of Burke, necessarily, but the role of television leading man. Likable, dynamic and intelligent, Dillon’s a welcome presence and easy to hook into as a protagonist; it’s almost kind of shocking that he HASN’T led a TV show before. Whatever happens with “Wayward Pines,” Matt, know that the small screen is a great fit for your talents. (That’s a compliment!)
Beyond the acting, so far the most intriguing element of “Wayward Pines” is the discrepancies between how long people think they’ve been living in this sleepy little town. How that shakes out is something which should be interesting to see. It’s the element that pushes the show closest to the more supernatural side of things, and how it walks that line will likely be the ultimate make-or-break moment. Fox’s last show to really push into bonkers territory — “Sleepy Hollow” — steered into a more conventional direction during its second season and became far less compelling as a result. That danger lies in wait for “Wayward Pines” as well.
We still have questions. We’re still intrigued. But if this preview was meant to whet our appetite for the show when it premieres next month, it unfortunately had the opposite effect.