Face cut and bruised in a grisly car accident, with sunken cheekbones and an upright shock of dark hair, Special Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) staggers through the first few episodes of “Wayward Pines” looking like Frankenstein’s monster. A member of the U.S. Secret Service, Burke comes to the titular Idaho town to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents, including his former lover, Kate (Carla Gugino), but as with Mary Shelley’s iconic creature, he soon discovers a society wickedly protective of appearances. Purposeful or not, the allusion’s an apt one: “Wayward Pines” itself is a Frankenstein’s monster of influences, an assemblage of spare parts from the worlds of science fiction, horror, and fantasy that reeks of a failed experiment.
Based on the novels by Blake Crouch and developed for television by Chad Hodge (“The Playboy Club”), FOX’s limited series also bears the unfortunate imprint of executive producer M. Night Shyamalan, who also directed the pilot. At his best, in “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Signs” (2002), and especially “Unbreakable” (2000), the filmmaker repackaged the conventions of ghost stories, alien invasions, and comic-book superheroes as adventures in the individual psyche, and even if his penchant for twist endings cheapened the effect, these earlier projects came off as a director’s attempt to establish a distinctive authorial voice in familiar genres. But in the years since, after a slew of critical failures and box-office flops, Shyamalan’s reputation has declined precipitously. “Wayward Pines”—along with his upcoming found-footage horror film, “The Visit”—has the feeling of a last stand.
The network, at least, has marketed the series as his, not Hodge’s, and wherever one apportions blame for its uninspired pastiche, the paper-thin narrative and flat characterization mark “Wayward Pines” as close kin to Shyamalan’s later disasters. Despite the star-studded cast, which includes, in addition to Dillon and Gugino, Terrence Howard, Toby Jones, Hope Davis, Melissa Leo, and the excellent Juliette Lewis, the series proves unequal to the task of adhering even to its own warped logic, much less unearthing the complexities of each citizen’s participation in the town’s closed system. It’s easier, I suppose, to print out the rules and post them near the door of a toyshop:
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Do not try to leave.
Do not discuss the past.
Do not discuss your life before.
Always answer the phone if it rings.
Work hard, be happy,
And enjoy your life
In Wayward Pines!
Violating the principle of “show, don’t tell,” the series squirms uncomfortably between the impulse to telegraph each turn in our understanding of Wayward Pines and the need to fuel its nonsensical narrative with shocking revelations and sudden reversals. The residents later intone these regulations to the sheriff (Howard) after he conducts a “reckoning,” one of the town’s grimmer rituals (you know, in case you missed it the first time), and Wayward Pines’ nurse (Leo) usefully offers her own version of the obvious. “This is no ordinary town,” she says. “This is an extraordinary town.”
Soon Ethan spots Kate, resigned to a life of supposed bliss with her new husband, allies with Beverly (Lewis), trying to escape from Wayward Pines since 1999, and reunites with his wife, Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon), and their adolescent son, Ben (Charlie Tahan), encountering one strange detail of the burg’s shadowy purpose after another. If you can slog through to the fifth episode, a hypnotherapist schoolteacher (Davis) will explain “The Truth” to you and the other new students of Wayward Pines Academy in a sleek, white classroom, during an agonizing lecture that takes the wind out of an admittedly wild idea, but by that point the only remaining interest is in seeing how the series contorts itself to resolve the narrative’s inconsistencies.
The problem is not that “Wayward Pines” asks the viewer to suspend disbelief, but that it doesn’t trust audiences to do so, preferring exposition to evocation. The few stylistic shudders of the town’s ubiquitous surveillance—closed-circuit video, the chirp of crickets piped in through speakers, the incessant ringing of telephones—are a deft reflection of the social policing that occurs in planned communities, but these are too infrequent to make much of a dent in the series’ blandly functional armor. Instead, “Wayward Pines” spells out its anodyne allegory for government control and the trap of suburbia at every opportunity. “It didn’t take me long to realize it was the fear that keeps everyone in line here,” Beverly tells Ethan at one point. “I’d rather die than pretend this is normal for one more day.”
Drawing on “Twin Peaks” without David Lynch’s gorgeous rendering of subconscious states, “The X-Files” without its investment in rich, idiosyncratic characters—not to mention “The Truman Show” and Shyamalan’s own “The Village,” among others—”Wayward Pines,” even if it’s not exactly auteurist television, thus begins to mirror Shyamalan’s recent creative travails.
When Ross Douthat, writing for Slate in 2006, compared Shyamalan favorably to such “timid, highly compensated” filmmakers as Bryan Singer, Doug Liman, Christopher Nolan, and Sam Raimi, the bloom was already off the rose, but Douthat chalked this up to Shyamalan’s noble pursuit of independence in the face of Hollywood profiteering. Nine years hence, his participation in the derivative “Wayward Pines,” coupled with his role, as Nick Schager noted in the Village Voice, as the “anonymous craftsman” of “After Earth” (2013), the director no longer appears so valiant. The willingness to turn multiple genres inside out has become a tendency to prop up flimsy (though provocative) premises with shallow allusions and narrative switchbacks. As last stands go, if we take the phrase to suggest an attempt to recover a foothold in the zeitgeist, “Wayward Pines” is as timid as they come, with Shyamalan, who once molded commonplace materials into uncommonly surprising films, as the mythical figure of Shelley’s subtitle: Prometheus, re-bound.
“Wayward Pines” premieres Thursday, May 14 at 9pm on FOX.