Adapted from Blake Crouch’s novels with an M. Night Shyamalan-directed pilot, “Wayward Pines” suggests various series – “Twin Peaks” and “Lost” come to mind – but may owe its closest debt to “The Prisoner,” the 1960s cult favorite that featured a spy confined in a strange village from which there appeared to be no exit. Perfectly suited to a 10-part limited run, this Fox show has capitalized on its concentrated approach to cast the project to the hilt, with the disclaimer that viewers shouldn’t become too attached to anyone. All told, it’s a solid TV version of summer popcorn fare.
Matt Dillon stars as Ethan Burke, a Secret Service agent pursuing leads on two missing colleagues in the idyllic, titular Idaho town. The assignment is complicated by the fact that one of the wayward agents is his former partner, Kate (Carla Gugino), with whom he had an affair.
Burke awakens from a car accident in the hospital, where Melissa Leo plays the creepiest nurse this side of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Pretty quickly, he realizes there’s no way to call out of the town, seemingly no escape and a brutal authoritarian regime in place – including a ruthless, ice-cream-eating sheriff (Terrence Howard) – that doesn’t tolerate dissent. “It’s fear that keeps everyone in line,” he’s told.
Ethan befriends a local bartender (Juliette Lewis), but there are nagging questions of who can be trusted. And that also applies to Ethan’s increasingly agitated wife (Shannyn Sossamon), who doesn’t receive much help from her husband’s bosses in seeking information regarding his whereabouts.
Everything about “Wayward Pines” is tense and spooky from the get-go (Chad Hodge adapted the project for TV), down to the old-fashioned rotary phones, which certainly plays into Shyamalan’s strengths as a filmmaker. It’s in finishing off his projects where his feature career has been on a downward trajectory ever since “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.”
The advantage of a close-ended format is that it allows for teasing out the threads and unfolding clues – is it an experiment? Supernatural? Something akin to “The Truman Show?” – with the promise that audiences won’t be forced to wander in the wilderness for too long awaiting answers.
That said, the cat-and-mouse game begins to become a bit tiresome in the later episodes (five were previewed), before the fifth offers a fairly concrete explanation regarding what’s going on – although even that, seemingly, should be viewed with skepticism, given the unseen forces manipulating and controlling the inhabitants.
Fox did luck out in one respect with Howard’s post-“Empire” involvement, which the network has been eager to tout in its advertising. Still, he’s just one part of an impressive ensemble of players, including Toby Jones and Hope Davis, topped by Dillon, whose slow-healing face lacerations must have been a makeup department nightmare.
The elaborate kickoff campaign also includes a global preview of the pilot, and plenty of promotion within “American Idol,” all of which should help put the program on the map – wherever that is. The limited time investment involved means “Wayward Pines” isn’t “Lost,” despite the mysterious similarities, and that’s probably a good thing. Because based on half the journey, for those with a taste for such fare, it looks like a show worth finding.