Having burned up almost all of the good will his career in the movies may have once had, can M. Night Shyamalan redeem himself on the television medium? The one-time auteur gives it a shot with the new ten-episode “Limited Event” series ‘Wayward Pines’ on Fox. The pilot episode isn’t terrible, which I might take as a good sign if my skepticism for this project weren’t way off the charts.
For one thing, I don’t buy the “Limited Event” advertising at all. Similar so-called limited event programs like ‘Under the Dome’ blatantly pandered for renewal and ended without closure. I have zero doubt at all that this will do the same.
Shyamalan serves as Executive Producer for the series and directed the first episode, called ‘Where Paradise Is Home’. Notably, he did not write any of it. That job goes to co-creator Chad Hodge (‘The Playboy Club’), adapting from a book series by author Blake Crouch.
The show borrows heavily from the classic British series ‘The Prisoner‘, and plays an awfully lot like NBC’s more recent mystery thriller ‘Persons Unknown‘ with no small amount of ‘Shutter Island‘ thrown in as well.
Matt Dillon stars as Secret Service agent Ethan Burke, who wakes up in the woods with his face beaten to a pulp. In an amusing film noir trope, he’ll spend the entire episode bruised and battered. Ethan finds a road and wanders into the small town of the title, a sleepy little hamlet supposedly in Idaho where no one is particularly sympathetic to his situation. He passes out and finds himself in a hospital, where the overly-cheerful nurse (Oscar winner Melissa Leo) tells him he’s been in a car accident. She’s clearly withholding information from him, and lies when he asks for his wallet and phone, or to use any phone at all.
We learn that Ethan is searching for other missing agents, including his former partner and love interest Kate (Carla Gugino). His new partner that was in the car with him was allegedly killed in the accident. Ethan also has a history of mental illness, including hallucinations, triggered by a previous case called the “Easter Bombings.” This marks him as an unreliable narrator and throws the whole narrative of the series into doubt. Can we believe anything that happens to Ethan, or is he just hallucinating again?
As Ethan leaves the hospital against the nurse’s attempts to stop him, he finds the town’s sheriff (Terrence Howard) particularly unhelpful. The only person in town who seems to be on his side is a friendly waitress named Beverly (Juliette Lewis), who slips him a secret note to direct him to a house where he finds the body of a missing agent, and warns him that “There are no crickets in Wayward Pines.” When Ethan hears the sound of crickets coming from a bush, he looks closer and sees a small speaker playing a recording. That’s weird.
Ethan’s attempts to make phone calls to his wife and boss are unsuccessful. When he steals a car and tries to leave town, the only road leads right back into it. Ethan searches through the woods and discovers that the whole town is surrounded by a giant electrified security fence. From an aerial view, we see that it seems to exist in a giant crater.
Eventually, Ethan winds up back in the hospital, where a doctor (Toby Jones) tells him that he has a brain hemorrhage and is experiencing a dissociative breakdown. Ethan refuses to believe it, but maybe he is. Beverly rescues him from the hospital before the doctor and evil nurse can perform scary brain surgery on him. She hides him in a cemetery crypt and tells him, “They’re trying to break your mind.” She says that she’s likewise been trapped in the town for a year, but she believes that it’s still only 2000 for some reason.
Time proves further elastic when Ethan finds his partner Kate, now living as a happy suburban housewife married to Reed Diamond, and she looks a fair amount older than when he last saw her. Kate tells him that she’s been in the town 12 years, which should be impossible. She also warns him “They’re watching us” and that every inch of the town is under surveillance at all times. Yet she wants him to become a Stepford pod person like she is.
The episode also occasionally cuts to the outside world, where Ethan’s wife (Shannyn Sossamon) worries that he might be missing. His boss at the Secret Service meets with the evil doctor, which suggests that he may have set Ethan up but now regrets it.
Both Sossamon and the kid playing Ethan’s son deliver really awful, stilted performances. I’m not sure how much of that is attributable to them just being bad actors, or if it’s a fault of Shyamalan’s directing. The rest of the cast is mostly fine, though none of them stray too far from their established screen personas.
As the episode ended, I was intrigued enough to set at least one more episode to record. However, I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that this whole narrative is just jerking us around and will inevitably lead to an unsatisfying, half-assed conclusion. For as much as the show tries to be quirky and surreal, the premise is too similar to other projects I’m already familiar with. Combined with the Shyamalan factor, I’m not certain that watching too much more of this will be worth my time.