In FOX's “Wayward Pines,” a Secret Service agent played by Matt Dillon finds himself trapped in a remote Idaho town from which he's not allowed to leave. No one will tell him why he can't go, nor why any of the other weird things happen in a place where the residents are paranoid, bloodthirsty, and under constant surveillance.
TV has a long and illustrious history of weird mystery locale shows like this, from “The Prisoner” to “Lost.” But for a show like this to work, at least one of two things must be true(*): 1)The characters and/or story have to be compelling even before the mysteries get answered, or 2)The mystery explanation has to be so damn clever that it retroactively makes everything that came before better.
(*) Your mileage will vary, as seen among the “Lost” fans whose enjoyment of the whole series was soured by how it explained its mysteries.
FOX is somewhat tentatively selling “Wayward Pines” (it debuts Thursday at 9) as being from M. Night Shyamalan, who directed the pilot and is a producer, even though Chad Hodge is the actual showrunner and adapter of the Blake Crouch trilogy of novels set in Wayward Pines. Shyamalan's a double-edged sword here. His early films (“Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” even “Signs” to a degree) check both of those boxes, in that they're so atmospheric that they work even before they get to one of his signature twists. His later films – one of them, “The Village,” also set in a weird community whose citizens can't go past the fence – turned him into a caricature of himself and box office poison, but if “Wayward Pines” were to become the best version of what it aspires to be, it'd very much resemble Good Shyamalan.
Unfortunately, the show failed for me in both key areas where it needed to work. It's not fun enough while waiting for the explanation in the fifth and final episode I saw (there are 10 episodes altogether), and the explanation doesn't do a good enough job of justifying everything that's happened before.
Despite a solid lead turn by Dillon, and quirky (to varying degrees) performances by Melissa Leo (a creepy nurse who can't wait to participate in surgery on Dillon's brain), Terence Howard (the town's cruel, ice cream-loving sheriff), Juliette Lewis (a bartender who also wants to get out of town), Carla Gugino (the ex-partner/lover Dillon has come to Wayward Pines to find), Toby Jones (a concerned local doctor) and Hope Davis (a high five-loving teacher), the early episodes drag, both as Dillon looks for ways to escape and as we keep going back to Seattle to check in on the wife (Shannyn Sossamon) and son (Charlie Tahan) he left behind. The family material is really dire, even by the recent standards of Annoying Teenage Boys in TV Dramas(**), and what's designed as something to both ground and motivate Dillon's character instead made me question why he was risking life, limb and brain in order to get back to those two.
(**) I watched these five episodes and was convinced Tahan was not so good with the acting. Then I went on vacation and watched him in “Love Is Strange,” where he's terrific as John Lithgow's great-nephew. He just can't do anything with the material “Wayward Pines” gives him.
And without giving away anything about the true nature of Wayward Pines, the fifth episode mainly left me wondering why in the world everyone was acting the way they were to Dillon, and to each other, given the reason they're all there. It's a twist that makes the show seem like less than the sum of its parts, and like an exercise in hand-me-down weirdness for its own sake. People who like shows like this specifically for the mystery may feel happy that they get it answered in such speedy fashion, but I don't know how many of them will feel like it fits with everything they've seen to that point.
Once upon a time, I might have graded something like “Wayward Pines” on a curve for summer. But there's too much good TV available in the summer – not just new stuff like upcoming seasons of “Orange Is the New Black” and “True Detective,” but whole seasons of the best of recent and vintage TV easily available via streaming or disc (I have the complete “Prisoner” box set on a shelf right behind me) – to waste time on this kind of thing anymore.
It's possible that the show transforms significantly once the secret is revealed to both the audience and several characters, but five hours of mediocrity at best didn't give me enough faith that a revamped version of “Wayward Pines” would be worth the ongoing time spent there. And unlike Matt Dillon, I get to leave whenever I want.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org