Wayward Pines, Season 1, Episode 1, “Where Paradise Is Home”
Written by Blake Crouch
Directed by M. Night Shymalan
Airs Thursdays at 9pm (ET) on Fox
As even a cursory glance at the TV Tropes page will tell you, the idea of a seemingly normal town with a dark secret is one of popular culture’s most frequently explored ideas. The dichotomy of an idyllic life with lurking horrors underneath it has been deployed by everyone from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King to David Lynch to David E. Kelley, yielding a spectrum of results and interpretations. There’s been so many of them, in fact, that it’s dulled the impact of the genre because the audience is expecting something strange to happen before too long. For a new entry to stand out, it needs to have either an incredibly distinctive voice or a twist on the structure that transcends its stock setting.
Wayward Pines, the latest installment in this genre, comes up short on both. Despite a murderers’ row of qualified actors and a creative pedigree that (at least at one point) has a reputation for crafting these type of mysteries, its first installment is a competent if unremarkable spin on the format. It achieves a a degree of unease but not one of intrigue, presenting its mysteries with a feeling that while everyone involved thinks they’re clever they could stand to play their cards closer to the vest.
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Adapted from a book trilogy by Chad Hodge, Wayward Pines follows Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) on his assignment to find two missing fellow agents, one of whom is his ex-partner and ex-lover Kate (Carla Gugino). After a mysterious car crash leaves him lost in the Idaho woods, he makes his way to Wayward Pines, an idyllic small town where everyone seems just a little too cheerful and unperturbed at what’s happening. Events escalate to the degree of corpses in abandoned houses, unauthorized brain surgery, and the discovery of an electric fence stretching as far as the eye can see around the town. Ethan wants nothing more than to leave this place, but every element is united to keep him there, welcoming smiles gradually giving way to the equivalent of iron hands in velvet gloves.
Whenever a story of this nature is adapted for television in the last 25 years, drawing comparisons to Twin Peaks is the thing to do given how important and resonant that show was on the trope. Wayward Pines invites a few of those early on—a federal agent as the point of entry character, law enforcement who’s a little too appreciative of sweet treats—but as with every time this comparison comes up it’s an unfair one to make. Twin Peaks was so assertively an expression of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s combined psyches, so uniquely balanced in its oddness that no other show can match it (hence the backlash and horror when Lynch publicly stepped away from the Showtime revival). And while some shows try to imitate that feeling, Wayward Pines reassuringly doesn’t: most of what happens in town has a Stepford Wives quality of forced perfection to it, particularly as Kate reassures Ethan that everything is just fine.
The problem is that “Where Paradise Is Home” doesn’t do enough to help Wayward Pines stand out on its own merits. While it introduces a lot of mysteries in the early going (Why are there no crickets at night? Who killed the other agent and hid his body? Who or what put up this fence?) there’s something that feels off about their pacing, not enough time spent on one element or another. Admittedly, this is a problem that could be remedied easily going forward—not every pilot is a show’s best foot forward—but it lacks the instantly arresting feel that a mystery like this needs.
Part of the blame for that rests on the show’s continual moves away from Wayward Pines back to Seattle. Scenes meant to build context for Ethan’s complete cutoff from the rest of the world only take the viewer out of the milieu of this strange little hamlet, and the moments with Ethan’s wife and son (Shannon Sossamon and Charlie Tahan, respectively) are genuinely awful, devoid of any inspiration in the acting or direction. Given how heavily the pilot relies on the question of Ethan’s sanity, it raises the question of why they even need to be there at all starting out—the show could have raised interesting questions by only showing his side of the calls home, building to an interesting twist of whether or not there was even anyone to answer.
Speaking of twists, the biggest worry about the show comes from the pilot’s director and biggest name attached as executive producer, M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan built his career on films with mysteries and dramatic twists (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) but as time’s gone on his name has become toxic thanks to an overreliance on those elements (The Village, The Happening) or by his films being genuinely terrible dreck (The Last Airbender, After Earth). It’s easy to see why he chose this as a project, as the reveals near the end of the pilot are cut from the same illogical cloth as his films, The Village in particular. To his credit, the pilot is well-shot and creates enough of a creepy atmosphere—especially in the hospital scenes as Ethan struggles to free himself—but it’s concerning to ask how such a polarizing director will adjust to the TV landscape.
However, there are enough other big names associated with the project that it escapes immediate dismissal, Academy Award winners and nominees forming the bulk of the regular cast. Dillon’s performance is a sturdy one, there to react to the craziness around him but also projecting the air that his fractured mental state could be as much a contribution to the Wayward Pines weirdness as the outside influences. Terrence Howard, who’s suddenly become a huge TV star thanks to Empire, is clearly having a lot of fun as Sheriff Arnold Pope, offering a dark swagger in the way he does so well. Toby Jones easily transitions from Dr. Zola in the Marvel universe to Dr. Jenkins, a psychiatrist with more than a few shades of Kiefer Sutherland in Dark City; and Melissa Leo is right out of the Nurse Ratchet playbook as the menacingly chipper Nurse Pam. Gugino and Juliette Lewis as bartender Beverly are doing different things as the women in Ethan’s life, and there’s also plenty of steady working TV actors, Reed Diamond as Kate’s apparent new husband, Tim Griffin as Ethan’s boss. Everyone here has a track record of rising above their material, and you hope they’ll be a counterweight to whatever narrative nonsense the rest of the show may indulge in.
Those performances, and the sturdy execution of the town’s unease, are enough to buy Wayward Pines some slack in the early going. Just because this kind of story has been told a hundred times over doesn’t mean that a new way to tell it is impossible, and while it’s a slow start there’s enough going on here that the question of how it will grow is interesting even if the overall mystery is not.
The Points Beyond The Pines:
- Welcome to Sound on Sight’s weekly coverage of Wayward Pines! Break out the rum raisin and let’s see where this goes.
- While Shyamalan’s influence may be limited on the show beyond being EP and directing the pilot (following the example of Martin Scorsese and Boardwalk Empire), showrunner Chad Hodge doesn’t inspire much more confidence, given that the last show he created was the spectacularly awful The Playboy Club.
- The opening titles are well-done, the gradual decay of a miniature town portraying the rot that may be concealed beneath the surface.
- Wayward Pines itself has the appearance of being a studio set rather than a real town thoroughfare, but in this case the artificiality of it all contributes to the setting.
- Amidst all the high-profile names, it was a pleasant surprise to see Malcolm Goodwin (Detective Babineaux from iZombie) pop up as Ethan’s counselor.
- “There’s a man here to see you, says he’s a secret agent person.”
- “I’m gonna have to ask you to evacuate the room.”
- “It’s not me, it’s this town.” “It’s just a town.”
- “You could be happy here, Ethan. You could have an amazing life here.”