The ghosts of crypto-thrillers past haunt Wayward Pines like a stir of echoes. The title evokes Twin Peaks, as do the show’s small-town setting and surrealism. The first shots crib from Lost: a closeup of an opening eye, as our disoriented hero, Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon), a survivor of a mysterious accident, wakes up in the woods. After three episodes, you’ve been reminded of The Prisoner, Under the Dome, and select episodes of Fringe, The X-Files, and The Twilight Zone, as well as Lost Highway, Vanilla Sky, The Truman Show, and every nothing’s-what-it-seems flick directed by M. Night Shyamalan, one of this show’s executive producers. (Theory: Wayward Pines is…a symbolic self-portrait of a director pining to escape his own shtick and get his wayward career back on track?)
Our protagonist is as familiar as the premise. Behold one more fallen male hero trying to pick himself up! Ethan is a Secret Service agent scarred by a tragedy he couldn’t avert and an infidelity that nearly ruined his marriage. On a mission to locate his missing partner (and ex-lover), Kate (Carla Gugino), Ethan gets nailed by a truck. It should have killed him. Instead, he finds himself in Wayward Pines, Idaho, a Kafkaesque idyll where the crickets are fake and the cash is counterfeit, time and space are relative, and some or all of the residents (among them Juliette Lewis as a frazzled bartender) may not be there by choice. No one can leave. No one is allowed to discuss the past. All of them—including Kate, also marooned in this perverse Pleasantville, as a toymaker’s dutiful wife—struggle to live authentic lives in an unreflective culture afraid of individualism, pain, and personal history. Those who violate the rules or refuse to conform to the town’s credo (“Work hard, be happy, enjoy your life in Wayward Pines”) must answer to a menacing, ice-cream-gobbling sheriff (Terrence Howard).
Are we in a pocket universe? A virtual reality? Hell? Is Ethan dead or alive? Your guesses will evolve as the puzzle comes together—assuming the tonnage of WTH? doesn’t discourage your investment and you don’t find Dillon’s edgy energy too alienating. (With his nicked face, lumbering gait, and awkward, angry disposition, he suggests a revenant—a zombie with a Franken-face. I can’t tell if Dillon’s turn is full of meaning…or if he’s struggling to connect with the part.) A shocking number of shocking deaths will make you care, and several entertaining performances will hold your interest, particularly that of a lively Melissa Leo as a creepy, knowing nurse who may be an agent of control in the town. She, Howard, and Gugino—who has the most alluring mystery—know how to work well in the murk. They pull you through everything that’s tired, tedious, and trippy and nurture hope that Wayward Pines will add up to something novel. Or, at least, just add up. B–