One of the offshoots of our current golden age of television is that every new series needs to have an air of an event to it. How can you compete with Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones if you can’t deliver The Greatest Thing Television has Ever Done four or five times a season? That game is ultimately self-defeating however, and the more an upcoming series gets massive amounts of hype, the greater the letdown when it finally arrives.
So it seems to be with Wayward Pines, Fox’s upcoming mystery series that feels like more sizzle than steak. It borrows its cues heavily from both Twin Peaks and The Prisoner, with each new episode promising ever-more astonishing twists and a general atmosphere of weirdness to blow our socks off. We’ve all seen first-hand how those surprises can fall flat, and how the big reveals can easily hide the depressing lack of story beneath.
There’s nothing to say that Wayward Pines won’t fall into this trap. We caught a viewing of the pilot last weekend at WonderCon, and while it has a number of positive aspects, it seems to be trending along a well-worn path You can see the warning signs everywhere: a small town with secrets, a nosy outsider asking questions, the hints of something far larger than anyone could conceive of lurking just out of sight… In other words, yawn.
The presence of M. Night Shyamalan amid the credits is a big red flag as well; the once revered director’s reputation lies in tatters, and he’s struggled of late to conquer the kinds of problems that could very easily eat this endeavor alive. It’s entirely possible that the hype will prove unfounded, and that the mysteries will either fizzle out completely or prove utterly unworthy of the build-up.
But after watching the pilot and listening to some of the minds behind it, we’re still tuning in when the show premieres this May. There’s cause for hope here and while it may prove utterly unfounded, Wayward Pines could very well surprise us. Why do we think so? Let’s break down some of the reasons.
They have a Concrete Timetable
There were episodes – heck there were entire seasons – of Lost where the show runners didn’t have the first idea where they were going. You could see them holding back: waiting on the really juicy tidbits until they felt the time was right. It was agony.
The show runners on Wayward Pines seem to have learned those lessons well. “The big reveal comes in Episode 5, “ Producer Donald De Line confided. “That’s when the big questions of what this place is and what our hero is doing there get answered. The fantastic thing about this series is that – rather than either leading to more questions or taking the air out of the story – it kicks the whole thing into overdrive.
“We have ten episodes, and we built a Bible that covers every aspect of the story in those episodes. It includes an outline of where the show could go if we end up doing more, or how to sew things up satisfactorily if we don’t. So if anyone in the cast and crew had questions, we didn’t have to hide anything from them. We had the plan and could give them the answers.”
The show is officially being pushed as a 10-episode miniseries (or “event series” in the parlance of the publicists), though there’s clearly an option to renew. That speaks strongly to an endgame… one that we won’t have to wade through months and years of turgid wheel-spinning to reach.
Shyamalan Stills Knows How to Direct
The Nightser’s been taking it on the chin lately… and for good reason. After a series of unmitigated cinematic disasters, the whole “next Spielberg” things looks as far away as the dark side of the moon. He’s definitely on probation here, and if any of those manky After Earth vibes start cropping up in Wayward Pines, the show may find its viewers abandoning ship with all deliberate speed.
But here’s the thing: remove the auteur mantle and let him direct someone else’s script, and suddenly Shyamalan blooms. His direction of the pilot episode was elegant and moody, and with a decent story (someone else’s story) under his belt, he readily reminds us why we got so excited about him in the first place.
“He’d never done television,” De Line confided. “And he couldn’t guess any of the reveals, which made him love it even more. He broke the whole season down with the writers, and the cast came to his farm in Philadelphia to work it all out.”
Shyalaman has executive producer credit here, but show runner Chad Hodge appears to be calling the shots, and with a steadier creative force at the tiller, the once and former wunderkind may have just found the niche he needs to restore his reputation as a first-rate director.
It’s Based on a Very Good Book
We know, we know: so’s everything these days. But amid the stampede to adapt any book with even a whiff of bestseller to it, the team here has found something solid to base their show on. Blake Crouch’s Pines deftly avoids the clichés that have sunk similar stories, presenting a fresh and comparatively original take on what this mysterious town is all about. De Line is right: the reveal is quite brilliant, but more importantly, the scenario presents a ton of potential directions that a good series might explore, and the producers seem to have the proper respect for their source. There’s a foundation for great things here; the question is whether Wayward Pines can develop it.
The Cast is Incredible
We’ve noted the exodus of major talent from the movies to television for a long time, and Wayward Pines takes ruthless advantage of the trend. Matt Dillon makes a tough gritty lead, and when joined by the likes of Melissa Leo, Toby Jones and Terrance Howard, we’re tempted to tune in just to watch them strut their stuff. Even Juliette Lewis finds a fantastic groove in the opening episode, evoking that period when she was the name on everyone’s lips. Granted, a good cast doth not a great series make (Lost never suffered from talent in front of the camera), but it presents a certain expectation of quality that makes tuning in a lot easier.
At Least It’s Borrowing from the Right Sources
Twin Peaks meets The Prisoner is the pitch here, and you can see that DNA running throughout the pilot episode. Wayward Pines borrows heavily from its predecessors, and it will take more than a few interesting plot developments to shake the feeling of deja vu. On the other hand, there are certainly worse television programs to emulate, and if they do it right, those comparisons could become flattering praise rather than disapproving put-downs. With David Lynch bowing out of his proposed Twin Peaks update, Wayward Pines might just be poised to scoop up the slack.
That’s all still speculation, of course. The proof of the pudding comes with the show itself, which everyone will have a chance to see on May 14, when the show premieres on Fox. Here’s hoping its better angels prevail, and we get a must-see show to add to our summer schedule instead of just another also-ran.