Fox’s limited-run, creepy-town thriller Wayward Pines doesn’t exist solely to troll its audience, but one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise after watching its opening scenes. The show begins with an extreme close-up of an eye belonging to Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon), who snaps awake in an unfamiliar wooded area after suffering a trauma severe enough to leave his face gashed and bloody. He stumbles into the bucolic-to-a-fault Wayward Pines, Idaho, where it only takes a few disturbing interactions with the locals for Ethan to surmise he wound up there as a result of the kind of wrong turn that can’t be reconsidered. He tires of the town’s hostile hospitality and tries to hightail it out, only to discover that Wayward Pines is a town where you don’t outwear your welcome: Your welcome outwears you.
Pines, based on a well-regarded Blake Crouch novel, evokes a handful of influences, including The Prisoner and Twin Peaks, but its introductory sequence is most reminiscent of Lost, which also opens on the eyelid of a maverick-hero type who regains consciousness to find himself trapped in some sort of mystical netherworld. To make a conspicuous visual reference—literally a wink—to Lost is a ballsy move. Despite its many strengths, Lost’s legacy is informed less by its character building and emotional beats and more by its failure to exhaustively flesh out its mythology. Associating the two shows does Pines no favors with those who found Lost’s conclusion wanting. And as if to actively repel the once-bitten, the Pines pilot is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, whose personal brand has become synonymous with infuriating shaggy-dog stories.
Viewers with the courage to cruise past the “turn back” road signs will discover Wayward Pines is no more than what it appears to be in Wayward Pines. Pines leans on the same tropes as any show set in a bizarro anytown, from CBS’ short-lived American Gothic to the Welcome To Night Vale podcast. But those tropes are deployed with such panache, Pines is brisk and rollicking, capable of defying gravity despite its narrative excess. At no point does the show inspire confidence in a satisfying conclusion, but it has such a hypnotic quality, the journey is interesting enough to take the pressure off the destination.
Ethan winds up in Wayward Pines while searching for a pair of his Secret Service colleagues, including his former partner Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino), with whom Ethan had an extramarital affair that continues to haunt his life with his wife and son. A severe auto accident lands Ethan in the local hospital, where he meets Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo), a sadistic caretaker who appears to have taken an oath to do only harm. Nurse Pam is first in a parade of public servants, uniformed professionals, and dead-eyed townies who communicate to Ethan how precarious his situation is, either by being elliptically threatening or outright violent. The town sheriff (Terrence Howard), who inhales ice cream cones the way most small-town lawmen suck down brown liquor, informs Ethan of the bizarre code of conduct by which residents must abide. The rules are written in austere language that belies how unreasonable they are: Do not try to leave; do not discuss the past; always answer the phone when it rings. Wayward Pines: The simple life, it ain’t.
Even Ethan’s friendly conversation with kindly barkeep Beverly (Juliette Lewis), the most normal person for miles, turns weird when she hands him a cryptic note: “There are no crickets in Wayward Pines.” What Beverly is referring to is anyone’s guess, but as a meta statement about the show, it couldn’t be more true. Pines doesn’t pause long enough to give way to cricket song. It’s a 10-episode limited series that progresses like one. The pace isn’t unnecessarily frantic, but showrunner Chad Hodge has no reason to hold his powder, and it shows. The actors don’t hold back either. Leo and Howard are at their unrestrained best, but their performances don’t overpower the show or threaten to curdle into camp. The esteemed cast, which also includes Toby Jones and Hope Davis, is most important to the show’s unexpected buoyancy. Pines, like True Blood and American Horror Story before it, is the type of cuckoo-bananas television project that’s catnip to “serious actors” looking for something weird to do.
Pines is certainly weird, but it’s never predictable. After gradually becoming more ominous and unsettling with each episode, the story hooks a violent left in the fourth episode; by the end of the fifth, it’s a markedly different show from the pilot. The fifth episode, “The Truth,” has exposition bursting from its seams, with one character practically vomiting mumbo-jumbo about the secrets of Wayward Pines. In a show like this one, expository speeches tend to end too soon, but in Pines, the data dump can’t end quickly enough. When a show is this unexpectedly giddy, a lengthy, logical breakdown is nothing but a buzzkill.