Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pilot Review: Wayward Pines

Wayward Pines (Thursdays at 9:00 on Fox; Premieres May 14)

If you're looking for a weird, fun summer distraction, you could do a lot worse than Wayward Pines.

Despite being constantly delayed en route to the airwaves (it was ordered to series two years ago and filming ended nearly a year and a half ago), which would suggest Wayward Pines isn't exactly great, the pilot is a twisty, well-crafted, creepy hour that promises a fun miniseries. Based on the novel Pines by Blake Crouch, the series follows Ethan Burke (Academy Award nominee Matt Dillon), a Secret Service Agent who wakes up on a riverbed outside a weirdly old-fashioned Iowa town, Wayward Pines, covered in cuts and bruises but without any idea how he got there. He knows he was sent to the town to investigate the disappearance of two other agents, one of whom (Entourage's Carla Gugino) he once had an affair with, but how he ended up in the woods is a mystery. Burke wanders through town, ending up back at the empty hospital under the care of Nurse Pam (Oscar winner Melissa Leo) and Dr. Jenkins (Toby Jones). He forms a kind-of friendship with the local barkeep (Juliette Lewis), who lets him in on some of the town's creepier secrets, and goes head-to-head with the uptight Sheriff Pope (Terrence Howard), all while trying to figure out just what it is about Wayward Pines that's so unsettling and what exactly happened to his missing colleagues.

It doesn't take long for one of those questions to be answered, as about halfway through the pilot Gugino appears as a townsperson who pretends not to know Ethan because "they're watching" and she can't give herself away. Who is watching? Why? What happens if you stop the strange roleplaying? I'm assuming that'll be part of the mystery moving forward, because the second agent is also soon discovered... only he's dead, tortured and nearly torn to pieces in an abandoned house in town. When Ethan reports the death to Pope, he winds up back in the hospital, where Nurse Pam asserts herself near the top of the list of scariest medical professionals, right around Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A lot happens in the pilot, which I won't give away since it's so much fun to watch it all unfold, and it sets up a whole slew of mysteries for Ethan to solve. I've read the book, and I'm curious to know if the same twists will be used in the series, because they were pretty crazy and completely unpredictable. But considering this first episode (the series will have ten episodes total) covers more than half the book, I'm not sure what they will do.

Everything that happens in Wayward Pines is a blast to watch, from Melissa Leo's scenery-chewing performance, a perfect oscillation from comforting to scary and back again, to the 1950s charm of the bright costumes. Director M. Night Shyamalan begins his redemption arc by combining nods to Hitchcock (Why are rotary phones so creepy?!), Philip K. Dick (the cricket speakers), and more modern television shows like Twin Peaks and, especially, Lost. Like Lost, Pines begins with a man opening his eyes in a strange place with no memory of how he got there. Like Lost, the town has a lot of idiosyncrasies that lead to its weirdness. Like Lost, there seems to be no escaping Wayward Pines. Those scenes are Shyamalan's strongest, and they make the show fun. Shyamalan films these scenes like a noir mystery from the 1940s mashed up with a contemporary horror film, and it's a style that really works in the show's favor. The scenes set in the "real" world, so to speak, following Ethan's wife (Shannyn Sossamon, Mistresses) and boss (Tim Griffin, Prime Suspect), are less interesting. They ground the show in some type of reality, and that's just not fun in the way the Wayward Pines stuff is. And the cast seems to agree, as the energy of Sossamon and Griffin and everyone in that world brings the show to a bit of a halt whenever they turn up.

This is diametrically opposed to how great everyone in Wayward Pines is. Aside from Leo, who gives the most memorable performance in the pilot, Dillon is a solid leading man; Howard is over-the-top in a really great way as the gruff sheriff who loves rum raisin ice cream cones; Lewis is engaging in a mysterious supporting turn; and Jones is, as to be expected from the esteemed Brit, totally quirky and creepy as a psychiatrist with secrets. Everyone really takes their nutty roles and runs with them, fully embracing how ridiculous the whole concept of Wayward Pines is and having a good time with it. As adapted by Chad Hodge, the show is written crazily enough to entice a bunch of otherwise mostly straight-laced actors (there are three Academy Award nominees and a winner in the cast) into doing a TV show. Because when you have a twisty, unpredictable thrill ride thrown at your feet, why not have a little fun doing it? Everyone is clearly game for the mysteries ahead, and that makes Wayward Pines rise above the pack of mindless summer distractions to become something a little bit more: a little bit more fun, a little bit more exciting, and a little bit more entertaining.

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