Nothing pleases a grouchy TV watcher more than to catch a new show in the act of being utterly derivative, if not downright plagiaristic. “That looks just like ‘Twin Peaks!’ ” such a viewer has perhaps already scoffed aloud (for the benefit of his long-suffering couch companion) during the ads for Fox’s sci-fi mystery series, “Wayward Pines,” which begins a 10-episode run Thursday night.
If that opening sounds like you’re getting ready to read a viciously negative review of “Wayward Pines,” think again.
When it comes to being jerked around by a complicated mystery series, you know I’m in no mood right now, but “Wayward Pines” does everything right in the six tightly executed episodes made available for this review. The series (billed as “limited”) is preposterous on an entirely manageable and entertaining scale. On top of that, it’s surprisingly forthright in its structure and momentum, going easy on the red herrings. You won’t have to take notes during it or head for the Internet to argue about its clues or hidden themes. It’s the ideal summertime distraction.
It’s true enough that “Wayward Pines,” with filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan as executive producer, intends at first to seem like a faint homage to David Lynch’s groundbreaking 1990 series. Novelist Blake Crouch, who wrote the books on which “Wayward Pines” is based, has said that “Twin Peaks” served as his inspiration.
That’s merely the beginning, however, of the pop-culture ingredient list for the casserole that is “Wayward Pines.” Within the first episode you’ll catch hints of “Lost” (of course), CBS’s “Under the Dome” (and “Extant,” now that I think about it), CW’s “The 100,” any iteration of “The Stepford Wives” (and other tales of perfect-community dystopia), random “Twilight Zone” episodes, the lyrics to “Hotel California,” Syfy’s “Ascension,” “Millennium” (a deliciously bad 1980s movie that starred Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd) and a telltale helping of Shyamalan’s own trademark teasing, as seen in “The Sixth Sense” and other films that usually delivered some unexpected twist near the end, which audiences and critics came to resent — sometimes with good reason.
In “Wayward Pines,” Matt Dillon is precisely in his element (at long last) as Secret Service agent Ethan Burke, who is injured in a car accident while hunting for two agents who disappeared weeks earlier in Idaho. One of the missing agents is his former lover, Kate (Carla Gugino).
Ethan wakes in a hospital in a mountain village called Wayward Pines, under the care of creepy Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo), who refuses to let him make any phone calls. Disobeying her, Ethan leaves the hospital in search of help, which he gets from Beverly (Juliette Lewis), a nervous bartender who cryptically scribbles a warning on the back of his check: “There are no crickets in Wayward Pines.”
Sure enough, Ethan finds a stereo speaker in a sidewalk planter that’s emitting ersatz chirps. It dawns on him that the entire town is fake.
When Ethan discovers the rotted corpse of one of the agents he was searching for, the local sheriff, Arnold Pope (Terrence Howard), is unhelpful and dismissive. When he finds Kate, she first pretends not to know him and then cautions him to play along with the rules of this strange Pleasantville. When Ethan steals a car to escape, he finds that the road out of Wayward Pines leads right back into town. Meanwhile, Ethan’s worried wife (Shannyn Sossamon) and teenage son (Charlie Trahan) set out from Seattle to find him; pretty soon they’ll also be stuck in Wayward Pines.
“You think you want to know the truth,” Sheriff Pope tells Ethan, “but you don’t. It’s worse than anything you could even imagine.”
And thus smart viewers begin guessing what that truth will turn out to be, and if it’s worth their time to stick around for the big reveal: It’s a government experiment, right? They’re being watched and observed by scientists, aren’t they? It’s a crazy cult, isn’t it? The electrified wall around Wayward Pines is meant more to keep something out, rather than keep the citizens in, right? (Alien creatures? Rabid zombies? Either? Both?) They’ve time-hopped, haven’t they? It’s really the past, isn’t it? Or the future? The psychiatrist (Toby Jones) is in fact the mastermind of it all, isn’t he?
Settle down, settle down. You’re all correct, to some extent, but would you believe that the point of “Wayward Pines” is not to keep you guessing? That it seems to have no interest in leaving you in the interminable dark? That it answers every single question it raises?
Indeed, by episode five, viewers will get what could very well be the entire story explained to them — the kind of precise details it took “Lost” a few seasons to cough up — which would make “Wayward Pines” the antidote to “Twin Peaks” (and TV’s reliance on guessing games) rather than a ripoff of it. We’re so used to being strung along that it’s almost shocking to be handed so many answers at once.
And then a chilling thought arrives: Something about this show is too tidy. It would be so M. Night Shyamalan to lure us to this point in precisely this manner, saving the big twist for the end. In which case, “Wayward Pines” is doing a fine job of what it set out to do — making you desperate to know how it ends, even if, as the sheriff said, it’s worse than anything you could even imagine.
Really? Worse than another season of “Under the Dome?”
(one hour) premieres Thursday
at 9 p.m. on Fox.