Review: WAYWARD PINES, The Show That Is Not What It Seems To Be
Wayward Pines is currently running on the Fox television network billed as an "event series", an adaptation of a book trilogy by Blake Crouch, who serves as consulting producer under the showrunning auspice of Chad Hodge of The Playboy Club. Before the official launch, one of the show´s PR magnets that temporarily clouded other aspects was the presence of M. Night Shyamalan, executive producer and the director of the pilot.
For a brief moment, it almost looked the like famed The Sixth Sense director would be seeking artistic rebirth on the television turf, currently a reasonable career choice after his once-glowing reputation waned on the silver screen. The pilot episode launched before the official date to generate enough buzz to lure viewers on a pathway to The Village whilst ogling and referencing the benchmark of small town mystery Twin Peaks. However, this proves to be not the show´s angle, just the initial PR tickling and not an overstretched ad for Crouch´s books, either, thankfully.
The awakening in an alien environment in medias res might be a worn-out cliché of many mystery-tinged stories no matter what medium, yet it´s still a compelling dramaturgical tool and plot device for a crime-driven story structure, Wayward Pines not being an exception. Ethan Burke, a Secret Service agent played by Matt Dillon, wakes up heavily bruised and possibly concussed in a lush forest.
After a flashback referring to a certain terrorist act, Burke limps to the nearest town shortly before he collapses. His second awakening is more pleasant, on a cozy bed at Wayward Pines' hospital, tended by overzealous nurse Pam (Melissa Leo). The overly suspicious demeanor of the nurse, however, sets Burke´s alarm off as she emanates the vibe of lobotomy to be performed, guised under a grinning mask of friendly help. Thus begins a journey to unveil the inner and mysterious workings of a very secretive small town.
The show delivers flashbacks on a frequent basis completing the mosaics of Burke´s portrait along with other vital narrative crumbs to connect the necessary dots. The team of writers crammed the three books into a 10-hour run, an ambitious stunt. So the announced "event series" means a product, or better to say package, boasting a beginning, middle and (hopefully) satisfying closure. That's why the writers could afford to drop the head-scratching twist in episode five, pushing the genre of small town mystery into two more genre boxes.
In the fast-paced environment of television production, we are witnessing the transition of the medium, the shift from the outmoded 24-episode season structure toward more dynamic 10 (more or less) episodes. Binge watching, transmedia storytelling, and other tactical and strategic moves, narrative or political, have reshaped the notion of television shows in the 21st century. Nowadays, a television show is more to be considered an audiovisual serialized fiction, often possessing cinematic qualities, on various platforms, slipping off the rusty tracks of (not only) linear broadcasting.
The fable of one Secret Service agent investigating the disappearance of fellow colleague, found shortly after arrival in a disturbing state of decomposition, in a town apparently keeping a hidden treasure trove of secrets, sprouts into larger proportions, recalling the heyday of Lost-mania. "There are no crickets in Wayward Pines," a cryptic message passed to the protagonist as wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the murder mystery of high-school student Laura Palmer, channels "the owls are not what they seem" aura (Twin Peaks is outwardly admitted as the inspiration for the book trilogy).
Burke soon finds the whole town to be wired by a perversely and obsessively voyeuristic Big Brother. The awkward behavior of citizens points beyond the incessant and profound surveillance scrutiny. The town even has a proper code of conduct containing seven daily mantras, as if torn from a new age self-help book for dummies, consequently inclining toward an almost cult-ish affiliation.
What´s expected from the inhabitants of the idyllic town generously circumscribed by over-towering mountains is to obey the following: enjoy your life in Wayward Pines, be happy, work hard, always answer the phone if it rings, do not discuss the past, do not discuss your life before, do not try to leave.
The creepiness level rises with accrescent instructions and the fabric of the tiny fragile universe of Wayward Pines is threatened to be torn apart by the explicitness of those instructions, most notably in a "do not try to leave" notice that leads to an internalized process of penalization inspired directly by popular medieval practices. The revelation about enslaving inhabitants apparently held against their will is yet another catalyst to plunge deeper into Wayward Pines´ entangled web of illusions and stratagems and double-menace looming the town´s gates.
The subordination, fake smiles and paranoia is the toll for an ideal life where house and job comes automatically to every newcomer as a welcome gift in the carefully designed utopia, a middle-class promised land. However, the vision of such life does not tame Ethan Burke, who is driven by anxiety, frustration and an unwavering rationalistic urge to make sense out of the Kafkaesque constellation in which he has been deserted, not to mention the basic parental instinct to be reconciled with his family. He is compelled to lay bare the opaque folds and machinations of a too-good-to-be-real settlement.
The writers on the show (Matt and Ross Duffer being credited with the transition to the small screen) are orthodox acolytes of the Holy Church of The Immaculate Cliffhanger and deliver the requisite twists and turns. But it's not only the mandatory, expected ones before the final cut to credit roll. Instead, the show morphs into a shape-shifter from episode to episode before the viewers eyes.
It's a ritual of genre mutation, accompanied by a ceremonial tweaking of motifs, themes, tones and perspectives in a calculated manner leaving behind a trail of plot holes. It's also an unavoidable byproduct of condensing a book series consisting of 948 pages into ten episodes, to be devoured and overanalyzed -- as the (in)famous Yellow King affair of True Detective Season 1 attests -- or amended by devout fandom.
The show´s uncanniness and idiosyncrasy doesn´t stem solely from its mercurial nature but is fed among others by the accommodation of videogame aesthetics. The manner of juxtaposing the space of Wayward Pines as self-contained otherworld as opposed to the outer, real world invigorates the memory of immersive storytelling mastery encapsulated in the Silent Hill 2 game.
Furthermore, Ethan Burke´s familiarization and, eventually, interaction, as other characters arrive in his wake to provide another vantage point on the milieu of Wayward Pines, resembles the conventions of the adventure game genre, as far as the embedded narration of clue-hunting among other aspects of video-game conventions transposed unto the series.
In addition, the fleshing out of the protagonist as an invincible avatar, even if disrupting the peaceful circles of the town, yet eluding the rightful reckoning as if to prevent the game from ending while keeping the player jacked in, might be familiar to gamers. However, the strategy has a second edge as the hinting of the predetermined fate of the ascension of the rebel-redeemer figure of the readjusted monomyth formula in the greater design of Wayward Pines. Needless to say, the convergence pays off and supports the cocoon of television show (r)evolution burgeoning into a new hybrid stage.
The constantly turning carousel of motifs, ideas, tones and perspective envelops, too, the switching of narrative modes from survivalist to political. The city inhabits a handful of intriguing figures with agendas, a fodder for power struggles worthy of blowing-up in the longer run along deeper character introspection, contributing to a conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy scheme.
Due to very limited time, the show is understandably plot-driven, not benefiting from the rich potential of character dynamics, which occasionally leads to overexplication in order to keep everyone on the same page, narratively speaking. creating implausible or underdeveloped motifs and absent or lame foreshadowing.
Besides eerie, oracular and thrilling genre-bender fare, Wayward Pines harbors more than rewarding entertainment value. Citizens manifest constant dissatisfaction undeterred by the fact they are offered a normal, unthreatening (neither physically nor economically) life on a golden plate. And that translates into a current of general unhappiness and depression prevailing in the daily lives of many people, a psychological phenomena scrutinized in yet another TV show, Showtime´s Happyish, spearheaded by a cynical protagonist (Steve Coogan) on the verge of an existential and personal crisis.
Even though Wayward Pines reveals legitimate reasons for the discontent eventually, the show offers several stimulating impetuses for reflection and analogy-drawing, beginning with a town-encircling "fence" as just one of many metaphors. The political plane is another dimension, as a crisis hits town and a crisis unit emerges to re-establish the status quo. The agendas and interests eventually mingle and clash, amplifying the jeopardy and spawning viewer-number generating tension.
HBO´s latest outing, the political satire The Brink led by Tim Robbins and Jack Black, hits the similar theme of diverting the imminent (geopolitical) catastrophe, though in Wayward Pines´ case, genre items from the dystopia, horror and sci-fi drawers are put to good use in the poignant manner and Wellesian tradition of social commentary. Merits of knowledge and freedom are weighed against security, fear and normality as the capsule of deception cracks under the pressure from those seeking the truth. However, the truth might not be always the best option, and is in this case is literally kept "out there".
The miniseries shines among other ingredients thanks to star-studded cast. Besides Matt Dillon and Melissa Leo, Carla Gugino, Terrence Howard, Toby Jones and Hope Davis make the town creepier, weirder and boiling.
FOX got its hands on the series in 2013, and it was shot that fall, to be ready for a special treatment, the "largest day and date launch for a scripted series," appearing on screens in more than 125 countries this year beginning on May 14. Due to the show´s success after the numbers skyrocketed, the suits at FOX´s headquarters are sure to suffer from the syndrome of tingling fingers to greenlight a second season despite the claims about the limited "event".
The first season left plenty of spots uninvestigated for further expansion of the Wayward Pines mythos, whose magnitude partially demonstrates the bazaar of possibilities compressed in over thirty Wayward Pines sidestories and tie-ins at Amazon´s fanfiction department, Kindle Worlds Novella. The next incarnation of the franchise is likely to materialize via a different cast and story, albeit anchored in the same universe, not too terribly different than the recent expansion of True Detective.
Wayward Pines runs on FOX, the full episodes are stacked at the series´ website as well as at following streaming outlets: YouTube, Xbox Video, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play or Hulu. Concluding note, Wayward Pines is perfectly-fitted for binge watching. The final episode arrives Thursday, July 23.
- Chad Hodge
- Siobhan Fallon Hogan
- Toby Jones
- Shannyn Sossamon
- Hope Davis