Pilot Review: M. Night Shyamalan Gets WAYWARD PINES Off To A Strong Start

What if WAYWARD PINES is this good for 10 episodes?

I've not read Blake Crouch's Wayward Pines, but everything I've heard about the novel (actually, a series of novels) sounds great: a Secret Service agent wakes up in a seemingly idyllic town, can't remember how he got there, can't figure out how to leave, and is forced to interact with a cast of colorful weirdos in order to escape. Along the way, shadowy and mysterious goings-on occur, many of which point to a cover-up of some sort.

Well. Speaking as a gentleman with a longstanding interest in "outsider trapped in a sinister location with no means of escape" conspiracy tales, my reaction to all of this was a resounding hell yeah. But before I could get around to reading Crouch's novels, a funny thing happened: FOX announced they were turning the first novel into a 10-part event series, and - hey, guess what? - M. Night Shymalan would be writing and directing it.

Well. Now speaking as a confirmed M. Night Shyamalan apologist (well, mostly), this development was even more exciting. My boy M. Night's been on an undeniable downward trajectory over the past decade, and I've long wondered if he wouldn't benefit from a detour into television. Exciting things are happening in the world of televised/serialized drama these days, and (with the right budget and the right amount of wiggle room, creatively speaking), I couldn't help but feel like Shyamalan might be a good fit in that world: free from the pressure of delivering a massive opening weekend, free to deliver something with the same measured, meticulous pace that he's known for. And, who knows, maybe even free to be humbled a bit by the experience. Couldn't hurt, right?

Wayward Pines does not premiere on FOX until May 14th, but today the series pilot was put online, presumably so that it might generate articles like this one. The decision to "World Preview" the pilot two weeks early speaks volumes about FOX's confidence in the series, and y'know what? They're right to be confident. Wayward Pines is a lot of fun. It is, in fact, precisely what I was hoping for: a twisty, Twilight Zone-esque spin on the formula immortalized by The Prisoner, with a strong aftertaste containing notes of both LOST and Twin Peaks. It's got a great cast (look at this lineup: Melissa Leo, Matt Dillon, Toby Jones, Juliette Lewis, Terrence Howard, Shannyn Sossamon, Carla Gugino), looks appropriately high-end, and - in the pilot, anyway - is intriguing all the way through.

Now, all of that said, it's way too early to say whether or not Wayward Pines is going to remain on the rails over its next nine episodes. For all I know, it'll turn out that Matt Dillon's character is trapped in a snow globe that's part of a dream he's having inside a coma or somesuch bullshit (to be fair, I have heard that Crouch's novel gets really bananas as it goes along). It's entirely possible that Wayward Pines will crash and burn, leaving us feeling unfulfilled and swindled by the time the season finale airs. Hey, it's happened (many, many times) before.

But at the very least, Shyamalan's got the ingredients necessary to produce something awesome here, and the series starts strong: Secret Service agent Ethan Burke gets into a car crash while en route to a top secret assignment. When he comes to, he's in a forest on the outskirts of Wayward Pines, Idaho. Dazed and beat-up, he wanders into town looking for a phone...and that's when the trouble starts. Ethan's I-just-got-in-a-head-on-collision-and-have-no-idea-which-way-is-up condition lands him in the hospital, where phones are in short supply and Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo) radiates an odd combination of completely unhelpful and obnoxiously chipper.

Unsettled, Ethan breaks out of the hospital, only to discover that the entire town seems off. The town bartender, Beverly (Juliette Lewis), slips him a cryptic note ("There are no crickets in Wayward Pines") and sends him to a house where a very unpleasant surprise awaits. The local Sheriff (Terrence Howard) seems too wrapped up in his ice cream cone to answer any of Ethan's many pressing questions. The desk clerk at the Wayward Pines motel is strangely aggressive. And when Ethan finally does get to a phone, his calls to his wife (Shannyn Sossamon) go unanswered (attempting to contact his superiors at the Secret Service results in an even more troubling outcome).

Naturally, the bulk of the pilot is devoted to introducing Wayward Pines' cast of characters, its various locations, and a few compelling details about Ethan's backstory. All pretty standard, as far as these kinda stories go. One notable exception? We spend time with Ethan's co-workers, his wife, and his son, back in the "real world". They're all wondering where he is, and some of them appear to have secrets of their own. This seems to imply that none of this is a dream, that whatever's happening is really happening, and that's a nice touch: without that, we'd probably suspect that "it's all in Ethan's mind"...although, to be fair, the series does dangle that as a possibility. Apparently, Ethan's prone to hallucinations; at one point, he asks a character, "Am I relapsing again?" Huh.

I'm going to trust that Wayward Pines will not arrive at such a cop-out ending*. Surely not. I'm also going to trust that, because this series is based on previously existing source material and has an end date in mind, that it also has a firm gameplan in place. Which means I'm also trusting Shyamalan here, because, let's be frank, it's been some time since he deserved that sort of trust. Fans of the book have told me that Crouch sticks the landing, though, and that gives me hope. No one wants to see Shyamalan make a comeback more than me (well, with the obvious exception of Shyamalan himself), and I'd be thrilled if he managed one via a series as clearly in my wheelhouse as Wayward Pines is. I'm in, M. Night. For all of our sakes, I hope you pull it off.

Note: There's a lot more I'd like to talk about here, but I'll refrain from further analysis until more of you have had a chance to watch the pilot, which I'm embedding below. Check it out, lemme know what you think in the comments (again, *), and if there's interest, we'll revisit this one week-to-week when it begins airing on May 14th.

* = If you've read Crouch's Wayward Pines, awesome! Feel free to compare and contrast, but keep the details limited, please. Some of us are new to this material, and would like to keep it that way for the duration of the show.

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