There is a town in Idaho you can only get to by car accident. After you wake up in the hospital, you’re patched up from your injuries and given the location of a hotel you can stay at while you recuperate. A few days later, a realtor comes by and gives you a house. Then you get a letter that congratulates on the new job opportunity that’s just opened up. Your neighbors, perfectly polite people whose smiles don’t reach their eyes, provide a warm and inviting community for you to fall into. All that’s asked in return for this idyllic life is that you follow a few simple rules. Don’t try to leave. Don’t talk about your life before. And always answer the phone. Welcome to Wayward Pines.
I’m a fiend for a good small-town mystery, especially if it’s tinged with the supernatural. A seemingly perfect town surrounded by ominous, atmospheric woods, populated with a cast of characters who each harbor a secret? Sign me up! After Twin Peaks crashed into our collective consciousness some 25 years ago, there’ve been a number of series that have cribbed that template. Some have been successful (American Gothic!) and others…not so much (Persons Unknown!).
Lately, though, it feels like the supernatural mystery show has been more miss than hit. There were at least a dozen shows that failed in the wake of LOST, and this latest offering from Fox (which seems to be trying to translate the success of the event miniseries to network TV) just looked like another high-concept series doomed to failure. M. Night Shyamalan featured heavily in the promotional material, and any marketer that doesn’t know not to use that guy as your big gun clearly doesn’t know what they’re doing.
But the pilot of Wayward Pines hooked me. Secret Service agent Ethan Burke woke up in the middle of the woods with no idea how he got there, and wandered into the sleepy town of Wayward Pines. Not only was he trying to piece together the puzzle of why he was where he was, he was also trying to find two of his own that have gone missing. The townsfolk are strangely vague about his direct questions, to the point that a sinister edge begins to leak from just beneath the surface. As Ethan becomes more frustrated, he begins to act out — and the power structure of the town escalates as well.
What follows is a series that is one of the best examples of pacing episodic television that I’ve ever seen. Wayward Pines is using the compressed nature of its run as a feature; knowing that there’s only so much space to work with allows them to move the story along briskly, while still being careful enough that the world feels grounded and the atmosphere is allowed to settle around its audience. Through the first five episodes, the tightrope walk has been managed just about perfectly.
Another thing that Pines has working in its favor is the fact that the story had been completed; the show is based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch, who is helping adapt them for television. There’s no holding pattern waiting for the ending, and there’s no waffling about the true motives of the characters; the writers know exactly how everything plays out, and they can use that knowledge to inform how the story is told.
So what you get is a show where Ethan is believable in his dogged pursuit of the truth; where he comes across as competent and resourceful even as he becomes increasingly desperate; and where his actions uncover hidden answers that actually look like progress. The antagonists within the town are certainly shadowy and menacing, but not omnipotent; they’re consistently surprised by what Ethan is willing to do to achieve his goals.
Each episode focuses on a more-or-less immediate goal that Ethan hatches, and moves through the planning, execution and success or failure of that plan. The stakes are clear, the consequences (both intentional and unintended) are revealed naturally, and the new avenues that are opened up feel well-connected to what’s come before. The series actually feels coherent, and the twists shock without feeling like they break the premise once you stop to think about them.
The most impressive trick of the show is its timing. It knows when to slow down enough to make the atmosphere oppressive, and when to ratchet up the action. There isn’t a scene that feels indulgent or wasted; they’re all imbued with a momentum that makes you want to know what happens next. And the revelations come at just the right time for maximum impact. It’s firing on all cylinders.
Wayward Pines is only halfway through its run, but barring a structural collapse in the story on the back half I feel confident in saying that a worthy successor to Twin Peaks has come along at last. If you’re like me and have been burned too many times by mystery thrillers that collapse under the weight of their own stories, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find in Wayward Pines. Shyamalan, Crouch and showrunner Chad Hodge are confident in the story and their ability to tell it, and it shows on the screen. I’m glad I gave the show a chance; hopefully, you will too.
Wayward Pines airs Thursday nights on FOX; the show is on hiatus this week, making it a perfect time for you to shotgun the first five episodes before it returns June 25th. Full episodes can be found on FOX.com.