The Twisty Satisfaction of Wayward Pines
Fox’s new small-town miniseries comes from M. Night Shyamalan and emulates the weirdness of Twin Peaks, but there’s method in its mystery.
As with many small-town mysteries, it’s best to get something out of the way quickly with Fox’s new series Wayward Pines: This is no Twin Peaks. Countless shows have consciously or unconsciously paid homage to Mark Frost and David Lynch’s surreal melodrama since its 1990 debut, and Wayward Pines falls firmly in the “consciously” column. The show follows a federal agent (played by Matt Dillon) as he investigates the disappearance of two of his colleagues in a small northwest town (this time, it’s in Idaho, not Washington). The show’s titular town looks like a sleepy slice of Americana, but looks can be deceiving.
The Twin Peaks influence is most obvious in the setting, but the plot of Wayward Pines represents another resurgent trend in television: the “miniseries event” that promises to actually solve a mystery within one season rather than string audiences along for spectacularly diminished returns. Twin Peaks became a cautionary tale for serialized storytelling: Once audiences know who the killer is, what compels them to stick around? Most TV shows with a supernatural element to them have relied on a procedural element to sustain the punishing 22 episode-per-season model of programming, The X-Files or Lost, but even these shows faltered when they finally got around to solving their original mysteries.
Adapted from the novel Pines by Blake Crouch, Wayward Pines is written by Chad Hodge and executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan. When Agent Ethan Burke arrives in Wayward Pines looking for his lost partners, it’s immediately apparent that something strange is going on: There’s a friendly bartender (Juliette Lewis) whose existence no one else acknowledges. Burke quickly finds one of his former partners (Carla Gugino), but she’s happily married with a new name. There’s a local sheriff (Terrence Howard) giving him a hard time and a psychiatrist (Toby Jones) insisting there’s something wrong with his brain.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given Shyamalan’s involvement, there’s a truly epic twist awaiting viewers in Wayward Pines. But unlike in Twin Peaks, which made its big reveal in the middle of its second season before stumbling to an awkward and seemingly unplanned end, Wayward Pines already has a solid ending in mind. In theory, this is a brilliant storytelling model for Fox: Draw the mystery out just long enough to reel viewers in, then satisfy them with a bombshell that leads to a proper conclusion, all in a miniseries that boasts an impressive cast because the actors don’t have to be locked into six-season deals.
But Wayward Pines is airing in the doldrums of summer and will almost certainly debut to low ratings as a result. Its cast is filled with familiar faces, but not too many current stars—in fact, Howard feels like the biggest name because his work on Empire has catapulted him back into stardom. In many ways, Wayward Pines feels like a cut-rate True Detective, mimicking the style of the prestige cable miniseries but not its quality. The production is slick, and Shyamalan’s visual flourishes in the pilot help, but the writing is facile and the plotting non-existent: Most scenes feature Dillon’s character bursting into someone’s office demanding answers, and getting nothing but pleasant smiles and vague, velvety threats in return.
The question remains whether viewers will want to wait several episodes for the shocking twist and deal with Dillon’s grumbling trips around town in the meantime—like so many Twin Peaks knock-offs, Wayward Pines makes the mistake of assuming a mystery is what’s needed to propel the drama. Twin Peaks’ genius was that it played like a skewed, nighttime soap opera, down to the synth score and a story that was heavy on love triangles. Twin Peaks was a high-school caper, a domestic drama, and a cop story all in one, while Wayward Pines has barely enough going on to function just as a cop story.
Still, there’s an undeniable appeal to the mystery-box approach, no matter how many times it has been abused in the past—the appeal of Lost or Alias lay in the chase, not the reward. Some miniseries have discovered this during their supposedly limited runs, the most recent example being CBS’s Under the Dome, which was supposed to be a straightforward adaptation of Stephen King’s book, but was enough of a ratings hit to get picked up for a second (and now third) season. As a result, Under the Dome’s many elements of intrigue (purple alien eggs and butterflies and time travel) have been dragged out past the point of plausibility, but while the show’s quality has plummeted, its ratings have not.
Perhaps Wayward Pines could enjoy the same success and the same long life, but it was planned as a miniseries, and Fox will almost certainly keep it that way unless it becomes a surprise phenomenon. As it is, there’s something oddly fun in following Dillon as he traipses around town in search of answers—and there’s something to be said for the fact that he finds them, eventually, and that those answers are truly bonkers. Wayward Pines isn’t the second coming of Twin Peaks, nor is it some piece of great art, but perhaps it can serve as the prototype for something better—a network miniseries that matters.