I haven’t entirely given given up on this ten-part TV series from writer Chad Hodge and director M Night Shyamalan, but the signs are not good. Wayward Pines seems very much the same sort of portentous, pretentious and utterly humourless high-concept labyrinthine conspiracy mystery that has trooped across our screens with varying degrees of success every since Lost blazed the trail.
This latest series features a secret service agent (Matt Dillon) who is tasked with tracking down two missing colleagues in Idaho. After a traffic accident in which he sustains a head trauma (shades of Life on Mars) he wakes up in the small eponymous town whose inhabitants are behaving very strangely indeed. He soon finds the corpse of one of his missing colleagues, while the other appears to have aged 12 years and long since settled down to married life. But the superficially ordinary and mundane town is quickly revealed to be an entirely artificial construct, a hi-tech stage set not unlike The Truman Show but to a much more deadly purpose as soon becomes increasingly apparent.
The problem with these sort of shows is that the central mystery is rarely enough to sustain itself over a long run without getting overly convoluted to the point where it trips over its own feet and falls flat on its face. The one upside to Wayward Pines is that it’s based on an existing series of novels by Blake Crouch so at least there’s a hope that this story might possibly actually know where it’s going – providing the requirements of episodic TV don’t override the source material.
The trouble is that the show is trying so hard to drip lots of paranoid and nightmarish obfuscation over everything that it quickly becomes rather annoying. Episode are slow-paced to the point of being dull, then in the last five minutes of each episode there’s some big dramatic revelation that jerks the story forward almost too fast for its own good.
The biggest problem of all however is the characters, the sum total of none of which are remotely likeable or even recognisably normal. Dillon’s Ethan Burke is rude and obnoxious, throwing a snarky tantrum at everyone and everything if they don’t drop everything to attend to whatever he wants the minute he walks in; the townspeople meanwhile are either barking mad or quietly sinister, and occasionally both. No one seems to like anyone else, and I don’t like any of them either.
The end result is something between Stephen King and David Lynch – Twin Peaks has been much-referenced in reviews – but actually it’s The Prisoner that seems most firmly evoked, with the suspicion that this is some sort of ‘retirement home’ for government agents who can’t be allowed to roam free after they leave the service and therefore must be kept safely tucked up in The Village for the rest of their days. However what King, Lynch, Patrick McGoohan and even JJ Abrams with Lost all understand was the need to leven the fare with humour, wit and a surrealist version of the everyday – but Wayward Pines is distinctly one-note, grimly earnest and fixated with its central conceit to the exclusion of all else.
The hook with shows of this kind is caring (and believing) enough to want to know the solution behind the mystery. I’m not sure I’m there yet, even though I’m promised by people who know the books that something big is coming that will change everything. I hope it comes soon, and I hope it proves worthwhile, but I already have that sinking feeling that I should have bailed on this before the nicely stylised credit sequenced rolled at the start of the first episode.
Wayward Pines continues at 9pm on Thursday evenings on Fox.