Welcome to Wayward Pines, Idaho, a small town with a big secret. After a terrible car accident, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) wakes in the town hospital completely cut off from the outside world. Everyone is aggressively pleasant and suspiciously welcoming, especially kindly Dr. Jenkins (Toby Jones). He butts heads with a hot-tempered ice cream enthusiast (Terrence Howard) and the moustache-twirling Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo) before running into the woman he was sent to rescue—his ex partner and part-time lover Kate (Carla Gugino). He’s shocked to find her a decade older and happily married to a toymaker named Harold (Reed Diamond) despite having only been missing a short while.
Soon Ethan learns the immutable rules of Wayward Pines: “do not try to leave; do not discuss the past; do not discuss your life before; always answer the phone if it rings; work hard, be happy, and enjoy your life.” With the unexpected arrival of his wife Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon) and son Ben (Charlie Tahan) and the sudden deaths of allies and a nemeses alike, Ethan’s moral compass is thrown out of whack. Monsters abound within and without the town, and it is up to the Burkes to uncover the truth before the lies destroy the town from the inside out.
Don’t be put off by the M. Night Shyamalan connection. He directed the pilot and is the executive producer of five episodes, but it’s not a Shyamalan joint (although that ending…). Wayward Pines was developed by Chad Hodge (Tru Calling, The Playboy Club) and is based on a novel trilogy by Blake Crouch. This isn’t just a weird, stupid summer TV miniseries, it’s also a Serious Show with Serious People doing Serious Things. How the town of Wayward Pines and the freakish Aberrations come to be is rooted in a science so flimsy and ill-conceived that it might as well be fantasy. To the show’s credit everyone sticks with it as if it were an inalienable truth. A little humor and self-awareness wouldn’t hurt, though.
For the first few episodes, the sci-fi/mystery/horror show Wayward Pines seems headed in one predictable yet entertaining direction, then, with the big reveal of why the town exists and what’s beyond it, the show goes spectacularly off the rails. It’s infuriating and fascinating all at once. The initial premise is moderately interesting if not overplayed—this summer alone we have two shows on the air about middle-class white Americans trapped in a small town: Wayward Pines and Under The Dome—but when the story makes a sharp turn from undercooked horror to overdone science fiction, the premise goes from “meh” to “what the hell is wrong with you people?” in no time flat. If the show had been any longer than ten episodes, I might’ve given up right then and there, but by that point I figured why not finish it off. I wanted to know just how bad it would get—and it gets awfully dire at points—but they sell the hell out of every ridiculous second.
I don’t mind inane plots, thinly drawn characters, and dreadful costuming, but if the world isn’t strong enough to sustain the plot then the show will never work. A prison pretending to be a town has so much potential for social commentary, or it would if any of the citizens of Wayward Pines actually participated in society. No one is bored without the internet, movies, music, books, or gossip. There are no hobbies, sports, clubs, or community organizations. No one creates anything or, more importantly, seems bothered by living in a world without art, culture, science, or innovation. I want to know how these people—both the townsfolk and their overlords—are dealing with the sudden loss of their entire lives beyond a quickie flashback of a character having a mental breakdown. Without it the characters remain two-dimensional. These people are of the world, not part of it, and it’s to the detriment of the show.
Furthermore, why aren’t the characters themselves more varied? Wayward Pines is awash with cis-het white breeders, with a few racial tokens mixed in and/or killed off for faux-diversity. Given that the citizens were chosen specifically by the Powers That Be, there needs to be a conversation about how the town ended up so homogenous. Are any of the citizens not straight but forced to pretend to be? What about couples who aren’t in love but must keep trying to get pregnant or who are unable to have children? The adults being selectively cultivated is one thing, but you can’t tell me there isn’t a single non-compliant kid born in the community. What would happen if one of them was born autistic, deaf, disabled, mentally ill, with a chronic illness, or not straight? Would they be reckoned like misbehaving adults?
Miring the Big Bad in white, ableist, cissexist, straight privilege affords the opportunity for the Burkes to call them on it, an act that pushes character development for all parties. Does They Who Shall Not Be Named think poorly of the non-compliant because they don’t fit into their warped notion of order and perfection? If so, fine, but that has to be pointed out (or at least lampshaded), otherwise it becomes a glaring plothole.
But knowing what I know about how television is made, it’s clear the lack of diversity wasn’t a plot point but lazy casting and thoughtless scripting. Take Shannyn Sossamon’s character, for example. Theresa is the most passive, pointless woman I’ve seen on TV in ages. All her airtime is spent being told to do things while having absolutely no opinion on those actions whatsoever. She is the sexy lamp of Wayward Pines. AND THERE’S NO REASON FOR IT! She’s supposed to be an ex Secret Service agent. She should be able to figure out things on her own and decide what to do about them without moping around in an empty kitchen waiting for someone to bark orders at her. For Hera’s sake, she lets her badly injured teenage son use a gun to defend her rather than do it herself. Ugh, Theresa, no.
There isn’t much room for worldbuilding when you only have ten episodes, but you still have to establish characters and motivations. The reasons for creating and populating the town only make sense when you don’t think about it too much, and that all goes out the window once the show tries to ground the inanity in the kind of pseudo-science that would have Mulder and Cooper rolling their eyes. And by that point it’s so tangled up in twisting the plot toward the final scene that it fails to adhere to any internal logic. Wayward Pines doesn’t need to be realistic, but it barely manages plausibility.
Wayward Pines would’ve been a lot better if it stopped trying to appeal to everyone and their grandmother and instead doubled down with its niche-y Lost vibe. Hannibal and Community were killed by their lack of ratings but are idolized by their fervent fanbase and awestruck critics because they believed in the story they were telling and took the time to build an interesting world with intriguing characters. If Wayward Pines committed to its world and characters as much as it did its wonky plot it could really have something.
I relished the off-the-wall episodes of the beginning, resented the ludicrous exposition and plodding developments of the middle, and ended up being generally satisfied. I didn’t like Wayward Pines as much as I wanted to, but it won me over in the end. A handful of secondary characters more than made up for the flatness of the Burkes (looking at you, Terrence Howard, Hope Davis, Carla Gugino, Reed Diamond, and Juliette Lewis). Melissa Leo was aces, obvs, Hope Davis chewed scenery like she was up for an Oscar, and Toby Jones breathed fresh life into a challenging part. Unfortunately, none of them could overcome the half-baked script. There were plenty of small moments in every episode that sparked with possibility (which usually fizzled out by the credits). The subplot with the First Generation of children was by far the biggest surprise of the season, followed closely by the exploration of the David Pilcher disciples-turned-Judases. Take the Burkes out of the story and promote Kate and Harold and you’d have a damn fine miniseries.
Strictly at face value, Wayward Pines is a fun, creepy, summer time-killer full of homages, plot twists, and shockers. It’s not as nutty as it should be, but it’s largely engrossing. If nothing else, the episodes tend to fly by, dragging to a crawl only when hit with a regularly scheduled infodump. Frankly, the first half of the season and the finale are worth the price of admission. Should you watch it? Depends on your tolerance for WTF-ery. It largely worked for me, but then again I like Teen Wolf and The Walking Dead, so my tolerance for failed expectations is pretty high. Marathoning helps minimize the flaws and turns a bumpy ride into a rollercoaster. And if nothing else, I kinda want to read the books now. Or maybe I’ll just wait for season two.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.