It seems M. Night Shyamalan is back with more twists, at least if his new ventures in filmmaking and television are any indication. Though he’s gotten a lot of flack in the past for a couple of flops – The Village wasn’t too well-received, but worse than that was Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has been hailed as one of the worst films ever. The Visit is coming out soon, a return to Shyamalan’s thriller roots, and he’s also got an executive producer credit on the new FOX series Wayward Pines, a creepy slow-burn starring Matt Dillon about a town with a lot of secrets. He also gets to direct the first episode, “Where Paradise is Home,” to set things off for the series, prompting a lot of mysteries and quite a few memorably odd characters.
Dillon plays secret agent Ethan Burke, recently in a car accident with his partner that leaves him stranded in Wayward Pines with quite a few facial scratches and a vague memory of what happened. The town feels off, the residents unconcerned with their neighbors; the hospital staff and the sheriff Pope (Terence Howard) are less interested in helping Burke than keeping him from trying to leave, and unable to contact anybody on the outside, Burke is left to his own devices to get out of Wayward Pines alive.
“Where Paradise is Home” certainly feels like a Shyamalan-directed episode; there’s a quick introduction to Burke, who has been struggling with anxiety and depression because of guilt from an Easter bombing, and then Wayward Pines jumps right into its plot. The episode does its best to spread a lot of seeds in this mystery, the town becoming the main attraction quite quickly – as Burke manages to escape from a hospital that’s more like an asylum, he comes across a variety of odd individuals, each of them with quirks that make them stand out.
The thing about Wayward Pines is that it’s actually a lot of fun, even if the audience feels left out of much of the plot. We’re effectively stranded like Burke, except for brief vignettes where the viewer is allowed to jump away from Wayward Pines to people looking for Burke in real life. The show makes it clear that Burke is in some sort of space that lies outside of normal reality, that isn’t in the same universe as his family and friends. He’s unable to get any of his phone calls out of Wayward Pines, lending the town an ethereal quality that works well as an isolated setting.
At the same time, Wayward Pines reveals little things about the secret service that Burke works for; the mystery of Wayward Pines extends to the government in some way, depicted with little whispering scenes with a few of Burke’s co-workers. “Where Paradise is Home” is a little too forthcoming about its secrets, perhaps revealing some answers in order to keep viewers watching – it doesn’t want to go the Lost route by stringing the audience along with multiple mysteries with no answers – but losing some of the appeal in the process. Wayward Pines is better when it’s simply allowing the viewer to explore the town along with Dillon, who puts in a great performance as the bewildered man stranded in the middle of nowhere.
It’s important that we like Burke, because he’s really the only tether the audience has to the real world. He’s aided by another mysterious figure, Beverly (Juliette Lewis), another person stuck in Wayward Pines; she is another person that doesn’t share the odd personalities of the rest of the town, but right now it’s not certain whether we (or Burke) can trust her.
But therein lies Wayward Pines‘ biggest draw: this first episode really does manage to capture an ambiance that makes the viewer feel like they’re in the same situation that Burke is, and that position makes the show an entertaining dream scenario. Combined with a few good performances, like Howard as the ice cream cone-sucking sheriff, Wayward Pines feels like a promising new series that’s well-written and focused on its plotting, and as a ten-episode event, there’s definitely a conclusion at the end of this thing. “Where Paradise is Home” is probably one of the best pilots a show like Wayward Pines can ask for – a Stepford Wives-esque atmosphere with an eerie town that pulls the viewer in right along with the characters stranded there.