14th Apr2015

‘Wayward Pines 1×01: Where Paradise Is Home’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

Stars: Matt Dillon, Carla Gugino, Toby Jones, Shannyn Sossamon, Reed Diamond, Tim Griffin, Charlie Tahan, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Hope Davis, Siobhan Fallon, Sarah Jeffery | Created by Chad Hodge

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“People are objects that aren’t really there.”

It’s a line that’s used to describe a breakdown, a lapse in reality, experienced by the show’s leading man, but it might as well be a description of the ensemble of FOX’s Wayward Pines.  The show’s characters are either painted in broad strokes or rendered insubstantial by pat dialogue and flat, lifeless staging, costuming and set design.  Terrence Howard and Melissa Leo get in a strong rasher of ham as, respectively, a rum raisin-slurping sheriff and a deranged nurse, and Carla Gugino’s Kate shows promises of depth beyond “protagonist’s love interest,” but the rest are forgettable.

Protagonist Ethan Burke, played with square-jawed, gravel-voiced grit by Drugstore Cowboy’s Matt Dillon, has seen some shit. At the episode’s outset he’s growling his way through agency-mandated psychotherapy to deal with his failure to stop a lethal, vaguely-described bombing. There are a few scenes where the weight of Burke’s guilt is apparent, but mostly he’s just cranky and fixated on getting out of town.  Town, by the way, is where he wakes up after a highway crash that leaves his partner dead.  When he comes to he’s in Wayward Pines, a dull, faux-Stepford berg with a singularly unpleasant hospital staff.  He escapes and proceeds to brush through most of his interactions in pursuit of the carrot of freedom from the town, a carrot we know he can’t have, and the episode fixates on his quest instead of on the setting it’s trying to develop.

There’s some gorgeous sun-drenched Idaho (British Columbia, in actuality) forest to look at, but Shyamalan’s direction is inert, the camera either standing dead center or drifting slowly to the left like a horse with one short leg.  The town itself is unremarkable and ill-defined, a series of brightly-lit suburban streets with nothing especially soulless or soulful about them.  Wayward Pines pretty much set itself on a collision course for comparisons with Twin Peaks and Lost, shows that defined themselves by their settings and opened up a kind of filmmaking where questions are king and the mystery is the story. The name, the G-man protagonist, the mysterious town hiding dark secrets under a cheery exterior; the show owes David Lynch more than a little, but unfortunately its borrowing extends only to form and falls short of substance.  Burke even receives a note reading “there are no crickets in Wayward Pines,” a mirror to the classic Lynchian “the owls are not what they seem,” but the mystery is instantly resolved, the atmosphere given no chance to percolate.

Wayward Pines indulges in narrative twists and shocking reveals, but it has no confidence in them or interest in backing them up.  When Burke discovers at the episode’s close that the town is encircled by a gigantic electrified fence, there’s a suitably grand pullback revealing the scale of the whole creepy operation, but any wonder or tension it might have inspired is punctured immediately by a flat conversation between Burke and the sheriff which does nothing but reaffirm that there’s no getting out of Wayward Pines.  That Burke takes the entire episode to figure out something that’s obvious to the viewer by the fifteen minute mark is a sign that the show doesn’t believe in its own ability to convey information, stepping past dramatic irony and into repetitive tedium.

There’s another twist near the episode’s end, the audience’s discovery that none of Burke’s messages have made it to his wife’s phone, which engages in similar point-hammering. It’s apparent by about six minutes into the pilot that phone calls can’t be made out of Wayward Pines.  For the show to feel the need to reaffirm this so inelegantly and so late in its runtime is worrisome, especially with a much more interesting scene featuring a call between Burke and an eerie impostor Secret Service secretary which accomplishes the same thing.

Distracting, too, are the scenes spotlighting Burke’s family back home, who appear to have no plot of their own, and his Secret Service handler.  The handler’s treachery is telegraphed merely by his presence, and the show’s giving him screentime is a major misstep.  In a pilot that should serve to establish setting and get viewers drawn in by mystery, there’s precious little of either to be found.  Despite an opening shot that directly mirrors Lost’s, a close-up of the flickering eye of a crash survivor (albeit car rather than airplane), the show just doesn’t understand the power of the unknown.  It’s anxious to tell us its secrets, fearing otherwise we’ll wind up drifting away in boredom.

Here’s hoping the glimmers of fun, from Carla Gugino’s nuanced acting on the porch of her home to Burke’s cleverly-telegraphed hospital bushwhack, amount to something more than the pilot’s meager offerings.

Wayward Pines starts on May 14th, only on Fox.

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