Let’s be honest, M Night Shyamalan’s career hasn’t panned out as many people, himself included, anticipated. In the 16 years since The Sixth Sense saw him hailed as the maestro of the twist ending, the director has gone from being declared Steven Spielberg’s heir to being derided as a clapped out hack following a series of cinematic flops that lacked imagination and, in many cases, comprehensibility.
It’s understandable, then, that M Night should seek career rejuvenation by making the sideways step into the healing waters of television with Wayward Pines, Fox’s intriguing yet frustratingly ordinary ‘event series’ that’s set to premiere on May 14th. Whether or not that move is the right one, however, is another matter entirely.
Adapted from a series of novels by Blake Crouch, the series follows Matt Dillon’s Ethan Burke, a staggering cliché of a special agent who is wracked with guilt about an old case that went wrong. Waking up in the titular town after being involved in a car accident while on the hunt for a pair of missing colleagues, Burke arrives disorientated and unsettled in his new environment, and with good reason too.
You see, while Wayward Pines seems outwardly idyllic – all verdant lawns and picket fence homes – there’s an unmistakable air of something darker hiding beneath the charming artifice. Not only are all the town’s denizens worryingly creepy – with the exception of Juliette Lewis’s earnest bartender – but the town’s hospital is also surprisingly deserted, the phones don’t seem to ring out and all roads lead right back into town.
Oh yeah, and there’s a dead body decaying in the house at the end of the street, but no one seems to be too worried about that right now.
It must be said that M Night’s direction is superb throughout, ramping the sense of suburban unease that hangs over the series by juxtaposing wholesome images of the American Dream with moments that unveil the fetid darkness that lurks in the shadows, such as the scene where a cheerful street party is disrupted by the discovery of a dead body. The director also impresses with his subtle use camera work, framing characters in tight, slightly off-centre angles to further increase the feeling that there’s something not quite right about these people.
Much has been made about the series’s obvious Twin Peaks influence – understandably, considering a revival of David Lynch’s seminal series was recently curtailed by disputes over money – but aside from the similar set up – a secret agent trapped in an oddball town – and the dreamy 50s-tinged visuals, the two shows couldn’t be more different. In fact, Wayward Pines really owes a debt of gratitude to The Prisoner, a British series following a secret agent held captive on a mysterious coastal village, with the plot heading in a similar direction as Burke uncovers recording equipment hidden in the shrubbery and encounters an undercover guard when attempting to escape.
Yet there’s no doubt this is an M Night project, with the story often suffering the same inconsistencies as his previous work. The pilot episode is incredibly plot-heavy, zipping through a series of dramatic developments whilst only thinly sketching the principal characters. It’s as though M Night fears losing the audience’s attention if the plot goes more than ten minutes without a shocking revelation, when in actuality the opposite is true. A show like this should thrive on ambiguity, teasing its mysteries to almost unbearable levels before knocking us all for six with a juicy reveal.
The overall effect of this relentless plotting is to make the story frustratingly ordinary, especially as it becomes yawningly apparent that Burke’s predicament is the result of a high-level conspiracy rather than something more supernatural, massively diminishing the intriguing oddness of his environment. It doesn’t help that events keep cutting away to Burke’s doting wife’s attempts to locate him, a tension-sapping move that fails in its attempt to maintain the pace by playing up the rote mystery thriller angle.
All of which is to say Wayward Pines might not be the absorbing hit needed to catapult M Night back into the Hollywood stratosphere. It is, however, an enjoyably pacy and intriguing thriller that deserves praise for at least trying to offer something different to every other mediocre crime series out there – even if it does inevitably fall short of that lofty ambition.
Click here to watch the trailer for Wayward Pines