It took “Wayward Pines” a long time to reach the air. The show was originally announced in January 2013 as the first of Fox’s “event series” development, with an intended premiere in 2014. During its 2013 upfront presentation, Fox clarified that they were targeting a late-summer 2014 debut, intended to fill the gap between “24: Live Another Day” and the fall season. Then, at the 2014 upfronts, Fox pushed back the premiere to “midseason 2015” and it was finally slotted into a summer premiere this past March. Fox pushing it back as much as they did and dumping it in the summer does not show much confidence in the miniseries, even if it has a highly promotable cast and the first episode is directed by a well-known, if constantly maligned director in M. Night Shyamalan (“The Last Airbender”). Its talented cast and competent horror elements actually make for an entertaining first hour, even if it’s plagued by some questionable story decisions that may hurt the series in the long run.
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“Wayward Pines” follows what happens when U.S. Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon, “You, Me and Dupree”) wakes up in a hospital in the small Idaho town of Wayward Pines after being in a mysterious car accident while looking for two fellow agents. Ending up in the hospital with nothing but a suit, he is treated by the creepy nurse Pam (Melissa Leo, “Treme”) before leaving to eat at a bar where he sees the bartender Beverly (Juliette Lewis, “Secrets and Lies”), who appears to know some of the town’s secrets. Along the way, he also meets Sheriff Arnold Pope (Terrence Howard, “Empire”) and finds his colleague, Kate (Carla Gugino, “Spy Kids”).
On a technical note, “Pines” looks good, using its network budget and Shyamalan’s technical skill as a director to create scenes that have a sufficient level of eeriness. There’s a sequence about two-thirds of the way through the episode where Ethan and Beverly are trying to escape from Pam in the hospital, showcasing the show at its best. Leo’s voice, combined with the constant cuts between Dillon hiding, him looking at Pam in a shard of a mirror and Pam in the hall, made for a tense and well-made scene.
The larger ensemble of “Pines” has multiple Oscar nominations between them (and one win), and their talent shows in the first hour, bringing more to the characters than their one-note presence on the page. The most prominent example of this is Leo. As the nurse, she is a legitimately terrifying figure. Though the role is only written to be one thing — creepy — Leo delivers a mix of menace and a haunting sense of warmth to the role. She is one of the more prominent supporting characters in the first episode, and she uses every minute of her screen time.
Where the first episode falters is in its last act (sound familiar Shyamalan fans?). The final sequence features two mysterious figures meeting in the rain with black umbrellas discussing how “events have already been set in motion” and Dillon’s character being unable to leave Wayward Pines because of a huge electric fence that’s on the other side of the woods which surround the town. Up until that point, the mystery surrounding the town had been intriguing, but these scenes set up a grand conspiracy that might just be too much for the show to handle. If it were just about the creepy small town, that would be one thing, but conspiracy plots have a way of getting out of hand very quickly with one wrong twist, and “Pines” has shown nothing to suggest that it’ll be capable of fitting the large pieces of the story together.