*SOME SPOOKY SPOILERS AHEAD*
Tree changers of the world beware.
Any romanticised ideas you might have about leaving the big bad city behind for a simpler, idyllic life amongst the trees and towering snowcapped mountains will soon be put to rest by Fox’s new series Wayward Pines.
Based on the gripping trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch, the show centres on Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) who is sent to find two missing agents, one of whom is an ex-lover, Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino), on what looks like a routine mission to country Idaho.
It soon becomes anything but with a near-fatal car accident, which kills his partner, leaving Burke dazed and confused and without ID of any kind.
Wandering into the nearest town, the picture postcard-perfect Wayward Pines, his feelings of relief at having found some sort of help soon turning to a distinctly unsettling feeling that something is off, really off, and that far from being the sort of town tree changers might embrace with gusto, it’s the sort of Stepford Wives / Invasion of the Body Snatchers sinister locale that most sane people would drive a mile to avoid.
The thing is, thanks to an electrified fence that rings the town and roads that seems to go nowhere but back into the town on a continuous, disorienting loop, it is nigh but impossible to leave Wayward Pines.
Unless it’s in a coffin.
And there’s no way Ethan Burke is going to favour that option.
Wilfully obstinate where everyone else is Xanax-like compliant – save for Beverly (Juliette Lewis), a bartender who seems to be the only other person in town who’s willing to admit things are even remotely normal – Burke sets about trying to find out what happened to his fellow agents, why it’s so hard to escape Wayward Wines, why the town is there in the first place (is it a bizarre experiment? Purgatory? An alternate dimension?) and why everyone seems to be living out their most twisted Hallmark movie fantasies, on the surface at least.
And thus begins a mystery of epic proportions, rendered with just the right amount of suggestion and reveal – there’s a secret of some kind or another unveiled each episode suggesting the producers have learnt, and learnt well, from the lesson of Lost, which piled so much secrecy and conspiracy upon itself that it eventually collapsed under the weight of its own oblique narrative – and some downright, goosebump-inducing creepiness.
This is not the sort of TV show you turn on if you’re looking for a late night relax before going to bed; there’s something decidedly rotten in the pretty town of Wayward Pines and it’s not just the body Burke finds one day strapped to a bed in a tumbledown house.
Making things even more unnerving is the fact that there’s not likely to be a cavalry riding into town to save Burke or Beverly, or anyone else for that matter should they ever decide to leave (unlikely given the dead hand of pervasive fear that rules the town).
Burke’s boss back in Seattle, Adam Hassler (Tim Griffin) seems disinclined to so much as raise a finger to look for Burke in any meaningful way, leading the missing agent’s wife Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon) and 15 year old son Ben (Charlie Tahan) to set out on their town to find out what’s really happened.
There’s no way of telling at this stage – this review centres on episodes 1 & 2, “Where Paradise is Home” and “Don’t Discuss Your Life Before” – whether what is happening inside Wayward Pines is connected to a wider conspiracy outside of the town, one that Hassler is covering up, but what is certain is that there are a lot of people with a lot of things to hide.
And a lot of people who have no real way of hiding a thing, namely the citizens of Wayward Pines, which though it resembles a 1950s town with rotary telephones, old-fashioned diners and a distinct lack of any 21st century amenities, is bugged and CCTV’d to within an inch of it quaking-in-its-boots-in-fear life.
Thus far the balance between what we know, and what we don’t know, is pleasingly vague, giving you the sense that while you are in on some of the secret, there’s an awful lot of the ominous iceberg still bobbing below the surface waiting to be discovered.
Pleasingly for the 10 episode limited-run series – a rarity on broadcast TV which largely seems to cling to the 22-24 episode orders of old – things are moving along at a fair clip, with not a lot of narrative flab to be found.
Each of the characters is introduced with minimum fuss and maximum effectiveness, with each one most particularly Sheriff Arnold Pope (Terence Howard) and the creepiest nurse to ever walk a ward Pam (Melissa Leo) spring to life fully-formed and every bit as freaky as you’d expect characters in series like this to be.
There is some brutality and violence – anyone who tries to leave town is treated to a bloody execution in the town square with the good citizens of Wayward Pines cheering on enthusiastically (remember: there’s always someone watching you so act your assigned part) – but largely the show exists in a deliciously creepy narrative place where more is suggested and intimated than actually shown.
And providing they get the balance right there’s no reason why Wayward Pines can’t be one of the highlights of the TV year.
Of course M. Night Shyamalan has shown a penchant of late for taking gripping premises and rendering them dull and inert but he is not in his customary lone storytelling wolf role on this show, with executive-producing duties also falling to creator Chad Hodge, Donald De Line and Ashwin Rajan, ameliorating any chance of the Shyamalan Effect leaching the life of the show before it reaches its end.
Given the series is drawing on a trilogy of books with a copious number of twists and turns, there’s every reason to expect, ratings permitting, that Wayward Pines will return again for a second season where no doubt we’ll find out that things are even murkier below its gorgeous, “everything is awesome” exterior.