Notes of a Wayward Critic

It would be hard to find a director who squandered his early reputation for excellence more quickly and more thoroughly than M. Night Shyamalan.  Sunk partly by his own ambition and partly by his adherence to a structure that allowed critics to easily stereotype him as ‘the twist endings guy’, his work started strong but quickly degenerated into films so ridiculous (The Happening), incoherent (The Last Airbender), or overstuffed (After Earth) that, regardless of their success or failure at the box office, they became instant punchlines, cause for ridicule or eye-rolling.  Regardless of his early promise or good intentions, he became someone whose work was something to dread rather than to look forward to.

Like a lot of Hollywood types gone to seed, he’s looking for a second chance on television, as the executive producer and sometime director of the new FOX “event” series, Wayward Pines.  Its success or failure shouldn’t be pinned entirely on him, as it was developed for television by Chad Hodge (whose previous work included Runaway, a vehicle powered by the unstoppable star-energy of Donnie Wahlberg, and Playboy Club, a doomed relic of the brief Mad Men cash-in era of ’60s period dramas) and based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch, whose Amazon synopses you can read if you’d like the show’s ending spoiled for you before it airs.  But for better or worse, Shyamalan attaching his name to the project means it’s going to be him who gets the credit or the blame when this one presents the bill.  And judging from the first three episodes (it airs every Thursday night for a run of ten shows), it’s going to be another case of good money after bad for ol’ M. Night.

Wayward Pines tracks the comings and goings of Ethan Burke, a Secret Service agent played by Matt Dillon with crag-faced intensity.  Investigating the disappearance of two colleagues — including Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino), his former lover — Burke travels with a partner to the tiny Idaho town of Wayward Pines, only to get involved in a horrible car wreck in which his partner is killed and he is gravely injured.  Once he wakes up in the hospital, it becomes clear — some would say painfully, distractingly, overbearingly clear — that all is not as it seems in this idyllic little country town, and if you paid me a dollar for every show, book, or movie that’s featured that particular phrase since Blue Velvet premiered, I could take a permanent vacation to Fiji instead of writing reviews of crummy TV.

The weirdness seems largely centered around Sheriff Arnold Pope, played by Terrence Howard with gleeful, creepy sleaze turned up to eleven.  Howard’s character doesn’t make a lot of sense — he keeps acting like things are completely normal in Wayward Pines even after it’s blindingly obvious that it’s some kind of brainwashed concentration camp — but he at least plays it to the giddy hilt, which is much of the show’s saving grace.  (Howard’s goofball performance, intentional or otherwise, is also one of the only reasons to watch his other hit show of 2015, Empire, but that’s a subject for another article; suffice to say that he’s the undisputed king of over-the-top network nonsense this year.)  He knows everything, goes everywhere, and is always aware of what Burke is doing, which makes him less of a character than a deus ex machina the show can pull out every time it wants to crank the woo-factor up to ten; but, to its very small credit, Wayward Pines does save one of its biggest shocks for Sheriff Pope.

Wayward Pines‘ antecedents, like most of the rest of the show, are annoyingly obvious:  a bit of David Lynch, a smattering of Lost, and a heaping helping of Twin Peaks, which Crouch cites as his biggest influence in case people watching the show are rendered deaf and blind.  And if there’s one thing to recommend it, it’s that Shyamalan gives it the first-class treatment when it comes to visuals; it’s a beautiful show to look at, all sharp colors, moody lighting, and portentious close-ups.  Unfortunately, while we’re looking at all the beautiful scenery, people are talking and things are happening, and they’re all pretty dumb.  Dillon is given some unspecified trauma in his past to excuse the fact that he’s a grim, blundering blowhard; his wife and son are defined by behavior best described as “being the main character’s wife and son”; and most of the other characters in the town (with the exception of the delightfully loony Toby Jones as a demented psychiatrist and Melissa Leo doing her best Nurse Ratched imitation) are there for no real reason than to provide spooky-ooky atmosphere.

Unlike Twin Peaks, it provides no respite from the grimness with humor or playfulness, and doesn’t understand that the creepy secrets are best doled out slowly rather than heaped on with gusto; after the fifth or six ridiculous bit of craziness halfway through the first episode, Wayward Pines starts to cause eye-rolls instead of gasps at the strange goings-on in the town.  But much like Lost, it’s at its worst when it simply has everyone fail to dole out essential information to the main character because he’s a stand-in for the audience; it’s apparent to us within five minutes that something in Wayward is not quite right, but thick-headed Ethan can’t get it because everyone badly pretends that everything is normal until they just can’t pretend no more.  If someone would just explain what’s happening, there wouldn’t be all this bullshit padding about who’s the real bad guy, which gets really tired really quick.

It’s not entirely clear where the show is going, and it has managed to do some pretty shocking things only three episodes in, but even if you know nothing about the books, the latest episode ends with a big reveal that makes it pretty clear that we’re headed in a direction best describe as intensely M. Night Shyamalantic.  And with seven episodes left, that’s a pretty bad sign, because his pattern has been easy to read for a while now — which might not be so bad if it was worth reading, but seven more hours of this lovely but exasperating hokum needs way more of a pay-off than we’re ever likely to get.


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