By Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times
When he first tried to lure director M. Night Shyamalan to the TV series “Wayward Pines,” screenwriter Chad Hodge decided to bring the house.
As a limited series, he noted to Shyamalan, each episode would allow for a degree of cinematic honing. There was plenty of source material — one novel written and more on the way. And the show’s mysteries would allow for the kind of narrative adventurousness for which Shyamalan is known.
Hodge received a cheeky response.
“He said, ‘As long as everyone in it isn’t already dead, I’m in,’” Hodge recalled, alluding to Shyamalan’s trademark reveal at the end of “The Sixth Sense.”
There will still be plenty to puzzle over, Thursday nights on Fox. Starring Matt Dillon (like Shyamalan, his TV debut) as a Secret Service agent far from home, “Wayward Pines” thrusts viewers into an Idaho hamlet where the cheer is forced and the behavior suspicious.
With its small-town oddities, “Wayward Pines” even calls to mind, at least for a little while, the cultish “Twin Peaks.”
That reference point shouldn’t be surprising. The TV scheduling window of late spring-early summer increasingly comprises network big swings, shows with the resources of the fall and creative ambitions of premium cable. Last year, Fox brought “24: Live Another Day” to the period, with respectable results.
“Wayward Pines” ups the gamble: Like “24,” “Pines” is a limited series, but it’s a new title with shifts in genre, dark undertones, flashy production values and a flashier cast. It’s a show that looks to traffic in misdirection without being buried by it.
“The word to me is verisimilitude — not the truth but the appearance of truth,” Dillon said. “That’s what the town of Wayward Pines has. And that can be a powerful thing.”
In the first episode, Dillon’s Ethan Burke is a Secret Service agent sent to find a missing colleague when he gets into a car accident near Wayward Pines. Ethan wanders into town, only to find himself hospitalized against his will. When he breaks free, he has questions galore (we do too).
Dillon’s character receives no help from the locals, a murky menagerie that includes a creepy nurse (Melissa Leo), a relentless teacher (Hope Davis), a mysterious bartender (Juliette Lewis) and a sneering, ice cream-loving sheriff (Terrence Howard) — all on Lynchian display as a law enforcement officer tries to figure out what exactly is going on.
If that evokes a certain landmark series, it should: Blake Crouch, who wrote the source novels, was such a fan of Agent Dale Cooper & Co. that he penned a season of “Twin Peaks” episodes on spec. (He was 14.) It also won’t be lost on fans that this series is premiering while a “Twin Peaks” reboot that was planned for Showtime is in jeopardy.
But the show moves from the Laura Palmer-esque as the episodes pile up. Instead, it’s a series like “Lost,” “The Stepford Wives” and “The Twilight Zone” that reverberate. And then comes the real surprise — the mystery of the town is revealed only halfway through the season, in a dramatic genre shift likely to be gleefully received by some and resisted by others.
“Wayward Pines” then becomes not about characters trying to figure out a world they don’t know but trying survive in the one they do. Imagine a “Sixth Sense” sequel in which Bruce Willis’ character seeks to cope with the fact that he’s already dead.
“You never want to put that paradigm shift (a twist) at the very end because you want to live in the new world,” said Shyamalan, who directed the first episode and set the tone and recruited directors for the remaining nine. “And this allows me to live in that new world for the whole second half of a season.”
He said that’s why the production went on a six-week hiatus early on, with Shyamalan inviting writers to his house to brainstorm the new creative direction. The filmmaker also sought to give episodes distinct style, as feature directors such as Nimrod Antal and Zal Batmanglij were brought in to leave their stamp on episodes.
The decision by Shyamalan to follow many of his filmmaking brethren to television was, he says, motivated by a desire for more spontaneity in his work. TV productions move quickly and feature no playback, which he said energized him.
Still, it’s easy to wonder whether Shyamalan is motivated by another factor — redemption, what with the onetime darling’s stock falling after a string of critical and (sometimes) commercial feature disappointments. And even though the director waved the notion aside — “I don’t think of things that way” — the show will, nonetheless, be scrutinized as a measure of his current stock.
It will also be a litmus test for a series’ ability to make a genre switch midstream. Fox has been planning how to make a midseason marketing push to an entire new audience. It’s an unusual marketing challenge — how do you attract viewers who will be interested in your show only after a few episodes and without being able to tell them until the fifth episode?
Executives say that they’re hopeful the plot turns will do a lot of the work.
“This feels like a show that is tailored for the current age,” said Joe Earley, chief operating officer of the Fox Television Group. “There are twists in every episode and then some big OMG moments, which I think is an ingredient for almost any hit series these days.”
“Pines” was a passion project for Kevin Reilly, the former entertainment chairman who left the network a year ago. That can bode ill for a new series, though the network has a recent track record of making Reilly’s shows work, as it did with “Empire,” another series of complicated plot twists in a stylized world.
“Pines” also is an intensely serial show that won’t lend itself to time-shifting, because once the cat’s out of the bag, some of the fun is too.
Those involved are trying not to sweat it.
“This goes back to classic Night,” said Donald De Line, one of the show’s executive producers and another film veteran. “It’s a simple world, but there’s something festering below the surface, and I think that’s what makes it so exciting.”
Hodge, whose previous TV credits include the short-lived series “Runaway” and “The Playboy Club,” added, “There’s a lot of mystery, but there’s also a beginning, middle and end, which makes it satisfying. It’s a new way of storytelling that I really hope works.”