‘Wayward Pines’ Review: Stellar Cast Steers Unpredictable Thrill Ride

M. Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge deliver in Fox’s taut, mysterious limited series starring Matt Dillon, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis and Terrence Howard

The name M. Night Shyamalan promises unexpected twists and turns, and though his legacy has become somewhat tarnished since the heady days of “The Sixth Sense,” he absolutely delivers with Fox’s upcoming “Wayward Pines” 10-episode limited series. Shyamalan is an executive producer and directs the pilot.

Adapted by Chad Hodge (“The Playboy Club”) from Blake Crouch’s popular book series, “Pines” has been rightfully compared to David Lynch’s ambitious “Twin Peaks,” but it also shares striking similarities with other shows including “The Prisoner,” “Lost” and the more obscure “Persons Unknown.” Things are never what they seem and no one is quite where they want to be, while viewers are left scratching their heads at almost everything they see.

Matt Dillon is the lead and our gateway to the weird community of Wayward Pines. He arrives via a car wreck that leaves him an unreliable narrator, as we’re told on multiple occasions that he has suffered hallucinations and may still be seeing things that aren’t there. This serves to keep viewers guessing even as Dillon’s Agent Ethan Burke tries to reconnect to his old life.

The pilot opens with Burke heading to Idaho to track down two missing agents. After a car crash, he awakens in the Wayward Pines hospital having suffered a severe head injury. From this point, his mission has expanded to figuring out what’s going on in this town and how to get out of it. Finding the agents only leads to more questions, as five weeks is somehow equal to 12 years. Even time doesn’t work the same in Wayward Pines.

Dillon is supported on his strange adventure by a stellar ensemble cast, with Melissa Leo having a particularly good time chewing up the scenery as the town’s nurse. She is determined, menacing and a little bit terrifying all at the same time (think Kathy Bates‘ Annie Wilkes from “Misery”). Terrence Howard, who has become one of Fox’s biggest stars thanks to his work on “Empire,” really turns it up a notch in a cartoonishly villainous way as the town’s ice-cream-obsessed sheriff, while “Secrets and Lies” star Juliette Lewis moonlights as a shaken bartender in whom Dillon is able to confide. Hers is the most vulnerable performance, but all three actors are absolutely riveting on screen.

Lewis becomes a needed ally for Dillon, offering compassion and at least a willingness to open up about her past and how she came to Wayward Pines. The community has a list of strict rules and one of them is to not talk about the past, which makes it hard for Dillon to get any answers. The rules also keep viewers in the dark as to what’s really going on.

Matt Dillon and Juliette Lewis on

Fox

It helps that these characters are so watchable as the mysteries keep piling up in the first few episodes. In less capable hands, the meandering and seemingly disconnected plots might come across so jumbled and confusing as to be off-putting, but there’s no worry with the cast assembled here.

Impressively, by the halfway mark of the series, almost every one of those weird plot points comes together and makes sense, setting up a completely different second half. It’s absolutely insane — in a good way — while staying consistently within its own well-defined parameters. And most importantly, it’s intriguing and compulsively watchable.

“Wayward Pines” is a taut production, moving along at a brisk pace. At just 10 episodes, it would make for perfect binge-watching, whereas in olden days viewers were on the edges of their seats in anticipation of a next episode. Should it gain enough buzz with its premiere, “Pines” could easily be the watercooler show of the summer.

Like “Lost,” it’s unclear exactly what’s happening at any given time, but there are so many tantalizing hints and clues that viewers will inevitably start trying to piece it all together. And unlike “Lost,” “Pines” is a show that knows where it’s going and doesn’t waste any time getting there.

It’s also a show that’s not afraid to raise the stakes and serve up the ultimate consequences for violating its rules. Because it’s a limited series with a definitive ending already in place, there are no guarantees for any of the characters introduced in the pilot. Already by episode five, some characters have fallen by the wayside while others have stepped into the spotlight. That mercuriality keeps the direction of the series unpredictable, just as the motivations of almost everyone are suspect.

But the biggest question associated with any project tied to Shyamalan is in the payoff. “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” delivered and made the director a superstar, but his subsequent efforts have been met with declining enthusiasm. The good news is that this is an adaptation of an existing work with its ending already in place. The better news is that the tone of that Shyamalan-directed pilot is more in line with those earlier projects.

It’s moody, strange and a bit surreal, while still pulling you into its world and making you believe in it. And while the bigger reveal at the midway point was telegraphed clearly enough that I had already figured it out, there were plenty of twists and turns along the way that I absolutely did not anticipate … and I have no idea where it goes from here.

As summer shows go, “Wayward Pines” has a lot of style and flair. It’s also got a little bit of camp — particularly in performances by Howard and Leo — but it’s not “Sharknado”-level corniness like CBS’s “Under the Dome.” This is just a somewhat augmented reality to serve the conceits of the story, and it works within its own context.

In other words, while it’s probably not going to change the face of television, it will absolutely entertain anyone who loves 1. A good thriller and mystery wrapped into one, and 2. Having the rug pulled out from under them entirely. More than once.

“Wayward Pines” premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.