Friday, July 24, 2015

Fox's "Wayward Pines" - series review

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Fox's mini-series "Wayward Pines" just concluded its 10-episode run. Having read and enjoyed the trilogy ("Pines," "Wayward," and "The Last Town") that it was based on, I was pretty excited to hear that it had been greenlit for production back in 2013, presumably to air in 2014. For some reason, however, Fox kept the completed production on the shelf for an entire year.

The story is one of those "guy ends up in a strange little town that's cut off from the rest of the world and everyone is keeping a secret from him" ideas. Matt Dillon stars as Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke, sent to find two missing colleagues, one of whom (Kate Ballenger, played by the always excellent Carla Gugino) is his adulterous lover. Based in Seattle, Burke heads to Boise to follow Ballenger's trail. All of a sudden his car gets hit by a truck and he wakes up in a hospital in Wayward Pines, a small town in Idaho.... The head nurse is quite creepy, the sheriff is even worse, and when Burke gets free he finds that he can't reach his wife, or his boss, or anyone he knows. When he calls the main Secret Service office in Seattle, an operator picks up, but he quickly figures out that she's an imposter of some sort. Meanwhile, back in Seattle, his wife is trying to reach him, but strangely, she doesn't get any of the messages that he's been leaving for her.

Even stranger is that the sympathetic bartender claims to have arrived in the town a year ago, which to her was 1999, whereas for Burke, a year ago was 2013(!).

To say any more is to give away the plot machinations of the show. Now, having read the book, I knew what the big conceit was, but for most of the series, the producers and writers changed enough details that it remained interesting for me, and indeed, I was able to watch with an eye toward seeing if they were playing fair with the audience (which the books did). It's very analogous to the movie The Sixth Sense, where if you know the secret and you go back to re-watch it, you'll see that it indeed fits together. No doubt that similarity is what led Sixth Sense director M. Night Shayamalan to take on an executive producer role for "Wayward Pines."

Mini-series or limited event series are sort of the new approach that the networks have been taking in the summer. I think this is in response to "Lost"-syndrome, where the ratings success of a serialized drama led the network to demand more and more seasons, outstripping the creative capacity of the production team. As a result, stories get stretched in unrealistic and contrived ways, to the detriment of everyone. (This is one reason Fox's "24" revival, "Live Another Day," was so good - by taking up only 12 episodes instead of 24, the writers didn't have to fill in time with ridiculous subplots like the infamous Kim Bauer/mountain lion encounter.)

The great fear for TV viewers like me is that a network will advertise a serialized drama as a limited series, but as soon as it gets strong ratings in the opening episodes, the network will reshape what should be the series finale into a season finale. The prime offender for this syndrome is, of course, CBS's "Under the Dome." We were promised that it would end after a season, and instead it ended in a cliffhanger. It's now on season 3, and the story makes less sense than ever.

With that in mind, I'll say that "Wayward Pines" does end. There's some possibility of a revival, as there was in the books, but it concludes the story.

It was really good for 9.5 episodes. The last 30 minutes, though, were pretty lame. I'm still processing how that makes me feel in retrospect about the series. It's not just that the ending differed from the books, although in comparison, the book ending was much better. It's that the TV series ending felt cheap and almost laughable.

I guess I would still recommend the series strongly to any one who didn't catch it during the first run. It was certainly compelling and would've been binge-worthy if I hadn't watched each episode on the night it aired.

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