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May 14, 2015

Shadows of Shyamalan can be found in Fox’s new Wayward Pines

The last we saw of M. Night Shyamalan, he was at the helm of Will Smith ego project-turned-box office disaster After Earth, the latest in a long series of critical and commercial flops produced by the once lauded director. Most of Shyamalan’s projects in recent years have carried the same question: “Is this the comeback? Is this where he’ll recapture the magic of The Sixth Sense? Is this where he finally fulfills the promise he showed all those years ago?”

These attempts have thus far all been failures, each more spectacular than the last. His name is so tainted that studios have largely ceased promoting him when marketing his creations. You’ll only find small allusions to his involvement in the new Fox series Wayward Pines, which premiered last night.

The show, based on a book series of the same name by Blake Crouch, follows Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) as he is sent to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents in rural Idaho. After a car accident kills his partner and knocks him unconscious, he wakes up in a hospital in a town called Wayward Pines. As one might expect, all is not as it seems in Wayward Pines. Contact with the outside world is impossible, surveillance devices are everywhere, and the entire town is surrounded by a giant electric fence preventing escape. On top of all that is the despotic sheriff (Terrence Howard, coming off his recent leading role in Fox’s Empire) who has a penchant for public executions. The leaders of this town have some nefarious plot in the works, which is without a doubt leading up to the trademark Shyamalan twist.

The extent to which Shyamalan is directly involved in this show is hard to discern.  The typical approach for famous film directors creating TV shows is to form the concept, direct one episode, and then let handpicked producers take over the show completely (Take J.J. Abrams and Lost as an example). True to this form, of the episodes available, Shyamalan only directed the pilot (Disclaimer: Fox provided the first five episodes on DVD for the purpose of this review) but his stylistic fingerprints are all over the following entries.

From the steady tilt up on the face of a confused character to the steady wide shot of a menacing one, all of Shyamalan’s cinematographic tricks are in play even when he’s not behind the camera. So too are the hokey dialogue and hokier acting that has characterized most of his films. However, both of these elements actually work in the show’s favor, since the premise essentially calls for the residents of the town to act strangely and awkwardly under the stress of being constantly watched. The alien-like performances work infinitely better here than in something like The Happening, which was allegedly centered on a group of normal people in the face of the apocalypse.

It’s currently unclear whether Wayward Pines is intended to be a one-off mini-series or the beginning of a long-running show. The early ratings will go a long way in determining its future, but it’s hard to envision a show that seems built around an inevitable twist being able to hold up longer than one full season. It’s easy to hazard a few solid guesses about this town’s “secret,” but the mystery is genuinely intriguing without overwhelming the actual experience of watching the show. Like Fox’s Empire, Wayward Pines moves at a very fast clip, leaving little time to consider the ridiculous events being put on screen. All in all, it makes for a highly enjoyable show, even if the future is murky. This may not be a return to Sixth Sense form for Shyamalan, but it seems to be a step in the right direction.

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