Television, in a way, is the perfect medium for M. Night Shyamalan, the Bucks County director who made his name with The Sixth Sense and who has seen his star decline ever since.
For his TV debut, Shyamalan chose Wayward Pines, a genre-inflected mystery based on the trilogy by Blake Crouch. Matt Dillon stars as Secret Service agent Ethan Burke. He is stranded in the mysterious town of Wayward Pines, Idaho, while in search of his missing partner and former lover, Kate (Carla Gugino). Meanwhile, his wife, Theresa (early-aughts heartthrob Shannyn Sossamon) and teen son Ben (Charlie Tahan) have no idea what has happened to him.
The show is a 10-episode event series - a newfangled way of saying miniseries - that will premiere at 9 p.m. Thursday on Fox.
"I've been hesitating about doing things other than movies for a while," Shyamalan said by phone. "I was tentative, and I got to the altar a few times and then felt reasons to stop."
Wayward Pines' plot momentum comes from its near-constant twists. Wayward Pines is a town where nothing is as it seems. The same could be said for the Seattle inhabited by Theresa and Ben, who still live in what could best be described as the "real world," where, unlike in Wayward Pines, time is linear and no one uses rotary phones.
Is Ethan crazy? Or is there something up with this idyllic town, where the creepy sheriff (Lafayette Hill's own Empire star Terrence Howard) has an ice cream fetish and the head nurse at the hospital (Melissa Leo) is more Kill Bill's Elle Driver, an assassin cloaked in a nurse's uniform, than she is Florence Nightingale?
(The aforementioned are wonderfully campy, adding a needed jolt of dark humor to the dour proceedings.)
Shyamalan's film career faltered because of his reliance on the last-minute twist, a major selling point early in his filmography that later became a running joke. But with fragmented audiences, lower ratings, and time-shifting, TV shows have come to rely on such twists as a means of getting people to watch in real time. Scandal ads call them OMG moments, almost threatening viewers not to watch: If Nielsen can't count you, then the dreaded spoilers will get you!
Shyamalan puts it another way, in the form of a plea from the studios: " 'Please make it "sticky," so as people are changing channels you have to stop on that channel.' "
But Crouch's books have plenty of such twists, and they are, after all, part of the medium Shyamalan is working in here, so he has carte blanche to twist and turn as much as he pleases. And the big guns don't have to be saved for the end. Wayward Pines' big moment of shock comes in around episode five, in which the central mystery gets an explanation - although smart money says to be skeptical even of that.
As in his movies, though, these twists can become a bane rather than a boon. Shock is less shocking when it's expected. It becomes banal, the norm rather than the exception. But Wayward Pines isn't a total slog. It's fun, light fare, despite its dark demeanor, the equivalent of a star-studded summer blockbuster.
The cast is a large part of Wayward Pines' appeal, full of familiar faces doing a terminal TV show without the obligation of further seasons. It's why Shyamalan himself decided to jump into the small-screen fray, and why he got the cast he did.
In addition to the "dark, irreverent" material, Shyamalan said, it was that short commitment that attracted the likes of Dillon who, while not the star he used to be, is new to television.
The familiar cast is also the source of Wayward Pines' most delicious twists, in which, quite contrary to expectations, well-known faces are dispatched. The more famous that actors are, the less we expect them to be offed. That's not how it works in Wayward Pines .
Shyamalan made another point about why he's turning to TV now: It's a more pliable medium than it used to be. What once required 24 installments can now be done in eight or 12.
That allowed Shyamalan to act truer to form. "We did not need to have any vamping episodes, the telltale trait that they're running out of material, that they're repeating," Shyamalan said.
That means these twists, these reveals can come faster and more furious than ever before. As hesitant as Shyamalan was to do TV, maybe he has found a medium better suited to his sensibilities.
Three shows 'Wayward Pines' would not exist without
M. Night Shyamalan has never been shy about hiding his influences, from Hitchcock to Spielberg. Wayward Pines owes a debt of gratitude to three shows that came before it.
David Lynch and Mark Frost's mystery series that ran in 1990-91 on ABC is the obvious touchstone for Wayward Pines, from the rural, small-town setting to its fish-out-of-water federal agent protagonist. Wayward Pines lacks the sly sense of humor and the pure surrealism of the influential Twin Peaks, but its DNA is certainly there.
Co-created by star Patrick McGoohan, Brit spy show The Prisoner, which ran in 1967 and '68, features a similarly incredulous hero confused by his new confines. Like The Prisoner, Wayward Pines has its own sci-fi turns, although The Prisoner is much more concerned with the allegorical, whereas Wayward Pines relies on the thrills.
The opening scene of Wayward Pines will give Lost fanatics major flashbacks. But it's the structure of the storytelling that really bridges the two shows. When one question is potentially answered, 10 more pop up in its place.
M. Night Shyamalan returns to smaller storytelling in 'The Visit'
M. Night Shyamalan hasn't left behind the big screen for the small one. His next venture is The Visit, a horror film quietly shot in the Philadelphia area early last year, hitting up such locations as Chestnut Hill, Royersford, and Chester Springs. The trailer features clear shots of 30th Street Station.
The Visit, formerly called Sundowning, is about a single mom (Kathryn Hahn) who sends her two kids (Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge) off to see their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), but strange and dangerous things start to happen come nightfall.
The film is a return to smaller storytelling for Shyamalan, who made the film outside the studio system before selling it to Universal. Previous big-budget efforts, including the Will Smith-starring After Earth, did not fare well with critics or at the box office. The Visit may signal a change for the local filmmaker.
- Molly Eichel
Premieres 9 p.m. Thursday on Fox.