Fox's sci-fi miniseries Wayward Pines, which wraps its 10-episode run Thursday, July 23, is everything that is wrong with television. Its storytelling and characters are buried by big, shocking moments that are designed to thrill in the instant but completely fall apart if you think about them for a moment longer. Its internal logic makes literally no sense. And it features one of the best bad performances by a teenager in a medium known for bad performances by teenagers.
But my god, do I love to watch it.
If I were to explain why, I would probably say that it's exactly my brand of ridiculousness. Yes, I spend most of the time I'm watching it mocking the thing, but it's a good-hearted kind of mockery, the kind where you secretly are afraid to admit how much you're enjoying yourself.
And judging by the ratings, which have been strong for a new summer show and even stronger once DVR viewership is factored in, lots of you agree with me. I don't see a lot of people talking about this show like it's the next great TV series or even something on the level of, say, The Walking Dead (similarly trashy, but at least trying interesting things). No, we all seem to have agreed, collectively, that, dammit, it's summer, and we're going to have some fun.
Here are the top five reasons Wayward Pines can be so awful — and yet so very entertaining.
1) It's a self-contained miniseries
In general, I think the "big, shocking moments" storytelling style has the potential to ruin television as we know it because storytelling requires careful management of build and payoff, and this method is all payoff. I've already excoriated this style when it comes to American Horror Story and True Detective and even Game of Thrones.
So why do I think it works on Wayward Pines?
Honestly, I think it's because everybody involved thought they were making a one-and-done miniseries, which means that Chad Hodge (the writer who adapted it from a trilogy of books) goes out of his way to dole out at least one huge moment per episode — then makes sure that moment has actual consequences, instead of being swept under the rug.
That tendency to backtrack has been the foremost thing hurting AHS and True Detective (which have both featured seeming character deaths that are immediately reversed an episode later), but Wayward Pines kills off two of its biggest stars in the first three episodes, then keeps rolling out plot twists that keep you off-kilter. (For instance, it reveals the vast majority of answers to its mysteries halfway in, whereas many shows would wait for the finale.)
Look, this is still a style of storytelling designed to emphasize shock above all other emotions, and shock is the easiest emotion to wear out. But if you're going to make this kind of show, then you have to commit. And if Wayward Pines does nothing else, then it definitely, definitely commits.
2) Its setting is completely bonkers
If you still plan to watch Wayward Pines and want to avoid spoilers, skip to the next point, because I'm spoiling this sucker.
The world of Wayward Pines is one in which a scientist correctly realized that humankind was doomed — due to some combination of environmental collapse and genetic abnormalities — and thus decided to put a whole bunch of people in suspended animation for 2,000 years, then have everybody wake up in a post-human future. Naturally, once he got there, he discovered humanity had somehow evolved in mere millennia into a species of bloodthirsty monsters, but who can ever tell with these things?
Now, because people will apparently kill themselves if they learn the truth about their world (or so the show unconvincingly argues), he's created an elaborate homage to Twin Peaks in the middle of Idaho, where people are forced to live under extremely harsh surveillance state rules and children are being reeducated to understand the folly of their parents, who cling to the old world.
If that sounds like a parallel for Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union or the NSA's PRISM program or basically any political regime or program people vehemently disagree with, you are correct. Not satisfied with being a coherent parallel of one thing, Wayward Pines just decides to be a parallel for all of these things, with occasional monster attacks. It kind of works!
But one thing's guaranteed — there's no other setting like this on TV, or anywhere else, really. And that gives the show a bit of novelty that makes it fun to watch.
3) Well, it's better than the books!
Figuring I would never possibly want to watch the TV show but also figuring I couldn't wait to learn what the big twist was, I read author Blake Crouch's Wayward Pines trilogy, which formed the basis of the miniseries. (Indeed, as we head into the finale, all but the climax of the third book has been adapted, more or less.)
What I found was an intriguing enough idea for a universe (see above) surrounded by some clumsy writing. Crouch is adequate at plotting, but his prose leaves much to be desired. For instance, he's never met a firearm he can't take a brief break to lovingly describe, and he spends inordinate amounts of time in the first book on social niceties that go on and on forever.
Hodge has taken some of the best core ideas of the books and turned them into something much leaner and meaner. His restructuring of Crouch's trilogy — particularly once the big secret is revealed — is probably the best possible version of this tale. Those who've watched the show will probably doubt me, but seriously, this could have been so much worse.
4) The cast (save one) is phenomenal
I have no idea how Fox attracted a cast of this caliber for this particular project, but everybody involved seems to be having a looney tunes good time with things. Arguably, the weak link of the adult cast is Matt Dillon as the main character — and even he seems to be getting into the wild-eyed spirit of the thing.
I have to single out in particular, however, Melissa Leo and Hope Davis as two of the series' darkest villains. Academy Award winner Leo has given her character — the sister of the scientist — a surprising hint of pathos that will surely pay off in the finale. And Davis (one of our greatest character actresses) has been asked to perform some of the miniseries' toughest tasks (like a lengthy monologue that's all exposition about how the world of the show came to be) and has dug into them with the ferocity she brings to every role. The second you stop to think about what either character is doing, the spell dissipates, but both actresses are bringing everything they have and creating some brilliant camp.
Sadly, Charlie Tahan, who plays the teenage son of the protagonist, is giving an incredibly bland, boring TV teenager performance. Tahan, who's very good in the movie Love Is Strange, is capable of better. But he's carrying a lot of the dramatic stakes of Wayward Pines, and he lets them down far too often.
5) Did I mention this is a one-and-done miniseries?
Seriously, the story will be over tonight, no matter what else happens.
There's been talk of doing a second "season" of Wayward, but because the cast has all scattered to other projects, another season would have to tell some other story within this universe.
That's a terrible idea. But because it would involve a new set of characters, most likely, it would accidentally preserve the sheer, awful integrity of this gloriously bad season of television. Wayward Pines is that rarest of TV comets — bad TV that has just enough of a twinkle in its eye to let you know it's aware of how bad it is. Sit back, it suggests. Relax. Giggle at the bloodbath.
Wayward Pines airs Thursdays on Fox at 9 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.