Developed by M Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) and writers/producers the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things), Wayward Pines feels like a version of Twin Peaks that actually has answers, or The X Files if the mystery somehow took over everything about the show. It’s great 'puzzle TV' - but what is it that makes puzzle TV so much fun to watch?
A great set-up
Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) wakes up in a forest with a gash on his head and a whole lot of questions. Stumbling into the peaceful small town of Wayward Pines, Idaho, poses more questions than it answers – a lot more. The locals are kind of creepy and when he decides to get out, it turns out to be much easier said than done.
It soon emerges that Burke was heading to Wayward Pines as part of his search for two missing federal agents – one of whom is his partner (and former lover) Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino). A truck hit his car on the way. He ends up in the Wayward Pines hospital, with the decidedly sinister nurse Pam Pilcher (Melissa Leo) by his bed.
The best puzzle shows like to hit the ground running (for example, Lost’s opening plane crash). Wayward Pines doesn’t mess around and Burke barely has time to find his feet before the locals are laying mysteries on him, while ice-cream eating Sheriff Pope (Terrance Howard) sets out a bunch of ground rules that start with “nobody leaves” and only get worse from there.
Looking for clues
Puzzle TV is interactive television. It’s something you’re actively engaged with rather than just passively consuming, keeping your eye out for clues and trying to put the pieces together while the story unfolds.
Some of the clues in Wayward Pines are fairly subtle. What’s the deal with everyone seemingly having a different idea of how much time has passed since they arrived? Others are blatant, but need more information to be useful. When friendly bartender Beverly (Juliette Lewis), AKA the only normal person around, hands Burke a note in the first episode that reads “There are no crickets in Wayward Pines”, well… she might have a point, but it’s going to take a while to figure out exactly what that point is.
When a show is a puzzle, suddenly characters are free to act a whole lot wackier – after all, we don’t (yet) know what’s motivating them, so why not go big? And that’s a lot of the fun with Wayward Pines, as pretty much everyone is having a good time dialling their performances up to 11 while still keeping the show’s off-kilter reality intact. Nurse Pam? She couldn’t be more sinister. Sheriff Pope is just the right mix of small-town folksy boredom and creepy menace.
As Burke, Dillon is our guide to all this, the sane character in an increasingly out-of-kilter world. It’s a tough job, but Dillon hits the perfect balance of confusion and determination. He’s not quite sure what’s going on (that bump on his head probably isn’t helping), but he’s just the man to find out.
Guessing right feels good
Figuring out correctly what’s really going on in a puzzle show is always a great feeling. But the solution has to make sense within the show; it has to play by its own rules, not just pull a twist ending out of nowhere that no-one could possibly have guessed. So let’s just say that Wayward Pines does play fair with its audience. If you pay close attention, everything going on does add up, and what it adds up to is… well, you’ll have to watch to find out.
They're about more than just a puzzle
One of the more strangely touching subplots in Wayward Pines is the relationship between Burke and former lover Hewson. When he arrives she’s only been missing for a few weeks, but to her it’s somehow been 12 years. She’s settled down and started a family.
On one level it’s just part of the increasingly surreal tone of Wayward Pines (both the town and the show). One of the town’s rock-solid rules is that you don’t discuss the past, which makes this kind of weirdness something the locals just have to live with. But she’s also moved on and left him behind. It’s a nicely human moment amongst all the strangeness.
Sometimes the answers are worth it
Unlike most puzzle television, Wayward Pines was based on a pre-existing series of novels. So while the puzzle aspect is a fun part of the series, the whole thing also had to work for people who already knew what was coming. Which makes this the rare example of a puzzle series that’s just as much fun to get swept up in if you know where it’s heading. The weird atmosphere, the quirky performances and the rock-solid lead in Matt Dillon are just as important to the show as figuring out what exactly is going on.
Though what’s really going on is… wow.
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Seasons 1 and 2 of Wayward Pines are available to stream at SBS On Demand.