Aside from deriving its title from its picturesque but secret-stuffed Pacific Northwest setting, “Wayward Pines” merits no other comparisons to “Twin Peaks.”
To be fair, Matt Dillon, like Kyle MacLachlan once did, looks great in a black suit.
Debuting Thursday on Fox, “Wayward Pines” is a suspenseful, dark mystery, but it’s not so much a who-done-it. It’s more of a what-the-hell?
Dillon is Ethan Burke, a type-A Secret Service agent who’s on his way to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents.
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But after a car accident that he can barely remember, Burke comes to in the creepy hamlet of Wayward Pines, where every resident is almost as weird and misdirected as the show they’re on.
The series’ jarring identity crisis takes hold before the first two episodes are over:
▪ It’s a comedy! Siobhan Fallon Hogan (“Men in Black”) is perfect as a suspicious police receptionist with a crush on her terrifying boss. “There’s a man here to see you; he says he’s some sort of secret agent.”
▪ It’s a spy thriller! Burke’s boss has whispered phone calls and cryptic meetings in the rain with a mysterious figure (Toby Jones), who later shows up at Burke’s hospital bedside to threaten him with brain surgery.
▪ It’s a family drama! Burke’s wife and awkward teenage son are struggling to forgive him for an affair when they get the news that he’s missing. He tries to leave them messages, but the phones in town are not so good.
▪ It’s a horror story! One of the first people we meet as the story unfolds is the aggressively chipper but ever-more-creepy nurse Pam (Oscar winner Melissa Leo). She’s the kind of caring nurturer who carries Popsicle-sized syringes of tranquilizers in case anyone wants to leave Wayward Pines Hospital.
After he manages to elude Pam, a bartender named Beverly (Juliette Lewis) takes a still-dazed Burke under her wing, giving him a cheeseburger and some validation that he’s not crazy.
Beverly is by far the sanest person Burke comes across, so he decides to trust her a little, and she becomes his confidante as he slowly realizes it won’t be easy getting out of Wayward Pines. He’s also not sure that he’s not bleeding from the brain and hallucinating.
“I’m not having a dissociative breakdown,” he insists, unconvincingly. Dillon puts on his confused face for most of the first half of the series, and you can’t blame him.
During the few first episodes “Pines” almost feels like good TV. Dillon and Lewis have a decent buddy rapport, and Terrence Howard, who had so much success on Fox recently with “Empire,” appears as Sheriff Pope, a malevolent lawman with an ice cream fixation.
The introduction to “Wayward Pines” aims for Kafka, but events quickly veer closer to “Children of the Corn.” Agent Cooper found evil in many forms while searching for the killer of Laura Palmer in the first season of “Twin Peaks,” but the danger in Wayward Pines doesn’t even have the decency to conceal itself. Instead, the threats and violence are merely confounding.
“I love it,” Burke declares after a few days in town. “The mountains, the pine trees, the look of fear in everyone’s eyes.”
“Wayward Pines” has moments where it’s a happy hot mess, but it’s mostly a muddy puddle of confusion, and it has executive producer M. Night Shyamalan’s fantastical fingerprints all over it.
The show just leaves itself too much time for Shyamalan “aha!” moments. You know, that point in “Signs” or “The Village” or whatever — sometimes, you make it all the way to the theater parking lot — where you realize, “Hey! that sure was dumb.”
For me, that moment in “Pines” came three episodes in when a blurry creature flickered past the camera to snatch a fresh human body. This town was already the municipal equivalent of Hotel California, they did not need super-fast mutant monsters hanging around just outside the city limits.
Little did I know, “Wayward Pines” had only begun to get silly.
Follow Sara Smith on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.
WHERE TO WATCH
“Wayward Pines” begins its 10-week run at 8 p.m. Thursday on Fox.