There probably hasn’t been anything substantially new in the area of sci-fi thrillers since Jekyll and Hyde, but that hasn’t stopped us from flocking to them in movie theaters or parking ourselves in front of the TV for the good ones, keeping the lights on and the doors locked.
“Wayward Pines,” the 10-part limited series premiering Thursday on Fox, begins somewhat unremarkably. In fact, the first episode is so unremarkable, and slow moving, you may be tempted to scratch it off your TV to-do list. But don’t leave town. In fact, you’ll soon find that even if you wanted to, you can’t leave Wayward Pines, Idaho.
In a kind of “been there, seen that,” we meet a Secret Service agent named Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) who, after an accident, winds up as apparently the only patient in a creepy hospital in Wayward Pines.
Yes, everything creepy has to happen in the Northwest: It’s probably a rule somewhere.
Burke has been dispatched to locate two missing colleagues. When he discovers the corpse of one of them attracting a populous dinner party of flies in an abandoned house, he wants answers. But he’s not getting any from the local sheriff, Arnold Pope (Terrence Howard), or the eerily predatory Nurse Pam (Melissa Leo) at the hospital. Worse, he can’t get his office or his family on the phone.
He should know something is amiss when the place has nothing but actual telephones that have rotary dials and ring. But maybe he didn’t learn that in Secret Service school.
He grabs a car, hightails it out of town, and winds up right back where he started from. Not metaphysically, but for real. Wayward Pines is some kind of weird Roach Motel of a town: People check in, but they never check out.
Despite the stale whiff of over-familiarity in the first episode, series creator Chad Hodge (“The Playboy Club”), working from the novel “Pines” by Blake Crouch, successfully builds suspense by carefully piling unknown atop unknown, and occasionally allowing little bits of humor to flicker in the overcast darkness of the town.
By the second or third episode, we’re likely to be hooked by something, if only because there are so many twists and turns to the story. For one thing, before hitting town, Ethan was having an affair with one of his missing colleagues, Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino). Back in Seattle, his wife, Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon), knows about it but thinks they’ve moved beyond it.
After a few days, when Ethan has failed to return home or contact her, and his boss, Adam (Tim Griffin), won’t do anything to find him, she piles her 15-year-old son, Ben (Charlie Tahan), into their car in Seattle and heads to Idaho to find her husband.
The main characters are not that interesting as people, but acceptably valid because of their situation of being stuck in a small town. Some of the secondary characters may not be drawn in too much detail but are more interesting, especially Leo’s Nurse Pam, Howard’s pure-evil town sheriff and a seemingly benign psychiatrist named Dr. Jenkins, played by Toby Jones. And at this point, we should know that there’s probably more going on beneath the surface of any character played by Toby Jones than initially meets the eye.
Dillon is a rather colorless actor in general, which makes him a good fit for the role of Ethan, an unfaithful husband, a workaholic who’s neglected his teenage son, but as we get to know more and more about the townsfolk of Wayward Pines, the more heroic Ethan seems to be.
Gugino is terrific, always keeping us guessing about how much Kate really knows about what makes Wayward Pines so wayward in the first place. Tahan is great as an awkward, typically sullen teenager.
The series is produced by M. Night Shyamalan and bears the trademarks of his feature films, which is a good thing if you think about “The Sixth Sense” and maybe not so good if you think about some of his later films.
No matter. The elements are here to make “Wayward Pines” worth a visit as other broadcast shows end their seasons and head off to hiatus for the summer. Just pray they don’t stop in Wayward Pines for gas. There may never be a new season for them if they do.
“Wayward Pines” airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on Fox.