First episode impressions: ‘Wayward Pines’ (TV review)

“Wayward Pines” (8 p.m. Central Thursdays on Fox) starts off with the same eyeball-to-overhead-shot opening pan-out as “Lost” – with Matt Dillon in place of Matthew Fox — and the rest of the pilot episode could be an exercise in finding similarities to other shows.

“The Returned” comes to mind. Both shows are filmed in British Columbia, set in the Pacific Northwest and feature people who exist in some sort of purgatory. On “The Returned,” dead people come back to the valley town of Caldwell, Wash., for unknown reasons, they interact awkwardly with the community and they can’t die. And Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Dillon) has awkward interactions with the locals of valley town Wayward Pines, Idaho, although he’s probably not dead.

Woozy from a car accident, Ethan meets a kind but uncooperative nurse (Melissa Leo) and flat-out-cold sheriff (Terrence Howard). Ethan leaves phone messages with his work and family but gets no response. We see from his wife Theresa’s (Shannyn Sossamon) perspective in Seattle that she’s not getting the messages, nor are hers getting to him, as he has lost his phone. Finally, he steals a car and splits town, but gets caught in some sort of vortex where he keeps ending up back in town. He thinks he’ll have better luck on foot through the woods, but he encounters a giant concrete wall topped by an electrified fence. When Ethan asks how to get out of town, the sheriff flat out tells him “You don’t.”

Ethan meets two people who seem to sympathize with his predicament. Beverly (Juliette Lewis) wants to escape Wayward Pines, and Kate (Carla Gugino) – Ethan’s missing former partner whose absence had him scouring the area in the first place – tells Ethan that “they” are watching and listening to them via hidden cameras – cue a sinister “Truman Show” parallel — and he’s putting her in danger just by talking to her. But maybe, Kate says, he’ll learn to like it here, like she (allegedly) has.

Like “The Returned,” “Wayward Pines” – based on a book series by Blake Crouch and executive-produced by M. Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge — piles on the questions. Before we can even begin to make guesses about the answers, we have to figure out what the heck is going on in the first place. It’s not as simple as a magical town that forces people to live there against their will, because – for example – Beverly thinks it’s the year 2000 even though it’s 2014 (the series, filmed last year, sat on the shelf for a while) and Kate has aged 12 years since Ethan saw her three weeks ago.

I give “Wayward Pines” an edge over “The Returned,” though. A&E’s “The Returned,” which just completed a 10-episode first season filled with more questions than answers, is using “The Killing” method of not telling viewers how long the series will last. ABC had a similar problem a few years back with “Lost,” which tread water at times before finally settling on an end date, giving both the writers and viewers a sense of direction.

Fox has been clear in telling us that “Wayward Pines” is a 10-episode miniseries, same as last fall’s “Gracepoint.” And for all the IMDB users expressing frustration with “The Returned,” readers of Crouch’s books are telling their fellow viewers to keep watching “Wayward Pines” because surprising answers will be coming. At any rate, I like the clarity of the 10-episodes-and-done structure: If it turns out to be a less-than-amazing show, we’ll at least get a conclusion without investing too much time.

My view might change next week after getting more information, but so far “Wayward Pines” could be a parable for a forced, planned community. In a Seattle scene, one of Ethan’s colleagues tells Wayward Pines’ doctor (Toby Jones) that he’d like to back out of their agreement. The doc – the only Wayward Pines resident we see outside the wall — says it’s too late, but not to worry, because Ethan will be fine. Perhaps the U.S. government is experimenting with small mandatory communities to see how smoothly things go before embarking on a wider push for that style of governance.

A character in the Internet tie-in series, “Gone” – of which one short episode has aired so far — also seems to be headed to Wayward Pines against her will. In a video message to her husband, Sarah verbally says she is leaving him of her own volition. But her eyes – looking off-screen, perhaps toward her captor — say the opposite.

I also suspect a “Lost”-style metaphysical element to account for the road that leaves Wayward Pines yet somehow returns to town, and Beverly’s and Kate’s contrasting ideas of how much time has passed. At first blush, a viewer might think everyone is dead and they don’t know it yet, like on “Lost.” But the doc venturing outside of town, and Sarah leaving a message before departing for the town, suggest otherwise. Perhaps there is a reason why each person specifically is in Wayward Pines.

I’m pretty confident of one thing, though: The answers will come to “Wayward Pines” faster than they did to “Lost” or “The Returned.”