'Wayward Pines' Season 2: TV Review

Wayward Pines S02E02 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Sergei Bachlakov/FOX

Wayward Pines S02E02 Still - Publicity - H 2016

Which '80s hunk will star in the third season?

Fox's surprise summer hit returns with more Jason Patric, more monsters, but less mystery.

Consider the strange semantic path of Fox's Wayward Pines. Initially designed as a limited series, with Chad Hodge milking the entirety of Blake Crouch's book trilogy over one 10-episode season, Wayward Pines sat on Fox's shelf for a while and then premiered last summer promoted on the back of Empire, a hit Terrence Howard filmed many months later. Then Wayward Pines proved a surprisingly successful and effective summertime diversion, and Fox decided it was actually an ongoing series and renewed it. The second season of Wayward Pines premieres Wednesday, with Mark Friedman as the new showrunner, and in a twist I didn't see coming, this limited series turned regular series actually appears to be an anthology in which each year a different chiseled '80s heartthrob with a previous resistance to television finds himself in the mysterious town of Wayward Pines, interacts awkwardly with a largely new group of residents, gets indignant about following the rules and jeopardizes what may be the last community of humans still alive on Earth.

I wouldn't have thought this was a renewable anthology format, but welcome to Wayward Pines.

The chaotic finale to the first Wayward Pines season saw Matt Dillon's Ethan Burke killed in the aftermath of an attack by vicious, hideously evolved abnormals — "abbies" if you prefer — in 4028, an attack that destroyed the Wayward Pines infrastructure and which was completely Ethan's fault for poking around and ruining a perfectly good thing. Mopey son Ben (Charlie Tahan), who pouted through most of the season before witnessing his father's death and getting hit in the head by some bad CG, emerged three years later and the First Generation of Wayward Pines had taken over, turning it into a fascist community run, Bugsy Malone-style, by a group of youngsters unprepared for the responsibility.

We pick up in the second season with Dr. Theo Yedlin (Jason Patric) being wooed away from a present-day tropical vacation with the prospect of helping save thousands of lives, which we all know means that Theo is about to wake up in Wayward Pines disoriented and unprepared to be introduced to the new reality. And through two episodes sent to critics, Theo is reacting exactly as you would expect him to, with steely determination, incredulity and a healthy disrespect for authority. You'd expect him to do this, because we already saw Ethan do the same darned thing.

Only Fox and Friedman know why the desired approach to returning to Wayward Pines was to effectively reboot it with an actor who is original star Dillon's demographic twin and is essentially interchangeable in terms of acting strengths and weaknesses. Yes, Ethan was in law enforcement and Theo's a doctor, which means new variations on the dynamic, but when the third season features Mickey Rourke as a lawyer discovering the true nature of Wayward Pines and the fourth season stars Corey Feldman as a master chef discovering the true nature of Wayward Pines, everybody will see how repetitive this is. Patric is just fine in the exact same ways that Dillon was just fine — perhaps Patric's aforementioned incredulity manifests more in a squint, compared with Dillon's wide-eyed bafflement — but the leading man swap produces an uncomfortable sense of either deja vu or just pure repetitiveness and serves to highlight how even though the second season of Wayward Pines is still sometimes spooky, it hasn't been pushed forward nearly aggressively enough.

Actually, I take that back. There's ample aggressiveness when it comes to the feral abbies, which were disturbing and scary when viewers were catching only a glimpse of a claw or a gaping, fanged maw, but didn't hold up so well when they were suddenly everywhere. There are definitely more abbies in the second season, but if what you liked about the first was the insidious unknown, that's gone with little to replace it.

Even though Fox initially pushed the show using M. Night Shyamalan's name, the first season of Wayward Pines wasn't only about a Big Mystery, since Hodge and company let audiences know where and, more important, when we were by the middle of the fifth episode. It was more about the disorienting clash between the idyllic surface of the community and its internal conflicts and the untamed wilderness outside its walls. That contrast is gone in the second season as preppy Jason Higgins (Tom Stevens) has taken over as sheriff and the insurrection is a well-established fact. Nobody necessarily has a reason to keep secrets anymore and Wayward Pines has morphed from Stepford community into straight-up dystopia, which isn't nearly as subtle or interesting a depiction. I have no doubt that there are things the audience doesn't know and that new riddles will be introduced, but as the season begins, we're in the not hugely gratifying position of waiting for the main character to accept things that we already know and that everybody else in the show knows. Ethan's frustrated reactions satisfied when we were similarly in the dark, but with Theo going through the same motions, there's a "Just get with the program, buddy!" annoyance.

It's not that there aren't things to explore still in Wayward Pines. There's some welcome emphasis on the limitations of their food supply and its nutritional value and some hints at what ought to be the season's true brain wave, specifically the day-to-day operation of a supposedly ideal town in which the leadership has been taken over entirely by unqualified pip-squeaks. The town was the vision of Toby Jones' David Pilcher, but it's now being carried on by acolytes too young to understand the flaws in Pilcher's plan and too young to reproduce an old world they barely knew. Perhaps this sort of figurehead-free dictatorship could eventually be mined for some contemporary resonance like last season's surveillance paranoia struck a post-Snowden chord, but Theo is stuck in that "Where am I, and what do you mean it's 4032?" zone for the early episodes and with him, the story is stuck.

The rehashing of drama with an interchangeable lead is made even more confusing by how obvious it is that somebody got a memo regarding how this Noah's Ark for humanity's last and best hope was, at least in the first season, populated without any concern for diversity. Including characters played by Nimrat Kaur, Christopher Meyer and a reconsideration of almost every group or classroom scene, Wayward Pines suddenly looks more like a multicultural American town built in Idaho, rather than just a town in Idaho. Even an abbie cadaver used for classroom instruction is African American (or African Abnormal). Djimon Hounsou shows up in the second episode and immediately made me wish that his character was the star of the new season, rather than just some guy who was apparently crucial to the community, though nobody thought to involve him in the adventures of the first season.

Countering the "How did we not see any of these people last season?" vibe are a number of returning characters, though only Hope Davis' eternally patriotic Megan Fisher feels directly connected to a main narrative. Word of advice: Don't pay attention to which actors are only guest stars.

There are things Wayward Pines continues to excel at, particularly getting damp, murky atmosphere out of the British Columbia locations. The show also has a gleeful viciousness when it comes to offing important characters, which remains unabated with even more Wayward Pines residents available and disposable. Unfortunately, the most disposable character is the one who isn't likely to be touched for a while: the hero, whose journey is one that we've already been on. Wayward Pines is a weird place to wake up in. Nobody's doubting that. It remains to be seen, however, what else this season has to explore.

Cast: Jason Patric, Djimon Hounsou, Nimrat Kaur, Tom Stevens, Kacey Rohl
Showrunner: Mark Friedman
Airs: Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)