I admit it: I’m a sucker for mysterious TV series about communities of folks brought together seemingly by coincidence. Especially when they try to figure out what they have in common—and who might have brought them together. The Prisoner, Lost, and even the half-baked summer show Persons Unknown—I can’t resist ‘em. Haven’t checked out Under the Dome yet but I know I’m gonna.
This summer’s intriguing Wayward Pines kinda snuck under my radar when it premiered two months ago; it looked like a cheap Twin Peaks ripoff, with a government agent sleuthing out a northwestern Town with Secrets. I went back to check it out and I’m glad I did.
Following a car accident, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) winds up in the oddly empty hospital of Wayward Pines, Idaho, a gorgeous little town ringed by high mountains. Of course the smarmy locals are tight-lipped, following a town code that forbids them discussing their lives before coming to the quaint burg. Burke is eager to contact his wife (Shannyn Sossamon) and son back in Seattle, but has trouble finding a phone. And darned if the town sheriff and local nurse (Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo) don’t turn up every time he tries to leave town. When he finally tracks down fellow agent Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino), with whom he had a fling in Seattle a month earlier, she swears that she’s been in Wayward Pines for over a decade. What the…
Things get much weirder with a mega-twist (doubtless courtesy director/producer M. Night Shyamalan) in the fifth episode that finally makes sense of all the craziness thus far—and convinces us that the tiny town of Wayward Pines might not be such a bad place to be stuck after all. Still, I’m expecting another curveball in the finale episode (I’m not quite done with the series), this being a Shyamalan joint. Really excellent performances from the stellar cast, who seem to be having huge fun with this clever series that never quite goes where you expect it to.
At last year’s Comic-Con I happened to see the panel for Ascension, a six-part event series on the Syfy Channel. Its fascinating premise: in an alternate 1963, JFK authorized a century-long space mission to distant galaxies, with an ark of humanity isolated for all that time. Though we pick up the journey halfway through (in more or less the present day), the cruise-ship culture on board the vessel hasn’t evolved much, with music, dress, and gender roles still trapped in the early 60s (surely at some point the show was sold as “Star Trek meets Mad Men”). Meanwhile, back on Earth, the son (Gil Bellows) of the mission’s founder is trying desperately to keep this secret military project from being uncovered after fifty years.
There’s a twist here too, and when the mission’s real purpose is unveiled at the end of Episode 2 (of 6), we wind up liking Ascension’s quaint, clueless population even more. Of course it’s hard to get too wrapped up in their petty power struggles and relationship woes once you know the bigger issues at hand. And the show seems slightly obsessed with being racy (the ship’s artificial beach area is there mostly to get the cast into bikinis).
Still, it’s fascinating to see how the Ascension passengers and the Earth scientists deal with challenges and setbacks. On Ascension, a girl with psychic abilities starts to question the ship’s true mission. Back on Earth, a security consultant (Lauren Lee Smith) is determined to uncover the truth about the mysterious Ascension project; her engaging quest provides a solid backbone for this otherwise sprawling tale.
This Syfy space opera’s not nearly as smart or genre-breaking as Wayward Pines. But since it’s too hot to think these summer days, Ascension might be the mindless distraction you need.
Want to catch up on Wayward Pines and Ascension? Stream Wayward Pines on Hulu (subscription) or Fox.com and Ascension on Netflix.