Director Ti West’s 2015 stints on MTV’s SCREAM and WEtv’s SOUTH OF HELL established him as a viable filmmaker in the television space, which, in the age of streaming and endless content, presents a far more reliable supply of paycheck opportunities than feature filmmaking can provide. After releasing his under-the-radar western IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016), West returned to TV, leveraging his experience working with high-profile talent like Ethan Hawke and John Travolta into the bigger-budget world of broadcast productions. He was hired to direct two episodes from the second season of the popular Fox show, WAYWARD PINES— the brainchild of M. Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge, adapted from the eponymous book series by Blake Crouch. He was assigned a mid-season episode titled “EXIT STRATEGY” as well as the season finale, “BEDTIME STORY”, either of which would have been a plum gig for an enterprising young filmmaker like West. Considering that the series has yet to get picked up for a 3rd season, West’s effort takes on an added significance: making him responsible for the finale of the entire series. In effect, he would have to finish what Shyamalan started.
WAYWARD PINES is a mystery drama in the vein of David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS, albeit with a major sci-fi twist: it’s actually the year 4032, and the small mountain town of Wayward Pines is the last bastion of humanity after a mutated strain of humans has obliterated the rest of the species. West’s episodes in particular both circle towards the endgame, showing how the threat posed by the Abbeys (as the mutants are called, short for “aberration”) will reach its logical conclusion. The plots of the individual episodes don’t quite transcend the well-worn plot manipulations of standard broadcast dramas, but the show’s sci-fi/horror twist provides enough intrigue to keep things moving along at a brisk clip. Far more interesting about the stories contained within West’s episodes is the opportunities it provides to work with established character actors like Jason Patric, Djimon Hounsou, and Shannyn Sossamon.
As appropriate for the medium of broadcast prime time television, “EXIT STRATEGY” and “BEDTIME STORY” contain little to none of West’s unique artistic signatures. He’s forced to adapt to the stylistic decisions of others– Shyamalan’s most of all, considering his role in establishing the series’ overall aesthetic by directing the pilot. The digital cinematography is appropriately dark and moody, albeit with an intangible flimsiness, an unfortunate byproduct of TV production’s fast-paced nature. That being said, there’s definitely a concrete style at play here– a shallow depth of field coats the background of nearly every shot in a thick veil of fuzziness, and flashier techniques like canted angles and drone photography supplement the standard coverage workhorses. Judging from West’s episodes alone, one compelling aspect of WAYWARD PINES’ aesthetic is the recurring use of unconventional compositions, which often throw the subject off to an extreme edge of the frame in favor of a considerable amount of dead space. This makes for a captivating, if slightly uneasy, viewing experience that pulls the audience ever deeper into the gloomy intrigue.
West’s work here is serviceable, delivering what I imagine is a satisfying conclusion to the season (or series, as it may turn out). It doesn’t offer much in the way of personal artistic growth, other than the continued experience of working with recognizable performers, but it nevertheless solidifies West’s portfolio of commission work and positions him well for the leap into prestige TV, should he want it.
WAYWARD PINES is currently available on Hulu.
Written by: Nazrin Choudhury (Exit Strategy), Mark Friedman (Bedtime Story)
Director of Photography: Mathias Herndl
Production Designer: Callum Webster
Edited by: Jennifer Van Goethe (Exit Strategy), Tim Mirkovich (Bedtime Story)
Music by: Charlie Clouser