Here is a short list of things I would do if I learned I had the power to travel back in time to October, 1960:
- Discover the Beatles; profit
- Live out my own personal version of Mad Men; as a Peggy, end the decade with a sweet UWS townhouse and a work husband
- Hitler’s obviously off the menu, but there are still lots of dictators/serial killers/generally bad people who, on balance, the world would be better off without.
Here is what James Franco’s mild-mannered English teacher is ordered to do in 1960, by a diner owner who promptly dies of cancer:
- Hang out for three years, then stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
It’s not a bad goal for the social good-minded time traveller, or more importantly to the matter at hand, a bad premise for a flashy miniseries designed to get attention. But it’s also an absurdly specific response to a whole new world of possibilities, one so obviously intended to restrict said miniseries’ scope and give its hero a basic goal to achieve, or not, in a mere eight episodes. And it makes what is supposed to be the grand reveal of Hulu’s 11.22.63 one of the hardest laugh lines, intentional or no, I’ve come across in recent memory.
Still, the revelation scene — less than half an hour into 11.22.63‘s almost feature-length premiere, a television mini-phenomenon that needs to die a fast and painless death — functions as a handy microcosm for the miniseries’ appeal. It’s unabashedly illogical and unapologetically campy, as an inevitable dive into JFK conspiracy theories fronted by Franco, and presided over by executive producer JJ Abrams, must be. It’s also a fun, efficient story that shrugs off most of the moral and even physical implications of messing with time in favor of an excuse to film Franco doing the sock hop with attractive coworker Ms. Dunhill (Sarah Gadon). Primer this ain’t.
Based on Stephen King’s 2011 novel of the same name, albeit with slightly different punctuation, 11.22.63 wastes little time justifying its premise, or even sketching out much of a protagonist. Whether he’s passed the baton or simply surrendered to Shia LaBeouf, Franco appears to have left performance art about being a famous actor behind in favor of simply being a famous actor, and he does serviceable work as Jake Epping, the Maine schoolteacher introduced to the “rabbit hole” in the back of a diner’s closet by the proprietor, Al (Chris Cooper). But Jake is a character defined by negatives: his dad just died, he’s wrapping up a divorce, and while he likes his job, a jaded administration and those dern smartphones make it hard to do. He’s a man with almost nothing to lose — the perfect candidate to hang around for a few years in the past while just two minutes go by in 2016.
Once Al has passed on the little wisdom he has and died, as aging mentor figures are wont to do, Jake throws himself into the task at hand, though we never quite learn enough about him to experience him as much more than an audience surrogate in his reactions to 1960s social customs, clumsy teachable moments about the prejudices of the Jim Crow South and all. We do, however, learn the ins and outs of the “rabbit hole” from Al, who survives as a disembodied voiceover: changes to the past can be undone by simply returning again; the past will “fight back” against change by throwing fires, car crashes, and even illness in the way of anyone who gets too close to the important stuff.
Time, in 11.22.63, is a sentient being, and the series’ stand-in for a true villain, or even stakes. The problem is that it’s not quite enough. Pause the action for even a few seconds and any number of questions will naturally occur to you: Why fight back against the past? Is our current timeline really so bad anyway? Is time’s insistence on staying put a bad thing, or just nature giving Jake some (solid) advice to leave it be? Jake brings up a few of these questions in the premiere, but the show he anchors mostly brushes them aside.
Yet this series doesn’t exist to be picked apart. On a business level, it exists to garner eyeballs — and subscribers — for Hulu with big names like Franco, Abrams, and King, who also executive produces, as the service begins to expand from comedies like Casual to dramas like the forthcoming The Path. And on an entertainment level, it exists as a reasonably well-executed hero’s journey, complete with a teen sidekick (George MacKay) and the aforementioned love interest. Teasing out the hypothetical connections between Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber), the Soviet Union, and the CIA adds some color, but mostly serves as an extra coat of paint on the shiny pink Thunderbird that greets Jake when he steps into the past.
The first episode of 11.22.63 is available to stream on Hulu. New episodes will be uploaded each Monday.