In the US: Mondays, Hulu
In the UK: Acquired by Fox
Normally, in science-fiction involving time travel, said McGuffin is useful. Want to go back in time to kill Hitler before he rises to power? Fair dos. Hop into the Wayback Machine, set the controls for Munich, 1921, and give it a whirl with your phased plasma rifle in the 40W range.
So US Netflix rival Hulu’s first original series, 11.22.63, based on the huge doorstop of the same name by Stephen King, gives us a moderately unusual alternative. Here, we have Groundhog Day time travel – time travel that resets and doesn’t necessarily leave you in the place you’d like to be.
It stars James Franco as an unassuming modern day high school teacher who’s friends with Chris Cooper, who runs the local diner. Cooper ages and goes a bit weird surprisingly quickly and one day, Franco finds out why: at the back of Cooper’s closet is a door that leads to the early 60s. Go through it, change the past, come back and you’ve changed the present; but go back again and you’ll reset everything you did the last time you went through and you’ll have to start from scratch.
Cooper’s now dying of cancer, so he’d like to pass his pet project onto Franco. No, not importing cheap meat from the past. The other one. He wants low-achiever Franco to stop JFK from being assassinated and thereby save the US from the Vietnam War and a dozen other calamities. It probably wasn’t Lee Harvey Oswald that shot JFK, mind, but Cooper has done a lot of research into who might really be responsible and is happy to give Franco the results of his work researching the USSR, the CIA and others. Now it’s up to Franco to find out definitively what the Warren Commission couldn’t.
The only trouble? The time portal at the back of his diner only takes you back to the same day in October 1960. Franco’s going to have to live for three years in the past to get to the fateful date. And the past really doesn’t like Franco and wants him to go back to the present.
Imagine having the power to change history. Would you journey down the “rabbit hole?” This eight -part event series follows Jake Epping (James Franco), an ordinary high school teacher, presented with the unthinkable mission of traveling back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Jake travels to the past in order to solve the most enduring mystery of the 20th century: who killed JFK, and could it have been stopped? But as Jake will learn, the past does not want to be changed. And trying to divert the course of history may prove fatal.
Is it any good?
Judging by the first 1h20 episode, this is going to be a show that takes its time. But it might be worth it, if you can get over how much of an idiot Franco is.
Because he is. He goes back to the past with plenty of cash and rather than go by train anywhere, he buys a car with all his money. Then, Back To The Future 2-style, equipped with a list of future sporting wins, he decides to replenish his cash by placing astronomically huge bets with the tough looking guy in the bar round the corner. Then he’s surprised that he might be about to get beaten up.
That might be excusable. But he’s also the kind of guy who decides to throw his iPhone in a river for some reason not clearly explained, despite the fact he’s going to go back to the future at some point where it’ll be useful again. He’d better have cloud backup and some good insurance on that baby.
Franco’s running around like an idiot aside, 11.22.63 is quite fun – a sort of Stephen King version of an Oliver Stone version of The Man In The High Castle, filled with warmy fuzzy nostalgia for a time when adult men all wore suits and hats, and apple pie tasted the way apple pie should. There are creepy bits, whenever Time (or maybe Sapphire and Steel) decides to try to encourage Franco to get back to where he belongs. There are some lovely recreations of small town 1960s and even Dallas that make me all nostalgic for Quantum Leap. And it’s got a fun central premise.
Of course, you also have to deal with the relentless conspiracy theorying, the idea that JFK wouldn’t escalate the Vietnam War just as Lyndon Johnson did*, and the fact that while it’s happy to show segregation and frown at how Very Bad it is, it’s not that happy to have any black characters appear for more than a couple of minutes in either the past or the present, not even Franco’s soon to be ex-wife.
This first episode also paces things slowly, barely scratching the surface of the time travel concept that King’s given us and there’s also an obvious romance heading our way, but we’ve only had one scene of that.
But despite its silliness, I’m going to tune in again for episode two of 11.22.63. While it doesn’t have the depth of The Man In The High Castle, it’s a lot less bleak and at least the characters are engaging. Whether it’ll all pay off by the end is another matter, but I’ve faith in it for now.
* It’s possible that the show will suggest that if JFK had survived, he’d do just that, but we’ll have to see if that happens. At the moment, JFK is the liberal saviour who’ll keep America great, rather than the president who nearly got the world nuked, did nothing for Civil Rights and who started the Vietnam expedition in the first place