In the US: Sundays, Hulu
In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, Fox International. Starts 10 April
Three episodes into Hulu’s first long-form drama, 11.22.63, an adaptation of Stephen King’s book about a time-travelling teacher who wants to stop the assassination of JFK but doesn’t know how, and three things have become clear:
- It’s possible to be very shallow while still having oodles of screen time to work with
- It’s possible to be a great author and have a great idea, but to still not bother doing anything with it
- That doesn’t necessarily matter that much if you can create a decent enough atmosphere
The first episode threw a whole bunch of things at us: James Franco’s teacher discovering pal Chris Cooper has a portal to the past; said portal being semi-useless as it only goes to October 1960; Cooper giving Franco the task of preventing the JFK assassination, as well as all his research, a guide to living in the 60s and a list of winners of sporting events to fund journeys into the past; and the fact that the past doesn’t like being changed so does its best to stop people from doing just that.
All of which could be the basis of a fun and exciting two hour movie. However, since then, 11.22.63 instead has given us the frankly idiotic Franco going into the past… and living there for two episodes, so that we can experience the nostalgic thrills of living in the sanitised 60s – a sort of vaccinated time travel for those who want to think about noble white men helping the grateful oppressed deal with racism, homophobia, sexism, fundamentalism, domestic violence et al, with just the occasional punch and bit of bad language, without having to worry about intersectionality or being shot as a result of increasingly lax gun-control legislation.
Since the first episode, Franco has at least picked up a native helper monkey (George MacKay) to assist him in his endeavours. We’ve also seen the arrival of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, with the fleshing out of them as people. Franco’s also got himself a job and whiled away a year or so, while bumping into love interest Sarah Gadon (The Border, Being Erica, Ruby Gloom).
However, more or less all of episode two was about Franco’s attempts to prevent the family of a future pupil of his being murdered. It was a dark, quite nasty interval, in which Franco was once again epically stupidly, but it didn’t really push the narrative along much.
While Franco’s performance is so muted, he seems like he’s on quaaludes the whole time, the rest of the cast are more interesting and have fun characters, so it’s much easier to spend time with them than him. It can also be quite funny when dropping in future references, such as when Franco claims to have served in Korea with the 4077th MASH.
But this is not a show intending to grip us with his plot. Neither is it in a hurry either to have any time travel fun or to really get to grips with JFK’s assassination and its fall-out. To some extent, that’s by design, since it’s a nine-episode ‘event series’, and everything is leading to a twist or two, I’m sure. But it’s relying on the King name to bolster the viewer’s patience enough to get them through to the end.
If you like genre dramas that are more about atmosphere and nostalgia than about ideas, and if you want a show that investigates conspiracy theories without saying anything much definitive about them, 11.22.63 is certainly already delivering. But if there’s anything great about it, the writers are saving it for the final episodes and I’m sorely tempted just to Wikipedia the ending at this point. I think I’ll stick with it, but the show needs to up its game soon to prevent death-by-online-encyclopaedia.
Barrometer rating: 2
Would it be better with a female lead? Yes. Or even simply a different lead
Rob’s prediction: It’s a limited series so a one-off, but I can’t imagine it setting the world on fire with its one season. However, as a first effort by Hulu, it’s very good and could lead to more dramas being commissioned.