On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated when his motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza during a visit to Dallas, TX. Shots heard originating from the Texas Book Depository led to the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald for the murder of the president. When Oswald himself was assassinated before we could hear his account of what happened on 11/22/1963, the fuel that would light the flame of conspiracy theorists began its slow burn.
“11.22.63” is a Hulu miniseries adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name. The premise explores the complex idea of time travel and the implications that might arise if people mess with time. It’s a butterfly effect that basically boils down to “If you fuck with the past, it’ll fuck with you.” Specifically, the series presents the idea of altering a fixed point in time — the JFK assassination. Showrunner Bridget Carpenter (“Friday Night Lights”) and producer J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) head the adaptation of the novel into an 8-part series.
“11.22.63” may work well as a novel, but it ultimately falls short of expectations as a television series. If anything, the adaptation serves as a dramatic period piece with a savvy science fiction hook. Playing off of concepts that stemmed from successful predecessors such as “The Twilight Zone” and “Back to the Future,” the series tries to utilize the goodwill associated with depicting American history. And while the target audience is most likely aimed at the baby boomer and millennial generations, the time commitment of the first hour-and-20-minute episode is unrealistic. Although it isn’t much longer than an episode of “Game of Thrones,” the show lacks “GoT” ’s emotional payoff when the episode is finished. With “11.22.63,” you’re left feeling emotionless and without a desire to continue to the next episode. Frankly, it is an easy show to forget.
Diner owner and apparent time traveler Al (Chris Cooper, “The Muppets”) believes that if the assassination of JFK is averted, then events that led to advancements in Vietnam by JFK’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy would never have happened. It’s an interesting idea, but as he’s a Vietnam veteran himself, the question arises of whether Al’s motives are self-serving and limited to his own motivations. However, when Al is diagnosed with cancer, he entrusts the secret of time travel to friend Jake Epping (James Franco, “The Interview”), an adult educator and recently divorced deadbeat, in the hopes that he will travel back to the past and carry on Al’s mission. The delivery in the present day segment of the premiere is a sloppy portrayal of the ordinary meeting the extraordinary. While Franco is unconvincing as a small-time man who has given up trying in life, Cooper’s Al is reminiscent of Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” performance, but trading in conviction for wide-eyed madness.
The portal in time, aptly dubbed the “rabbit hole,” is located in the diner closet, and is where Stephen King’s influence melts smoothly into that of J.J. Abrams. An endless black Hitchcockian hallway engulfs Jake for a few slow seconds before we are transported to the glittering brightness of the ’60s, sans the trademark lens flares. As soon as Jake Epping steps through the portal, so does Franco, who shines in his fish-out-of water performance, caught in the ambiance of the 1960s. As Franco becomes more comfortable with his surroundings, we feel that he is more sure of himself in his performance. However, as is the case with any Stephen King adaptation, suspenseful music and horror scenes lie just around the corner of each commercial break.
A supernatural edge slices into the past at unexpected moments, eliciting a “scare jump” from the audience. Later, Jake edges closer to George de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne, “Nightcrawler”), a friend of Oswald that Al suspected was in touch with the CIA and ultimately persuaded Oswald to assassinate Kennedy. After following Mohrenschildt to the restaurant El Conejo, Jake is almost set on fire and crushed to death by a falling chandelier as history pushes back against his actions; a telephone booth is run down and strangers warn Jake of his unwanted presence in the past. Tragedies literally fall out of the sky in “11.22.63,” and we’re never sure what the outcome of the domino effect will play out for the cast. The trailers show much promise from King’s side, so hopefully we’ll get to see his influence later on as the miniseries picks up pace in accelerating towards its ultimate end game — November 22, 1963.