Hulu’s new 8-part mini-series 11.22.63 tackles one of those classic time travel questions: If you could go back in time and save John F. Kennedy, would you? Think of the seemingly endless positive possibilities of a 20th century in which President Kennedy wasn’t assassinated. On the flip side, what if you’re wrong about how exactly the recharted history would play out? What if things would actually have been worse, or not nearly as improved as you expected?
Butterfly effect. I know. We get it. We’ve all seen, um, The Butterfy Effect.
Wait a tic. No we haven’t. Better example: we’ve all seen Back to the Future 2. Now imagine that on a worldwide scale. Oy, so many Biff Tannen casinos.
There is another side to this story, though. What kind of person would actually want to change history like that? Try to improve the world, sure, but why do you have to be the person to do it? What would drive someone to make a decision that monumental?
That’s the question Stephen King explored in the nearly 900 pages of 11.22.63, and it’s what intrigued Bridget Carpenter, the King superfan in charge of adapting the novel to the small screen. As she told Vulture:
“You have this story that speaks to me of somebody wishing to do more, wishing that his life mattered a little bit. It’s not grandiose. If you’re somebody who’s living a life that maybe feels lost or unrewarded — like being a teacher, or having lost your spouse, or if you’re getting a divorce — you might feel adrift. So the idea in the book spoke to me: I want to matter. I want to do something important. I want to do something that would change people’s lives.”
The first, extra-long episode of the mini-series dropped on Hulu today, and the first 25 minutes are a sheer exposition dump. We meet high school English/Adult Literacy and GED teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) and his older friend Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) who just happens to have a time travel room (alternately referred to as a “time portal” and “rabbit hole”) in the back of his restaurant.
Turns out, Al’s been traveling back in time in an attempt to prevent JFK’s assassination, but there are very particular rules he has to follow. He’s sent back at the same exact time (11:58 AM) on the same exact date (October 21, 1960, thee years prior to JFK’s assassination) in the same exact location (Lisbon, Maine), and no matter how much time he spends back there when he returns to the present only 2 minutes will have passed. Moreover, every time he re-enters the time portal it erases anything he changed from the time before. So, if he wants to change something forever it’s a one-shot deal because going back in a second time will automatically reset the timeline.
Al’s dying of cancer, and he wants Jake to take up his cause. Why exactly Al is so obsessed with JFK isn’t entirely clear. For that matter, it’s not entirely clear why Jake would specifically want to prevent JFK’s assassination, other than perhaps, as Carpenter put it, wanting his life to matter. He’s a failed writer going through a divorce and mourning a father who died before he had a chance to stay goodbye. His high school students don’t seem to respond to him, and his letter of recommendation isn’t enough to get his prized GED student a treasured promotion.
The first episode touches on all of those elements, but also punts them further down the road so that Jake can walk through the time portal and explore 1960 as fast as possible. However, you could almost skip straight to that moment in the pilot and still be good because the show’s premise is easy to follow: A guy travels back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination. The fun is watching everything which that entails.
Jake has to acclimate to his surroundings, cutting his hair and changing his fashion to appear more like a man from 1960. He has to, ala Back to the Future 2, use his knowledge of historical sporting events to bet on boxing matches and baseball games to make enough spending money to get around without actually having a job. He has to buy a car and drive to Dallas where he can conduct considerable research to solve the JFK conspiracy. After all, preventing the assassination might be as simple as “just kill Lee Harvey Oswald and call it a day,” but it might not. The hard part is finding out for sure.
The harder part, though, is making us care about Jake, and helping us understand why he decided to do this. Franco, whose entire life sometimes seems like a performance art piece, is surprisingly playing it straight. At the risk of paying him a supremely backhanded compliment, he’s actually delivering a genuinely serious acting performance. While the first episode delays a deeper examination of his character for future episodes, he handles the “man out of time” elements fairly well, alternating between bemused “things sure were different back then” reactions and paranoid “what if they find out my secret?” glances.
The setting has been faithfully, though somewhat cheaply recreated through period cars and clothing, and they filmed in actual Dallas locations as well as Toronto doubling for Dallas and Maine. We briefly meet multiple characters in the first episode, such as a sweet boarding house owner and a chatty, engaged blonde, who may or may not become more significant later.
At times, it all feels like Back to the Future mixed with a ho-hum Star Trek time travel episode whereas other times it feels like a full-on conspiracy thriller. It’s clear from the first episode that 11.22.63‘s treatment of the assassination will probably lean more Oliver Stone/JFK (arguing for the existence of an actual conspiracy) than Donald Bellisario/Quantum Leap (arguing that Oswald did it alone). However, I also sense that the first episode barely touches upon the time travel ramifications of its premise (time will fight back, somehow) and motivations of its central characters. For now, 11.22.63 is flawed, but shows flashes of developing into something great.