TV Review: 11.22.63 Season 1 Episodes 1 & 2 (USA, 2016)

Stan have certainly beefed up their exclusive offerings this year, snagging not only the rights to stream content from Showtime but also currently going through Hulu original series 11.22.63, a period-drama that benefits heavily from having J.J Abrams serving as producer and Bridget Carpenter (of Friday Night Lights) as showrunner. The miniseries event throws James Franco into the lead-role as an out-of-depth English teacher, Jake Epping, who just so happens to traverse time to the 1960s, so he can stop the assassination of JFK. Some TV adaptations from Stephen King novels have worked well in the past, but some have also been quite lackluster (see the almost laughable Under the Dome), and as far as the first two episodes (all that has aired so far) go, things could go either way here.

Of course, 11.22.63 comes with the expected trope of time travel that Abrams can’t seem to stay away from (see Lost, Alcatraz, Fringe for examples) but unlike previous efforts it seems like the narrative (so far at least) is avoiding having to complicate things and acknowledges it’s own absurdity, trusting that viewers will just ‘go with it’ for the sake of entertainment. The pilot’s Director Kevin Macdonald (who has a good track record with The Last King of Scotland and Black Sea) handles the episode well, sticking with Franco until a series of events leads him back through time, practicing restraint until we are able to fully explore the true setting of the series, the 60s, which the crew have done justice.

What leads our protagonist to willfully take up a ludicrous plan to stop the assassination of JFK, with the hopes of then affecting subsequent, negative events (like the Vietnam war), is an aging friend and diner owner Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) who has secretly been zipping back and forth between the present day and 1960, via a kitchen closet, without anyone noticing – because several years spent in the 60s is equal to a few minutes or so in the present day. Templeton galvanises Epping into taking up his cause because Franco’s protagonist is more capable of saving the ill-fated president, and, as the pilot spends most of it’s time showing, hasn’t got much going for him anyway.

Many science-fiction fans willingly accept these logical jumps all the time, as long as the show establishes it’s own logic and remains consistent. This is done fairly quickly in the pilot with concise, to-the-point dialogue that admirably doesn’t waste it’s time trying to justify the whole thing, instead using production as it’s hook. This didn’t work out so well for Under the Dome – the production was fine, but the plot fell apart in a mere few episodes and never recovered, becoming quite repetitive and frustrating along with the wooden acting. Time will tell whether 11.22.63 veers in a similar direction, but as the phrase goes: “so far, so good”.

Jake remains our constant as the show transitions from uncertain new drama to polished 1960 thriller, the attention to detail keeping the whole thing looking fresh while we adjust to a fish-out-of-the-water scenario with a bit of sly humour thrown in. Franco may not have much material to work with in the beginning, but his earnestness and talent for the occasional dramatic role (see 127 Hours) quickly establish Jake as someone we actually want to root for and keep watching.

Flecks of Stephen King’s unique touch are captured well here, the exceptional production used to throw Jake between ominous settings as various side plots are set up, yet handled with the patience of a writing team that knows exactly what they are doing.

Of course, the show needs mystery to sustain interest from week to week and the first two episodes give us plenty of material to mull over and see through to the end, including a call back to the opening scene at the end of episode two that is genuinely unexpected but intriguing with the potential to introduce an emotional edge to Jake’s mission, a complication in itself since forming relationships is one of the clearest warnings Templeton gives Jake before sending him back through time. Then you have the smaller mysteries like why is every venture back to 1960 always on the same date, at the same time, in exactly the same place, in addition to the biggest cause of tension which seems to be supernatural in form, with the past (or future) “pushing back” whenever Jake attempts any big changes.

For now, the ever-involving detective format is in place, bringing in allies and enemies to fill the show’s plate and help set things up for a miniseries event worth seeing through to the end. There are a few ways 11.22.63 can go from here, but it seems to be adaptable enough to end up in the ‘good’ pile of Stephen King adaptations, and we all know that pile needs a long overdue addition.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE) (based on two episodes)

11.22.63 is an eight-episode event series, with Australians only able to watch it on Stan, with new episodes released every Tuesday.


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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.