If you had the chance to go back in time and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, would you do it?
The question that looms over 11.22.63, Hulu’s newest series, is a fascinating one. Faced with the opportunity to travel back to stop JFK’s death, Jake Epping (James Franco) is forced to choose to sacrifice three years of his life in order to change the course of history. Unfortunately for him, history doesn’t want to be changed, and his task becomes extremely difficult very, very quickly.
J.J. Abrams’ association with this show left me with high expectations, and 11.22.63’s series premiere didn’t disappoint. This was a highly entertaining and smart episode, and I’m impressed by how well everything came together.
We spent quite a bit of time in the present day with Jake in the present day before he decided to make the trip back to 1960, and it paid off well. The show gave enough time to the relationship between Jake and Al to make it seem reasonable that Jake decided to go back. While the moment that triggered Jake’s decision - Al’s death - did come off as somewhat clichéd, I felt the episode had done the work to give us this connection between the two, enough that Jake’s decision to go back felt realistic. Chris Cooper’s knowledgeable and desperate Al worked nicely in contrast to Franco’s confused and overwhelmed Jake, which really helped to sell the idea.
While the first half an hour in 2016 was great, it was Jake’s time in 1960 that formed the bulk of the episode, and provided the most compelling elements. The first sequence in the past, as Jake went about blending in, was one I really enjoyed as we were treated to a taste of life in the era, where everything is different to the way we live our lives today - the moment in the tailor store where Jake’s iPhone falls onto the floor and his immediate reaction to it was an early reminder of that, while the scene with Lady Clayton made it clear how easy it will be for him to slip up. With so much pop culture in the last 55 years, everything that comes out of Jake’s mouth will need to be carefully considered, or else he’ll end up with more questions and attention than he needs (especially after that gambling success).
However, it was the way in which the past attempted to fight with Jake in his quest that really hooked me to 11.22.63. From the limited time travel that I’ve seen on television, generally, the past gets back at the traveller through the butterfly effect that Al mentions early on in the premiere. Here, time attempts to push back by actively trying to kill Jake as he does things to “fuck with the past”. It was nice to see that split between what he needed to do to succeed in Al’s mission and what he did by his own volition, and how that affected him. Attempting to speak with his father on the phone, for example, was Jake’s first real impact on time, and a car drove through the phonebooth. That the show opted to use this before anything related to Oswald assisted it greatly, because when Jake began to follow the path set out for him, it was a real eye-opener as to how significantly he is changing things even by doing simple things essential to the mission. You knew that Jake talking to his father was going to end badly, but that the moments he needed to carry out weren’t going to be allowed by time added an extra level of intensity to the story.
As good as the story is, Franco carries this premiere along quite a bit. He’s in every single scene, an impressive feat, and it’s easy to connect with Jake as the episode progresses. With so much set-up, there were very few lasting characters - of the ten actors to feature in the series’ opening titles, only five appear, and three of those feature very briefly. The Rabbit Hole is very much Franco and Cooper, and while the latter did a great job of encouraging sympathy with Al, it was Franco who kept the pace up. Is this sustainable? Time will tell.
The time travel aspect of things can weigh a show like this down, but I think, for the most part, it was handled well. There was a lot of mystery surrounding the time portal - the fact that it was there when Al acquired the diner, the fact that only two minutes pass in the present no matter how long you spend in the past, the fact that the time and date and location is the same each time you go back - and I can see why that might annoy some people. Much to the contrary, I think that establishing these very odd rules but not exploring why they’re there is a smart move. 11.22.63 is less about time travel itself than what you can do with it. Particularly when you consider that we probably won’t see Jake time travel again, given the reset limitation, it seems unnecessary to even consider spending more time on that aspect of things.
Whether 11.22.63 can keep things moving across the remainder of its run is yet to be seen, but based on the series premiere, I think we can expect a lot over the next seven weeks.
- That first scene featuring Harry’s childhood story was harrowing. Leon Rippy was fantastic in that scene. Presumably, Jake will attempt to stop that tragedy from happening next week. That could make for interesting viewing.
- Hamburgers from 1960? I think Jake was right to be upset about that.
- There’s some deviation from the book so far (which I haven’t read). In the book, the date is September 9, 1958, Jake and Al don’t appear to be friends, the test that Jake carries out is going to save Harry’s family (who would be killed on Halloween in 1958, as opposed to 1960 here) and Al commits suicide (here, it looked to me like he simply died in his sleep, though I could be wrong about that).
- Chances are that I won’t review this weekly, instead opting for a review for the finale going in depth about the season as a whole.
What did you all think of the premiere? Please vote in the poll below and leave a comment with your thoughts!