With all the Mad Men-style suits, Hulu’s glossy new time-travel thriller 11.22.63 was set up to be a standard exercise in nostalgia. The Stephen King adaptation looked, in the trailers, like something adjacent to a paean to the lost innocence of small-town America — what with the pastel-colored Corvettes, sepia-toned JFK ads, Bobby Vinton soundtrack, and a fedora-topped, besuited James Franco surrounded, fittingly, by corn. Visually, the pilot was in line with that vision, but the show did not try to make immersion in the past a pleasurable experience. On 11.22.63, the past isn’t so much a foreign country as a politically unstable developing nation. Director J.J. Abrams wants to make it very clear: We don’t belong here.
It’s a refreshing sentiment. Shows like HBO’s 1970s time warp Vinyl, the BBC’s 1920s Birmingham gangster epic Peaky Blinders, and even FX’s American Crime Story, set in thrilling 1994, do well because their dogged commitment to period authenticity allows for escapism. That’s fine, but too-perfect recreations of time and place can sometimes feel a little corny, or too on-the-nose. 11.22.63, despite its retro good looks, is not a period drama, at least not in the conventional sense. Its very premise — that the past doesn’t like to be changed — prevents it from unfolding comfortably in the 1960s, and it’s the resulting sense of unease that both propels it and keeps it interesting.
The series begins in the present day, when Franco’s Jake Epping, a sad-sack, soon-to-be-divorced English teacher in small-town Maine (because King), is approached by his dying friend and diner owner Al (a delightfully crotchety Chris Cooper), to take on his life’s work: Preventing the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thereby preventing the subsequent murder of RFK and the Vietnam War. Turns out Al’s been hiding a portal to the past, specifically to October 21, 1960, in a closet in his diner, but now that he’s too old to re-re-relive the three years between the portal entry date and the president’s murder, he needs someone young and equally disillusioned to quit the present and change the course of history.
This is a big request, one that not only involves Jake living out the next three years of his life in a different decade and potentially murdering Lee Harvey Oswald, but also single-handedly grappling with the forces of history. The past, Al explains, resists being rewritten; Jake will know he’s toying with a crucial moment in time when the world colludes to stop him. Still, life in the present is deeply unsatisfying — it’s all Icona Pop and parrot Vine loops — and Jake soon finds himself in vibrant, primary-hued 1960, eating 60-cent apple pie at a chrome-plated diner, served by a teal-clad waitress with a bouffant.
Sounds lovely, but it doesn’t last very long.
The sunny optimism of America’s “Golden Age” is captured beautifully through Abrams’ painstaking (and expensive) attention to detail, but that mood never lingers long enough for viewers to wax nostalgic. The ominous swell of strings and tinkling piano of its horror-movie score, together with Al’s creepy voiceovers (“Don’t get too close to anyone. It never ends well.”) make sure of that. Scenes are punctuated with, at minimum, suspicious glances and monologues from Jake — Franco is surprisingly good at playing an anxious loser — or more blatant and increasingly surreal interruptions, like burning houses, deadly car crashes, and swarming cockroaches. No, 11.22.63 is certainly not subtle, but who tunes into a Stephen King adaptation for nuance? We’re here because the ongoing, heavy-handed battle between resistant past and freaked-out present is terrifically exciting to watch.
The first episode leaves Jake roughly a week into 1960, so the eight-episode “event series” has quite a bit of time to traverse before its date with the Grassy Knoll. Sometime in the next three years, Jake is going to have a love affair and a brief stint as a teacher, suggesting that he will, to some extent, succumb to the charms of nostalgia. But the most refreshing part about 11.22.63 is that it isn’t refreshing at all.
The past is regrettable and it’s going to stay that way.