It was Doc Brown in Back to the Future who warned Marty McFly to never do anything that would affect the future but Jake Epping (James Franco) appears to have missed that movie.
In 11.22.63 he heads back in time to do just that -by stopping the assassination of John F. Kennedy. If he can pull that off he may avert even more of history, including Nixon’s presidency and the entire Vietnam War (there’s no thought given to what other crises may emerge, but no matter).
The 8 part drama is based on a Stephen King novel of the same name, adapted by Bridget Carpenter, directed by Kevin Macdonald and produced by JJ Abrams, King, Carpenter and Bryan Burk.
The premise is the stuff of The Twilight Zone, a wonderfully hypothetical proposition steeped in American history. What if Lee Harvey Oswald could be stopped from killing the President?
Jake is an unassuming English teacher whose marriage has ended in divorce. But his dull life takes a colourful turn when local diner manager Al (Chris Cooper) ages bizarrely in the time it takes to serve a cup of coffee and pay for the bill, even collapsing insisting he has contracted cancer.
A perplexed Jake soon learns Al has a secret -his diner harbors a mysterious closet which transports anybody who enters it back to the 1960s. Al had spent 2 years in another era while just 2 minutes passed in the present.
“Are you saying this is a portal?” asks Jake.
“It’s a rabbit hole,” Al tells him.
“I need you to go back there and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.”
Al has been collating all manner of evidence on Oswald, the CIA, FBI and possibly the KGB in preparation to save the President. Now he’s too old and ill, he needs Jake to finish the job.
If Jake can’t quite grasp the concept it’s an equally wild concept for TV viewers, but suspension of disbelief is part of the fun of this series and one you will need to commit to if you have any hope of going along for the ride.
Jake is also going to need some further encouragement from Al to sign up for the task.
“I don’t know who you think I am. I just don’t think I’m the right guy for this,” he says.
Eventually Jake willingly heads back to 1960 to begin the hard work….I’m hoping it won’t take 3 seasons to get to the day JFK died. Al has even armed him with a ‘foolproof’ method of making money, which is again borrowing from Back to the Future.
Texas in the 1960s looks like a neighbour to Pleasantville, with crisply-ironed skirts, shiny convertible cars and perfect main streets. There is a nice moment where Jake drives past the Book Depository, not far from the grassy knoll. But King has also placed ominous nameless characters warning Jake “you shouldn’t be here” together with strange happenings of “time pushing back” against him changing history, the latter as great jeopardy to him.
But the first episode of 11.22.63 also takes too long to plant Jake permanently in the past and doesn’t build to a satisfactory conclusion (nor does the second). Opportunities to bring a serious tone to the politics and mythology of an era take a back seat to the boy’s own adventure -it’s more Wayward Pines than Mad Men in this regard- and there are a few credibility questions that sat uncomfortably with me.
James Franco, at times sporting a bit of the James Deans about him, is entertaining enough as Jake but the script doesn’t endow his character with enough reason to hang around in the 60s when the going gets tough (let alone show how he gets back). Aside from Chris Cooper’s sage-like soul giving him advice from the present (Frequency anyone?) most of the other supporting players had fleeting appearances that leave our sole hero very sole.
As imaginative as the premise is, I’m hoping 11.22.63 isn’t a shot misfired.
11.22.63 premieres Tuesday on Stan.