Hulu drama is barely entertaining enough to sustain itself
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” is the famous first line of L.P. Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between.” Not so in Hulu’s “11.22.63,” in which an English teacher played by James Franco travels from 2015 to 1960 to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The early 1960s are so warm and cozy (never mind that fleeting glimpse of the “Whites Only” bathroom signage) that Franco’s Jake Epping hardly has to adjust.
Jakes does bump up against some problems inherent in time traveling, of course. There’s the way the past keeps throwing hurdles like roaches and dead car batteries in his way to prevent any changes. And there is, of course, a star-crossed romance with a Texas librarian. But for the most part, Jake slides right into the Brooks Brothers conformity of small-town Texas life with an ease he obviously never had in 2015 Maine. And he doesn’t take too long before he’s assembled a hardy band of confidantes, from the Kentucky-born Bill (George MacKay) to Sarah Gadon‘s librarian, Sadie.
That swiftness in combining forces comes as something of a surprise, given that Hulu’s adaptation of Stephen King‘s novel clocks in at almost eight-and-a-half hours sans commercials. Perhaps you are thinking that this allows the creative team (including J.J. Abrams) to luxuriate in period details, teasing out the complexities of Lee Harvey Oswald’s character and whether or not he worked alone, and in the titular day itself. You would be wrong. Easily half an hour is disposed of by briefly giving Jake amnesia before restoring his memory. One episode out of the eight is dedicated to Jake trying to save the family of one of his GED students he left in 2015; another is given over to a hostage situation that involves so many easily-at-hand weapons that it becomes almost existentialist.
Through it all, faces both famous and semi-famous wander in and out. As Oswald’s mother, Cherry Jones collects a paycheck and sports just one of the dozens of accents to be found here; Lucy Fry provides another (Russian, this time!) as Oswald’s wife. There’s also Josh Duhamel (legitimately terrifying) and T.R. Knight (going for a rotting sweetness but coming across like stale candy corn, complete with, yes, a lockjaw accent unheard in real life), plus Chris Cooper as Jake’s time-travel mentor, who spends most of his screen time in the first episode bellowing about how Kennedy would have been the greatest president who ever lived and Vietnam could be blamed entirely on Lyndon B. Johnson. For such specious thinking does Jake decide to hurtle back to 1960.
Then there’s Franco, who alternates between leading man heroics and smarmy self-absorption. He’s at his best with Gadon; there’s a reason why time travel stories so often include a romance–it’s very effective. Gadon has a wide-eyed beauty that belies a steeliness under her blondeness, making her the perfect counterpart to Franco’s dark brooding.
But even their scenes together can’t compensate for the extended running time, which somehow imbues meaningless events with more potency than the bigger ones. And you’ll be shocked at how much of Episode 8, titled “The Day in Question,” is actually given over to the events of Nov. 22, 1963. That the limited series squeaks by as just entertaining enough is a disappointment considering the pedigree of everyone involved and the reputation of its source material. Time travel and Dealey Plaza deserve better.
“11.22.63” premieres Monday at midnight on Hulu”