Every generation has a defining “I remember where I was when…” moment. For the baby boomers, that moment was the day John F. Kennedy was shot. The American president signified hope and change and prosperity and equality for all in a time that was determined to thwart it. And when the symbol was crushed, so too was that vision of the future. His death was a watershed loss of innocence for so many in this country.
Hulu’s new miniseries 11.22.63, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, takes this moment and indulges its many what-if fantasies for our entertainment. Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) has mulled over the consequences of that fateful moment in American history for years — he’s in a unique position to change it. An owner of diner seemingly trapped in a time gone by, he spent most of his life trying time and time again to change the course of history itself, thanks to his possession of a sort of blip in time: a door to the world three years before the day Kennedy was shot.
Now reaching the end of his time travelin’ days, Al must find a new protégé to maintain his persistent hopes for the present-to-be. That happens to be an English teacher named Jake Epping (James Franco). What ensues is a telling, allegorical and trippy look at what happens when you believe your version of hisotry is the only possible option.
11.22.63 sets up its particular rules for time travel very matter-of-factly — admittedly slowing down its opening scenes — but once the stage is set and Jake commits himself to the scheme, the series takes off at a clip. Each time you enter the portal, you are brought to one very specific moment in time (a day in late October, 1960). No matter how long you stay in the past—minutes, days, or even years—only two minutes pass in the present day. And, should you ever re-enter the portal again, you go back to that exact moment. The timeline resets itself and eradicates all the previous changes you made before. Should you choose to go back in time and muck about in business that could affect the future, though, the past will fight you. The degree to which it does so depends on the size of the change. It’s the butterfly effect with more consequences (and less Ashton Kutcher).
For fans of the King novel, there are definitely some changes. The story moves quicker on screen, eschewing many back-and-forth moments from the beginning of the book. From a visual storytelling perspective, that’s to its benefit. Ultimately, the series succeeds because of these changes, coupled with its well-defined rules of time travel. In fact, without them, 11.22.63 would suffer from “but, but, but…!” arguments, or its camp and nostalgia and kooky leading man. (It’s a gargantuan task for any project to succeed under the weight of Franco’s Franco-ness.) Thankfully, these rules give us the ultimate antagonist: time itself. History fights change, it physically fights Jake Epping—now Amberson—at every turn, no matter how small the change seems.
But it’s not just his life and the future that’s in danger, it’s also those around him. When Jake falls for a woman named Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon) in the 1960s and tries to alter the life of a friend from the future, things, well, spiral. And history grows angrier. We won’t give too much away because it’s much more fun to watch it unfold, but even micro decisions create big problems for Jake, his friends, and the quest at hand.
This is not some sort of Doctor Who-esque caper, nor is it a heady piece of genre that you need cliffnotes to keep track of. If anything, 11.22.63 is closer to a series like Outlander, looking at the tenacity of ordinary people plopped into a very weird, extraordinary predicament, and what determination can accomplish in the face of insurmountable odds (for better or worse). But there’s a whiff of something inherently pulpy to what plays out on screen—due both to King and its leading man. It’s fun, but (thankfully) it’s not so James Franco-y a performance that you cannot let his persona melt away from the character he presents on screen.
Overall, 11.22.63 feels like a new take on time traveling and historical fiction, making consequence its main villain to chilling and exciting effect. In addition to Franco, Gadon, and Cooper, it also stars T.R. Knight, Josh Duhamel, and Cherry Jones. The series is definitely worth checking out when it premieres on President’s Day—because of course—February 15, 2016 on Hulu.
3.5 out of 5 Al’s mystery meat-laced burritos
Are you going to check out 11.22.63? A fan of the book? Let us know in the comments below.
Image Credit: Hulu
Alicia Lutes is Managing Editor at Nerdist Industries and isn’t entirely convinced that James Franco wasn’t already a time traveler (kinda). Talk to her about it on Twitter (@alicialutes).