Pilot Review: 11.22.63

Hulu’s new Stephen King adaptation shows promise, especially if you haven’t read the book.

This past Monday night, Hulu premiered the first episode of an eight-part mini-series, 11.22.1963. An adaptation of Stephen King’s 2011 novel, it’s about a high school teacher from Maine, Jack Epping (played by James Franco), who travels back in time — using a storage closet in a diner with a portal in it — to embark on a mission to thwart the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Are you still with me? I hope so. Despite the farfetched plot, it’s actually pretty entertaining.

Admittedly, I haven’t read the novel, but it stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for 16 weeks and won the 2012 International Thriller Writers Award. It even won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, which is interesting when you consider that King is primarily known as a horror writer.

A cross between science fiction and historical fiction (Hi-Sci-Fi, anyone?), the first episode, “The Rabbit Hole,” introduces the main characters quickly before jumping right into the real story. Ten minutes in and Epping is already stepping into the past — specifically October 21st, 1960. The proprietor of a local diner, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), shows him how. Templeton, dying from an unknown illness after returning from the past, tells Epping he is showing him this portal in the back of his diner’s closet so that Epping can finish what he couldn’t: preventing the assassination of J.F.K.

The theory goes that saving J.F.K. would not only save the life of his brother, Bobby Kennedy, but would change the course of the Vietnam war — Templeton believes that Lyndon Baines Johnson escalated the war, where J.F.K would have stopped it.* Disputing Templeton’s theory, Epping says he needs time to think about it. When he returns to Templeton’s home the next day, Templeton is dead, assumingly from the disease he picked up while time traveling (which, more than likely, will be brought up again later).

*Before he dies, a picture is shown of a young Templeton with three other men dressed as soldiers. The picture isn’t mentioned or explained by anyone but it seems safe to assume that Templeton served in the Vietnam War, giving him more incentive to prevent J.F.K’s assassination.

Templeton had previously explained that no matter how long Epping is in the past, only two minutes will pass when he returns to the present. This is how it is apparently possible to go into the past to 1960, wait three years for the J.F.K. assassination, and return to the present without actually losing much time. But like any time-travel story, there are a few glaring holes. The first one that sticks out to me is the portal itself; present day, it’s in a closet in the back of a diner, so it’s understandable that not too many people have come across it. But in the past, the portal is seemingly in the middle of a parking lot. When Epping arrives in 1960, it’s broad daylight with cars driving and people walking all over the place. In order to get back to present day, Epping just walks up to where he landed, out in the open in front of people, and it shoots him back to that closet at the diner.

If this were the case, then wouldn’t somebody walking around in the past accidentally step into the portal and end up in the future? Can only people from the future go through the portal? Maybe this will be addressed later.

Also, and I’m not sure if this constitutes a “hole,” but Epping accidently brings his iPhone with him when he goes back in time on his mission. After using it to trick a CIA agent that is following him, distracting the agent with a video of a parrot dancing (then hitting him over the head) Epping decides to get rid of his phone by tossing it off a bridge into a river. What if somebody in this timeline’s next 50 years finds it? I’m sure they wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did find it, but that still seems reckless. He could have at least smashed it to bits before tossing it. Again, it’s just the first episode, so this could be addressed later as well. Maybe this even becomes an issue for Epping later on in the series.

Even with those “holes,” it’s still an interesting watch. The little details are what I enjoyed the most. The past seems authentically presented, with not just milkmen and whitewall tires on the cars, but the less savory aspects like segregated bathrooms. The outfits, vehicles and buildings all feel like it’s really 1960, or at least what I know of 1960.

At the very beginning of the premiere, we are introduced to a character in Epping’s class, an old man named Harry, who is reading a short story he wrote to the class. (Though we know Epping is a high school teacher, we see “Adult Education Course” written on the chalkboard. A quick detail that explains without calling too much attention to itself.) It’s a seemingly true depiction of how Harry’s father murdered his mother, brother and sister with a hammer, while severely injuring Harry, back on Halloween night in 1960. It wouldn’t be a Stephen King story without a grisly murder somewhere. Towards the end of the episode, we find out that Epping plans on intervening in the murder of Harry’s family while in the past.

As I stated earlier, I haven’t read the book so I have no idea where this is going, but I know I’m down for the ride. With CIA agents and angry bookies chasing him all over the place (did I mention he has to use knowledge from the future to place sports bets in the past in order to make money? Because he does), there are enough thrills to keep you hooked, while the time travel narrative and government conspiracy theories will feed your intellectual needs.

Then again, we’ve been burned before by a Stephen King TV adaptation. I was similarly hooked to ABC’s Under the Dome for it’s first season, only to see it’s hot start fizzle into disappointment. That being said, I’ll proceed with optimistic caution.

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