Roush Review: James Franco Plays With Time in Hulu's 11.22.63

Matt Roush
11.22.63
Ben Mark Holzberg/Hulu

November 22, 1963, is one of those tragic dates (like 9/11) frozen forever in history. Whereas if new series 11.22.63 is remembered at all, it will be as a minor yet diverting footnote in the long line of flawed Stephen King adaptations—especially notable as Hulu's first deep dive into original long-form miniseries. (Unlike Netflix and Amazon, Hulu rolls its episodes out weekly, so you'll have to wait a while if you want to binge-watch.)

At least this slick J.J. Abrams production by Bridget Carpenter has the good sense to wrap up its story within eight chapters, unlike CBS's preposterously overextended Under the Dome. The instantly engaging premise has the feel of an expansive episode of classic Twilight Zone, as Jake, a mild-mannered Maine teacher (James Franco, perfectly endearing), is shown a portal into the past—always arriving in the same moment in 1960—with the mission to stay there long enough to avert JFK's assassination.

It's a strong and suspenseful hook, and the first chapters are quite compelling. People on the other side keep telling Jake, "You shouldn't be here," and he's forewarned that the past has a way of pushing back, resisting change. But what made King's mammoth page-turner so memorable wasn't so much the arc of Jake's years-long journey into the past, but the way he and the reader find themselves settling into the ’60s, bonding deeply with a sympathetically drawn cast of characters in a small Texas community where he gets a teaching job and falls for a local librarian. When the mechanics of the book's plot kick back in, leading to Jake's climactic showdown with Lee Harvey Oswald, the stakes feel higher because we've come to care so much for everyone, and the thought of leaving the past behind (to an obviously uncertain future) is painful to contemplate.

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The miniseries condenses the story in such a way, including an ill-considered two-years-later ’60s time jump midway through, that the show never truly recovers. It can feel both rushed and draggy as Jake confronts multiple obstacles along the way, including villainous adversaries juicily played by Josh Duhamel and T.R. Knight, each cast effectively against type. Even his romance with the lovely Sadie the Librarian (Sarah Gadon) feels truncated. And it doesn't help that Oswald (a curiously mannered and mush-mouthed Daniel Webber) is so thinly drawn as a character.

Stay to the clever end, though, and you'll be rewarded with a poignant cautionary parable about the dangers of messing with fate. If only they hadn't messed with the source material. As one character says early on in a moment of meta self-criticism, "Please, the book's always better. Everybody knows that."

 11.22.63, Series premiere, Monday, Feb. 15, Hulu


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