While watching the first episode of Hulu's 11/22/63 last night, I realized I had too many thoughts about the show for Twitter. So new weekly blog feature: 11/22/63 review! Also, spoilers. I'll try to avoid book spoilers and only do up-to-now show stuff.
Background: I really enjoyed the Stephen King novel of the same name. I read it and Under the Dome back to back one summer. Both novels are bricks, coming in at 849 and 1,074 pages, respectively. That's a lot of words, King. Of the two, I much preferred 11/22/63. The amount of research and effort King put into getting the facts right was overwhelming while the story itself was enjoyable.
Dome, not so much. It was too long and veered into environmentalism preaching too often. I gave up on the series in the middle of the first episode, primarily because of bad casting. Also, it's an odd choice for an unlimited series. It could have been a film, done and done. Aaron Sorkin has a quote that I always think about when watching television. After some googling I can't find it, but basically his thought was that a movie is all about a great beginning and ending, a television show is all about what happens in between. While Pajiba suggests binging may have made the distinction obsolete, I think it still applies here. 11/22/63 is all about the journey. The Kennedy assassination drives the plot but by the time it gets to it, it doesn't really matter. Meanwhile, Dome is all about the town getting out of the dome. It can't maintain itself.
In summary, I think this series has a lot more potential than Dome, by starting with a better book and being better suited for the format. Though I don't know that Hulu necessarily understands its format: releasing once a week? Wtf Hulu. I've never watched a Netflix/Hulu show that adds episodes weekly. It's... odd.
But on to the show!
Per the Aaron Sorkin quote, the beginning doesn't matter as much for good television. Which is good, because the pilot is clunky. There's a lot of ground to cover. We meet Al, who dies, but not after dropping lots of exposition, including an overview of the Kennedy assassination, all the time travel rules, and tips he's picked up about living in a different century.
The time travel rules are tough - each time you go back to this specific instance in time; it's only two minutes in the present, no matter how long you're back in 1960; each time you go back, you reset time so whatever you did during your previous trip, it's gone as soon as you pass through the portal again. It's a lot to keep in mind but the quick example in this episode with the tree does a good job of it. This doesn't happen in the book but it makes sense. And as Al says - I don't make the rules! JK, Stephen King made all this shit up.
Cooper is honestly great as Al, a character that goes through the ringer quickly, aging two years within minutes of meeting him. That being said, while reading the book, I strongly imagined Bryan Cranston. There isn't any secret genius here - lung cancer, Breaking Bad, me having no imagination. And that mental association is very strong for me so anything less than Cranston is just jarring.
One flaw that occurred to me during the show though that didn't in the book: The reason Al and Jake want to stick around until the Kennedy assassination is to make sure Oswald does it. They don't want to murder a man just to have some Russian mobster or the CIA hire some other assassin. But, if going back in time resets whatever you did on the last trip, why didn't Al just go back, kill Oswald in 1960, then jump to the present and Google what happened to Kennedy? If Kennedy is still assassinated, okay, it's not Oswald, go figure something else out. If Kennedy lives through 1963, then Oswald was it. Problem solved in the time it takes to find Oswald in 1960 as opposed to hanging out until 1963.
Okay, I'm going to assume there's some reason that logic doesn't work and just enjoy the rest of it... Another rule about Stephen King's version of time travel: Time does not like being changed!! Time is obdurate. I use this term obdurate because King used it, a lot. He says over and over again that time is obdurate. Basically, time does not like being fucked with and tries to prevent changes. In the novel, it's much more subtle, primarily taking place in Jake's mind, as he senses some big machine chasing after him, trying to keep him from acting. On the other hand, the show, without cloying voice overs, goes a different direction and demonstrates the obdurate nature of time with runaway cars. It's dramatic but effective for the medium. I look forward to seeing Jake narrowly avoiding death in future episodes.
Overall, this was not a great episode of television. In its defense, it did have a lot to setup. Now that that's out of the way, I have hope for the rest of the series. I really liked the book!
Other Random Thoughts:
There's some historical fiction out there about what happened if JFK lived, right? That would be interesting, see how it lines up with Al's theories.
Good line: "Just because you wasted your life on this, doesn't mean I have to." I think this idea deserves a better show. The burden of taking on what someone before you has deemed worthy of attention. I do think the show didn't do a great job here: Jake goes from being strongly against the idea of time travel to totally ready to spend two years of his life in the 60's for no real reasons.
Franco's facial hair is terrible. Like, distractingly terrible. But luckily he loses it as soon as he goes back in time.
It is nice to watch the show with the intention to blog about it. It makes me actively watch instead of just fucking around on the internet while it plays in the background. Which is what is happening right now with Brooklyn 99!
The betting segment was terrible. I guess Jake is slightly mentally challenged? Who bets like that? It was also hard in this part to know if James Franco was acting like he was acting or just acting terribly.
Differences with the book:
- The show compacts a lot of events, putting his divorce, Henry's letter, and his introduction to the time travel all on the same day. But it gets to time travelling a lot faster than the novel did.
- In the book, Jake goes to 1958, not 1960. Again, it makes it more compact and saves a couple of years for the show to cover.
- The doorway is, in a word, bad. In the book, I'm pretty sure, it's actually a doorway he comes out of. This makes so much more sense. In the show, he just falls out of thin air. How do people not notice this? How does he know where to go to return?
- Anachronisms. I feel like Jake in the book went through much more effort to avoid any time discrepancies. It was entertaining to see Jake hiding his t-shirt, but he couldn't plan for two years in the past a little better? And showing off his smartphone was just dumb. But then the use of 'insane' was honest and funny. I mean, this is something we would all struggle with if we went back in time!