All episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Hulu’s decision to tease out one episode of its buzzy, Stephen King miniseries 11.22.63 a week – instead of following the all-at-once model made standard for online platforms by streaming contemporaries Netflix and Amazon – is one of those choices that seems misguided from a business standpoint (Yahoo Screen’s similar strategy for Community led to that service’s shuttering) but creatively right on target.
After all, this is an eight-episode adaptation of an 849-page novel, one that unfolds deliberately over the course of three years (or 56, if you want to be precise) with an emphasis on the kind of suspense that gathers gradually, like a distant storm cloud, and the kind of low-key world-building that feels all the more credible for its lack of pretension. However closely it adheres to the plot beats of King’s source material (and there are changes, from an invented sidekick to a compressed timeline), what 11.22.63 translates most faithfully is the author’s clever use of understatement.
And so, though 11.22.63‘s setup – high school teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) travels back in time to 1960 in hopes of preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy – is pure sci-fi, its execution skews more period drama.
It’s a mark of the show’s strong scripting (by Bridget Carpenter) and sturdy lead turn that Jake’s unique form of culture shock, and the rich bonds he forges in the past, generate more intrigue than the quickly dispensed-with time-travel mechanics that place him there. (The rules are simple: history can be changed, but only within the confines of a single trip, as each subsequent visit will reset the alterations made during a previous one. Oh – and the past, ever set in its ways, will place all manner of obstacles in Jake’s path to make changing it that much trickier.)
It doesn’t take long for Jake to land in the past, strong-armed into his mission by his dying friend Al (Chris Cooper, great as always), whose own attempts to save JFK (and, he thinks, prevent escalation in Vietnam) have since been stymied by his declining health. But with three years to go from his entry point into the past, Jake figures he has time for some pit-stops.
After making it to Dallas, Texas, where he stalks Harvey Lee Oswald (a very creepy Daniel Webber), Jake takes a job as an English teacher in nearby Jodie. He also grows close with Bill (George MacKay), an abused young man who feels equally out-of-place amid the buttoned-down citizenry, though for different reasons. Bill played far less of a role in the novel, but Carpenter’s repurposing of him here is smart, naturally drawing out Jake’s inner-most thoughts and theories without cumbersome voice-overs or asides.
More predictably, there’s a lady love – Sadie (the luminous Sarah Gadon), a delicately lovely schoolteacher with traumas of her own, whose compassion and grace supplies all the explanation necessary for Jake’s instant infatuation. Franco’s leading-man turn is remarkably restrained across the series, with the actor’s playboy cockiness entirely absent, but his scenes with Gadon do crackle, letting some of that trademark charm shine through.
All the performers also excel at recreating the sorts of mannerisms and mindsets one would expect from the denizens of its chosen decade, with the added wrinkle of Jake’s outsider status providing some self-aware humor. In one scene, he and fussy school principal Deke (Nick Searcy) discuss J.D. Salinger’s incendiary Catcher in the Rye, with the latter declaring “hell will freeze over” before it’s added to the high school’s library. In another, he tries to court Sadie with the decidedly modern line, “You know, they say smart is the new sexy,” only for her to look confused and reply, “I don’t know anyone who says that.”
11.22.63 has a lot of fun with the details, from its gorgeous costuming to the vintage cars Jake drives around, but its attention to the social nuances of the ’60s is what really sells the show. Moreso even than King’s novel, it teases out the decade’s racial and class tensions, the terrors of domestic abuse, and the toxicity of socially condoned masculine entitlement – and does so without belaboring any of those points. Jake eventually makes his way to Dealey Plaza, as he must, but his path is filled with detours, most of which are made to feel organic and engaging.
As Jake’s eponymous date with destiny draws near, 11.22.63 turns up the heat on its characters, creeping closer to the feeling of all-encompassing dread for which King has earned his nickname as The King of Horror without fully lapsing into it. Ultimately, this isn’t one of King’s chillers, or one of his sci-fi head-trips. This is a series about momentous consequence, its final stretch tackling both the culmination of Jake’s mission and the profound costs of his meddling with an elegance that’s both hair-raising and heartbreaking.
Fittingly for a show concerned with the intricacies of time-travel, it’s only through the lens of hindsight, stepping back to view this gripping yarn from start to finish, that the aptness of its unusual roll-out becomes apparent. With the series’ sumptuous construction, committed performances, and steadily irresistible pull, watching it feels like reading a King novel. Credit Hulu for encouraging viewers not to tear through it in one sitting. Like the author’s best, 11.22.63 is a slowly simmering, richly flavored affair. It’s well worth taking the time to savor.
Masterfully textured and compellingly told, 11.22.63 is a smart and stylish take on Stephen King's sprawling novel.