Hit or Sh**: Hulu’s 11.23.63
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Stephen King is one of the most prolific writers of the modern age, so the decades-long barrage of films and TV series based on his work seems entirely appropriate. However, when the results have been such a mixed bag, it’s easy to have reservations about the latest King adaptation for the screen, even one as promising as 11.22.63. Luckily, the Hulu miniseries produced by JJ Abrams and developed for television by Bridget Carpenter doesn’t disappoint.
11.22.63 follows Jake Epping (James Franco), a high school teacher whose divorce has left him woefully apathetic toward his own life. Enter Al (Chris Cooper), his friend who makes a desperate plea: go back in time and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s easier than it seems, because there is a time portal in the back of Al’s diner.
It sounds ludicrous—and to some degree it certainly is—but the show posits itself as a mystery thriller rather than a time-traveling sci-fi farce, making it an unexpected delight. From the moment Jake finally accepts this reality, we do too, and the story becomes too engrossing to turn away.
Thankfully the conformist culture of mid-century America said that facial hair had to go
The portal takes Jake to a specific day in 1960, meaning he must live out three years in the past to even have the chance at altering American history. (But no matter how long he spends in yesteryear, only two minutes will have passed in the present. Simple, and yet it saves the story from getting too convoluted or confusing.) He’s armed with advice and intel collected by Al (Chris Cooper), who has already attempted the job himself, but now has to call it quits. The most important (and evident) wisdom Al imparts? History really doesn’t want to change.
As Jake assimilates into the bygone culture of 1960s America, the show carefully straddles the line between historical accuracy and conspiracy theory; it makes countless nods to facts and figures even the most casual history buffs will appreciate while simultaneously playing into the widely held belief that Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber in a brief appearance) wasn’t the gunman who shot down JFK, or at least that he didn’t act alone.
This is what inconspicuous eavesdropping looks like in 1960
The pilot (part one of eight) is heavy on setup, which is necessary, but it comes at the cost of the supporting characters, who have a handful of lines each but are poised to become greater presences as the miniseries progresses. We follow Jake exclusively for the episode’s generous 80-minute runtime. Thankfully, Franco is charming and capable in his everyman role. (In 2016, it’s difficult to remember that when he’s not masquerading as a professor at USC or interviewing Lana Del Rey, Franco is an adequate leading man.) Despite the streamlined narrative, or perhaps because of it, the pilot takes time to enjoy small moments that help establish the universe and Jake’s character in ways that help elevate the show above its peers.
11.22.63 won’t please everyone; it’s a niche program, but it corners that niche quite nicely. The shows offers enough thrills and intrigue to make the eight week stretch worth the ride. At the very least, it proves that there is still much to be mined from Stephen King’s extensive catalog.
11.23.63 airs on Mondays on Hulu