11.22.63 Pilot Review “The Rabbit Hole”

Hulu's adaptation of the great Stephen King time-travel novel is getting it right.

It didn't take long for me to become sold on Hulu's miniseries 11.22.63, the time-traveling JFK assassination yarn that is an adaptation of, to my mind, the best Stephen King novel of this millennium. The first episode, "The Rabbit Hole," started streaming on the service as of yesterday, and most viewers are probably already wishing they could binge the entire eight-episode run over a weekend. That's not to say that Hulu's more traditional model is less valid than Netflix's marathon method - there's something to be said for the suspense and careful plotting associated with weekly chapters, an approach that should work quite well for a narrative this vast and surprising. I just want more 11.22.63 immediately, because "The Rabbit Hole" is, simply put, a great episode of television. 

A quick summary: Jake Epping (James Franco) is a divorced and professionally unfulfilled English teacher with exactly one friend, diner owner Al (Chris Cooper). Al comes to Jake with a stunning revelation: proof beyond any doubt that his diner hides a portal back in time to October 21, 1960, in Lisbon, Maine. No matter how much time Al spends back in 1960, when he returns through the portal, only two minutes have passed in current time. Al has dedicated years (during which present day Jake merely ate a burger and signed his divorce papers) toward researching the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Christopher Phipps) on November 22, 1963, and he's decided he wants to prevent the assassination - thereby preventing the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and likely of Martin Luther King, Jr, and even the onset of the Vietnam War. His plan is to determine, with utter certainty, that Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) is the culprit, and then he will kill Oswald and return to a changed world. But cancer has wrecked Al, and he will not live to complete his mission - so he recruits Jake, who has very little to live for in 2016. Jake is soon immersed in JFK conspiracy history, from shadowy CIA-adjacent Oswald pal George de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne) to the young man of myth, Oswald himself.

The 80-minute opening chapter is directed by The Last King of Scotland and State of Play director Kevin Macdonald, and he makes this thing look expensive and cinematic. Every frame is pleasing to the eye, embracing the 1960s nostalgia with clean lines, warmth and color. And yes, it's only '60s nostalgia here - the narrative is streamlined with the portal dropping Jake in 1960 instead of 1958, one of only a few understandable changes to the source material. Jake's 1960s pseudonym is James (rather than George) Amberson, so he can still go by Jake, and a few other storylines are consolidated for effect. 11/22/63 (the novel has slashes in its title instead of periods) is a nearly-1000 page book, and the miniseries uses very clever and economical storytelling to bridge this epic. 

Dead Like MeParenthood and Friday Night Lights writer and producer Bridget Carpenter is the creator of the miniseries, writing every episode (sometimes with Unforgettable's Quinton Peeples), and she's an excellent choice, bringing an earnestness that suits such an ultimately naive story: "imagine if we change this one thing, and then change the world, and damn the consequences!" This naivety is also reflected in the candy-colored pleasantness of 1960s America, and 11.22.63 doesn't shy away from acknowledging that this pleasantness is reserved for straight, white men like Jake. Since Jake gets to use the "Whites Only" restrooms, there's a a gee-whiz sort of joy that accompanies his journey back to simpler days and out of reach of his present problems, with limitless access to funds, a hassle-free identity and a righteous quest ahead of him. 

But here's where 11.22.63 is flawed beyond fixing: James Franco is fundamentally wrong as Jake Epping. He's giving it his all, or his most, or as much as James Franco ever gives anything, but his essential demeanor is so unimpressed. Franco's got resting snark face, and so in the moments that Jake is meant to be nearly overwhelmed with ardor for this new world, his new life, he comes across, at best, as slyly amused, and at worst as smug and superior. Franco's obviously a big get from a casting standpoint - next to Chris Cooper (who makes a perfect Al), he's by far the biggest name in the cast, and he's credited, however loosely, as a producer on the miniseries. So I get it, and 11.22.63 has so much else going for it that Franco's casting only detracts to a point. But when I think about how this otherwise-ideal production would be so much better served with almost anyone else in the lead role, it's a real bummer. Also a weird fit for the wide-eyed innocence of Kennedy's America: there are far too many instances of the word "fuck" on this show. Does a story that takes place nearly entirely in the early 1960s need to be TV-MA? 

Still, 11.22.63's best quality is undeniable: that feeling of excitement that goes along with a great new Stephen King story, whether on the page or the small screen. ITThe StandStorm of the Century - they were all appointment viewing for me growing up and into my adulthood, and 11.22.63 brings us so effortlessly into Jake's adventure that it feels like we're at the beginning of a long, golden road riding into the sunrise. The credits - cool, retro and conspiracy-tinged with toy cars and red string adorning maps - caught my attention, and it was held, easily, until the end of the episode. We're given compelling glimpses of stories we know will pay off later: Leon Rippy is heartbreaking as janitor Harry Dunning, a crucial part of this tale, and a far too-brief introduction of Sadie indicates that Sarah Gadon will be a dream as the better half of the romance that makes up 11/22/63's heart. 

Many seeds of catastrophe are sewn, as well, as Al tells Jake that "the past doesn't want to be changed," and we see that in effect several times in the first episode. Jake is too conspicuous, too injudicious in his choices, too hasty in his execution of Al's carefully laid plans. There is still so much story to tell in 11.22.63, so many triumphs and mischances awaiting, but "The Rabbit Hole" started on such strong footing that the rest of the journey feels like it's in the bag. 

I won't review 11.22.63 week-to-week, but I will review the miniseries as a whole after its final episode streams on April 4.