11.22.63: Season 1, Episode 1 – “The Rabbit Hole”

Despite some shaky motivations and necessary exposition, 11.22.63's first episode is intriguing enough to stay on the journey.

“The book is always better than the movie.”

It may be impossible, in contemporary television, to get away with not adding a winking, meta moment. What’s interesting is that in Hulu’s new original series 11.22.63, based on the novel by Stephen King, is that this moment, shared between the protagonist/time traveler Jake Epping (James Franco) and a young woman he meets in Dallas, Texas, occurs across the street from the Texas School Book Depository, in a series whose premise is whether Jake is able to change the significance of that location. For Jake, every moment has these overtones; he’s there to observe and prevent something that occurred long before he was born, in a time that has the same distance from reality as if he was watching it alongside the viewer.

The moment can also serve as a preemptive apology; when it comes to adaptations, there’s always the potential for dissatisfaction: characters and plots reduced or discarded, the actors cast not living up to the reader’s imagination. It’s an act of change on par with trying to change the past. In the introduction to his novel, The Stand, King himself admitted that adaptations can have a reductive effect on fiction. “The glory of a good tale,” King writes, “belongs to each reader in its own particular way”.

That being said, 11.22.63, lends itself to adaptation to a greater extent than much of King’s work. There are no aliens, no transformations, no monsters — except human ones, and intangible concepts such as “the past” and “time”. More than that, however, it’s one of the few King novels written in the first person, about events that still resonate within the American psyche. Consequently, the actual players in this drama– thus far, Jake Epping and Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) — are somewhat dwarfed (both in the novel and in the series) by the events they involve themselves in.

The premise of the series is that Al, years earlier, discovered what he calls a “rabbit hole” in the back of his diner. This rabbit hole leads directly to 11 October 1960; however long you stay there, only a few minutes will have passed in the present day (a sort of modern-day Narnia, if you will). The catch is, any changes made only last as long as the person remains in the past. A round trip resets everything, making it the same moment on the same day as you originally arrived.

Aside from using this connection for a bit of personal gain (Al buys his meat in 1960, which helps him keep costs down), Al’s obsessed with the idea that he could prevent President Kennedy’s assassination and change the world for the better. Why he has this particular obsession isn’t made clear in the pilot, although his lighter, with the words “Vietnam: 1960-1973” and a quick glimpse of picture with two young men in uniform, might be one explanation.

When Al is diagnosed with cancer, he taps his friend Jake to take up the cause. After a quick trip to the past and the obligatory “you’re crazy” argument, Jake reluctantly embarks on Al’s unfinished quest. If Al’s motivations remain fuzzy, thus far, Jake’s are equally unclear. A divorce, dissatisfaction with his students and colleagues, and a certain propensity to be motivated by guilt seem like thin reasons to chuck one’s life for a time that offers good food and cheap gas along side segregation and unquestioned obedience to authority. To his credit, Franco does a good job of selling this motivation, both in his portrayal of Jake as a wide-eyed time tourist, and as a soft-hearted, if disappointed, idealist.

The past itself seems realistically rendered (at least from the perspective of someone not born in that decade), and screenwriter Bridget Carpenter has done a good job adapting King’s work, with nice, subtle touches that differentiate the time periods, particularly in use of language; there’s an amusing scene in Dallas when a group of Catholic school children knock into a distracted Jake, who drops his anachronistic dossier of Kennedy/Oswald facts and loudly swears: “Jesus Christ!” to the horror of the nun shepherding them through the park.

Carpenter also makes the wise choice to divorce a subplot present in the novel that features a place and characters from King’s earlier novel It with a simple change of location from Maine to Kentucky. In an episode that, even at an 82-minute running time still felt crowded, trying to shoehorn more exposition only marginally related to the central plot wouldn’t have benefitted the episode.

Pilot episodes are always a challenge — they’re tasked with introducing people and places and events in a way that intrigues the viewer. At worst, they’re an infodump about characters and stories you’ve no reason to care about. At best, they offer a glimpse at a series’ potential. Whether 11.22.63 will be able to provide both a strong plot (which it has so far) and strong characterization (which is still a work in progress), well, only time will tell.

RATING 6 / 10