'11.22.63': TV Review

11.22.63 - James Franco and Sarah Gadon- still 2- H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Flawed, but worth it.

If this time-travel thriller from Stephen King and J.J. Abrams works, it's because James Franco goes all-in with his performance as a small-town teacher tasked with stopping the assassination of JFK.

Not quite the “alternative history” of Amazon’s The Man In the High Castle but more along the lines of everyone’s favorite time-machine game — what would you do to go back and kill Hitler?, etc. — Stephen King’s 11.22.63, about going back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy, is executive produced by J.J. Abrams and marks a very big next step for Hulu in the scripted game.

The eight-part limited series (which premiered at Sundance) stars James Franco as Jake Epping, a high-school teacher in Maine in 2015 who discovers the mind-blowing secret his friend Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), the local diner owner, has been keeping for 35 years. Inside the diner is a closet and if you walk into it, you pop out the other side in 1960. October 21 at 11:58 a.m., to be precise.

Now, you can imagine the glee King must have taken coming up with this idea and being able to deep dive into one of this country’s greatest conspiracies and something that was obviously a huge fascination for him, along with many writers of a certain generation.

By going down that rabbit hole, King is able to drop a pebble in a flat body of water and watch the ripples: save JFK and you save Bobby Kennedy as well; you keep JFK in office and Lyndon Johnson, according to King’s logic, doesn’t get wrapped up in Vietnam and, conversely, all of those soldiers don’t die and a torn-apart, tormented generation comes out in different shape.

It’s an interesting idea that King and Abrams bring to life with the guiding hand of Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood), who serves as executive producer and showrunner. They have taken the "butterfly effect” theory from King’s writing but only use it as a jumping-off theory in 11.22.63, choosing instead to stay hyper-focused on getting the deed done — stopping the assassination of JFK — rather than what will happen afterward.

In fact, a key element of 11.22.63 is the notion King uses in his writing that if you actually could go back in time to alter history, history and time would essentially fight you all the way. They call it “pushing back” in the series — that just when Franco’s dedicated but confused Jake character gets close to altering how even the smallest event actually happened, unseen forces fight back (and it usually involves death or something tragic and gruesome) so that a message gets sent. The message is: What you’re doing is insane and it comes with severe repercussions.

Of course, a storyteller loves that kind of idea, filled with conflict as it is. And pretty much all of the success in 11.22.63 comes from Franco being able to take the concept from bizarre to believable, with a major assist from Cooper, who combines with Franco in the early episodes (and flashbacks) to give this series its much-needed dramatic believability.

Give both actors credit (and King, of course) for embracing and tackling the beast that is belief. If you’re going to have a guy reveal to his friend — not a sibling or a spouse, mind you — that he’s got a time portal/closet in his diner and he really needs you to go back and save John F. Kennedy, you’d better have two actors who go all in on selling it.

Franco’s literal “what the f— was that!?” response to going back in time is special indeed, and Cooper is right there with him: “Hard to find the right words, I know. But if you go in there, it’s 1960.”

Franco’s freak-out is a welcome sight, because too often in these kinds of shows the discovery of something paranormal and incomprehensible is treated with slight surprise or delightful wonder, not the full-blown and sustained yelling and swearing that Franco’s Jake delivers to Cooper’s Al. When he’s almost calm, Jake shakes his head and says to Al: “It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense.” At least the effort was made and once it sinks in, Jake, whose wife is divorcing him and whose high-school students are thoroughly distracted by technology and bored by learning despite his best efforts, can consider Al’s offer: Alter your own life to save JFK’s.

For Al, this has been an obsession for 35 years. Now, sick with cancer, he wants to pass the secret mission on to Jake. In all the years past, Al’s done research and taken notes on the conspiracy and, just by being there in real time, has come up with some theories that are different from what's in all the books that have come out since the actual assassination. The idea in a nutshell is to follow Lee Harvey Oswald, see if he’s really going to be the one pulling the trigger and, if so, kill him before it happens.

King has made this intriguing on a number of levels. One of his rules is that no matter how long you’re back in time, once you come back it’s only been two minutes of elapsed time in 2015. But once you come back, everything in the past resets. And if you’re wondering, no, they don’t do a very good job of explaining how you get back inside the closet from 1960. Some things you just have to go with.

What simultaneously keeps 11.22.63 interesting and sometimes drags down the pacing are the hurdles and stakes of the task that faces Jake. The beauty is that he’s not a detective, not some trained investigator — he’s a high-school English teacher with a failed novel and a broken marriage. So any skill he brings to the task is learned in the moment. And Franco does an excellent job of conveying the difficulties of fighting history and changing it — and not just saving Kennedy. Along the way he tries to stop a murder and, of course, there’s going to be a love story there with a woman he meets back in time named Sadie (the luminous Sarah Gadon), which Al has already told Jake is a terrible idea. But that’s the trick of the series, right? Dealing with what can’t be helped (like falling in love) and with what can’t be imagined (like killing another person).

What hurts 11.22.63 in sections is that getting there is slow going. Even a time jump in the third episode doesn’t really speed things up — the Kennedy assassination is a conspiratorial mess and so dramatizing someone understanding it as it happens takes a while. But along the way there are numerous fine cameos — from Josh Duhamel as a drunken brute father to George MacKay as an unlikely and unstable ally for Jake to Cherry Jones as the mother of Oswald (played wonderfully in a much larger role by Daniel Webber).

But the series leans primarily on Franco, who makes the Jake character and his mission believable. From his makeover — haircut, clean shave, fresh suit and hat for 1960 — to lighter moments like dropping an iPhone out of his pocket in 1960 or lying that he was in the Korean War and, when called on it, saying he was in a MASH unit (the 4077th to be precise), Franco makes each transition seem believable. Getting him to go on the trip in the first place spotlights Cooper’s flexible acting abilities and gives the project some lift.

Even in its slower moments, 11.22.63 demands attention because King has crafted a story you want to watch unfold, with the question of whether the trip back is worth the cost always at the forefront, providing the stakes. And even though it has clicked with previous efforts, Hulu proves here that it can wrangle the likes of King, Abrams and Franco to produce content and is therefore to be taken seriously as yet another important player in the scripted TV game.

Premiere date: Feb. 15 (Hulu)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine