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Those who come to TNT’s Snowpiercer as fans of either Bong Joon Ho’s ambitious feature film or the original French graphic novel Le Transperceneige are likely to be at least somewhat disappointed by this tonally uneven, narratively confusing TV adaptation.
However, if you’ve read about the years-spanning, pilot-scrapping, network-hopping production history of Snowpiercer and are therefore expecting — apologies here — a trainwreck worthy of “off the rails” puns, disappointment will be yours as well.
AIR DATE May 17, 2020
The version of Snowpiercer that is set to arrive on TNT is a mess, full of half-developed characters, illogical plot choices and incompletely realized social satire. But it’s not awful. Thanks to solid production values, maybe a half-dozen amusingly pitched performances and several moments of giddy lunacy, Snowpiercer settles into a watchable rhythm.
Let it be said that Snowpiercer doesn’t find that rhythm immediately. The pilot, written by Graeme Manson (Orphan Black) and directed by James Hawes — previous writer Josh Friedman and director Scott Derrickson’s names remain in the credits as a reminder of the power of Hollywood guilds — opts for possibly the least inspired way into this world imaginable. After an above-average animated opening introducing the eponymous global circuiting train, a 1,001-car ark of humanity protecting 3,000-plus souls from Earth’s climate-change-obliterated frozen landscape, the story of Snowpiercer is introduced basically as a murder mystery. A body is found with a severed penis, a callback to a murder from two years earlier, one that had been hastily and apparently inadequately solved.
The crime runs the risk of instigating tensions between the train’s three established economic classes, so Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), head of hospitality and lone connection to the train’s messianic founder Mr. Wilford, is willing to do whatever it takes to restore order.
That means going to the train’s tail, an overcrowded ghetto of impoverished non-paying riders perpetually on the verge of revolution. Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) is one of the more vocal leaders for the unwashed masses, who are desperate and prone to cannibalism. Layton is a former homicide detective, the only person with those qualifications on the train. Can he solve the penis-hacking murder and restore order? Would he even want to? Do we really care?
It’s easy to understand why the Snowpiercer adapters decided to use this banal hook. Plucking a homicide detective out of the tail and giving him access both to the laborers in third class and the parasitic opulence of first class establishes a mobility that the feature film eschewed. The film was basically a march up the train, clear and simple. Here, Layton and Melanie and several other characters are navigating back-and-forth with limited continuity or sense of distance or time.
Layton, who has never left the tail in the seven-year Snowpiercer journey, can be the eyes and ears of the audience learning about the train’s warped system of law and order and punishment, as well as the escalating perks of the train’s class system. The early episodes provide, for Layton and for us, eye-opening exposure to the Drawers, where punished passengers exist in a chemically imposed hibernation, or the Night Car, a swanky third-class cabaret (featuring performances by Tony winner Lena Hall).
They’re also a bore. On every level. If Layton is a particularly clever investigator, Manson and his writers haven’t figured out how to capture his intelligence, so Diggs is left alternating between waves of incredulity and misery. Connelly, meanwhile, has only waves of wan exhaustion to play, and we’re presented with dozens of interchangeable characters but actually introduced meaningfully to only a handful.
But — and this is a little spoiler-y, but also essential if you have any interest at all in Snowpiercer — the show isn’t really a murder mystery for long. It’s a bait and switch, though really in such circumstances, the bait is supposed to actually be appetizing.
Around the fourth or fifth episodes, Snowpiercer begins to take its actual, occasionally propulsive, form and it improves, occasionally dramatically. The stakes elevate far beyond the one gory murder — between this and The Alienist, TNT is officially your basic cable network of penis removal record — and the action accelerates far beyond people beating Diggs up, which is all that seems to occur for the first couple of hours.
There’s a civil war brewing and that’s what Snowpiercer is about, not the initial chugging-along that left me wondering if the notorious TV debacle Supertrain was available for streaming. It’s not, and I stopped wondering that when later Snowpiercer episodes featured on-train parkour and multiple violent skirmishes (plus several elaborate plans that I couldn’t explain to you under threat of having my arm extended out into the glacial reaches beyond the train and then shattered).
This is around the time that Snowpiercer remembers that the reason the Bong Joon Ho film works as well as it does is because it borders on hilarious at points. I don’t think Manson and company have anything sophisticated to say about class, either in contemporary America or in this extreme dystopic future, nor do I think the scripts are usually very funny. But some of the performances are wonderfully pitched for humor, including an expertly droll Mike O’Malley as part of the train’s security force (plus O’Malley’s sister Kerry as a belligerent elitist in first class); Alison Wright as a member of Melanie’s hospitality team with a zealous devotion to Mr. Wilford; and Annalise Basso as a first-class passenger with a devilish sense of entitlement. Wright is probably the closest to being on the same wavelength as Tilda Swinton in the film, and I appreciated her for that.
Connelly, after that rough start, becomes the anchor for the entire series. Melanie has both secrets and personal traumas, and Connelly kept me guessing as to the character’s motivations and agenda. There’s something wonderfully silly about the way Melanie is constantly scurrying back and forth in precarious high heels on a wobbly train — but whatever sort of woman would still insist on retaining this kind of uncomfortable formality in a postapocalyptic scenario, that’s the sort of woman Connelly is playing.
Diggs never really finds anything interesting to do with Layton and the scenes and episodes that leave Layton and his predictable self-righteousness in the background are the better for it. Almost every performer taking this premise earnestly is in the same boat (or train). The 1,001 cars of Snowpiercer are packed with scruffy and grimy characters whom the show seems convinced we already know and care about, when they’re mostly interchangeable. It’s hard to tell if the disposable nature of these supporting characters is intentional, or if the Snowpiercer cutting room floor is littered with secondary plotlines or discarded drafts giving voices to the voiceless. I’m inclined to believe the latter, because there are abrupt casualties in the first season that the show seems mistakenly certain I was supposed to care about.
The train itself is solidly executed. You won’t be able to really tell me how big it is or justify its mechanics or its path around the world, but that’s probably OK. Perhaps some of those questions will be answered in the second season? Perhaps more of the performances will come into line with what Connelly, Wright and several others are doing. Or perhaps it won’t continue to be peripherally satisfying that Snowpiercer isn’t exactly good, but at least isn’t a disaster.
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Jennifer Connelly, Alison Wright, Mickey Sumner, Susan Park, Iddo Goldberg, Katie McGuinness, Lena Hall, Annalise Basso, Sam Otto, Roberto Urbina, Sheila Vand and Jaylin Fletcher
Showrunner: Graeme Manson
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (TNT)
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