James Franco saves JFK in Hulu’s time-travel thriller: As messy yet fun as its premise suggests.
One attribute Hulu’s 11.22.63 does not share with its primary human antagonist- Lee Harvey Oswald- is strong focus. Pitched as “James Franco Goes Back In Time To Stop The JFK Assassination”, this 8-part adaptation of Stephen King’s novel takes so many detours away from its central conceit that by the end of its tedious run, one’s investment in the stakes has fallen to an unthinkable low. Franco stars as Jake, a present day community college English teacher asked to travel back to the 1960s by his restaurant-owner friend Chris Cooper to prevent the killing of President Kennedy on November 22 1963. Unfortunately, Jake can only travel to a date three years before 11.22.63, so we have to suffer through 7-ish episodes of largely irrelevant set-up that see Jake make friends, meet a lady (the extraordinarily dull Sarah Gadon) and get beaten up many times.
The pilot is a fantastic feature-length piece of television. Fun and gripping, director Kevin Macdonald does a superb job of balancing the 2016-era grit of Jake’s present laugh with the 1960 glamour. Cooper is immensely watchable, as always, and Jake’s visit to a Kennedy rally is as powerful a scene as the series offers.
From Episode 2, things rapidly go south. Jake dedicates an entire episode to stopping a working class factory worker (Josh Duhamel) from murdering his family: absolutely nothing to do with JFK, and a too-early diversion from the premise. It later plays an important role in Jake’s journey, but will likely lose many viewers with its sheer irrelevance.
The entrance of George Mackay as Jake’s co-conspirator in the race against time is a breath of fresh air: his character has a vengeance and brings a raw aggression to the show. However, this is diluted by the entrance of Gadon’s characterless school librarian love interest.
One of the series’ greatest strengths is its three-dimensional exploration of Lee Harvey Oswald: portrayed by an intensely frantic Daniel Webber. He’s a far better crafted character than Franco’s Jake or anyone else in the show. 11.22.63 is at its dramatic best when showing his transition from alienated intellectual to cold-blooded killer.
As a series (and an overlong one at that), 11.22.63 doesn’t live up to the strong potential of its terrific pilot. It does, however, bear enough well-built elements to justify viewing, and defeats- by a very wide margin- Under the Dome as the decade’s best Stephen King TV adaptation. What an achievement indeed!