Going back in time never seems to end well, does it? Step on a butterfly in the course of your innocent Tyrannosaurus hunting, and you might find that Trump is polling exceptionally well in the present. Try killing Hitler, and you find that living a life of constant assassination attempts caused a mild-mannered painter to turn to Fascism. In Terminator 2 Judgment Day was averted, but they failed to prevent Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, or Terminator Genisys from occurring. All things considered, you or I would probably be skeptical if someone told us about their foolproof plan to prevent the JFK assassination.
In J.J. Abrams’ television adaptation of Stephen King’s novel 11.22.63, Chris Cooper has just such a plan. According to him, if JFK had lived there’d have been no Vietnam War (dubious) or Robert Kennedy assassination (reasonable), though he hasn’t considered the enormous strides in Civil Rights made by Lyndon Johnson, who might never have become Prez had Kennedy lived. It’s like I said, messing with history is a mug’s game. But evidently James Franco is a mug; when Chris Cooper becomes too old and cancer-ridden to stop the assassination, he handpicks schoolteacher and occasional writer Franco as the inheritor of his mission. Cooper has a cupboard, you see, which leads to 1960, and over the years he’s been nipping back, mostly to place bets on sporting outcomes and buy cheap meat. A few times he’s done like he tells Franco to do, and tried stopping the assassination, but three years per go in the past is a big ask, and history itself keeps throwing obstacles in his path. This should probably be a big red flag against what he’s attempting, but he carries on anyway. After a mercifully brief period of persuasion – we the audience already know the show’s premise – Franco agrees.
An aside is called for, here, on how time travel works in 11.22.63. The closet exists within a diner in Lisbon, Maine, in 2016. By walking through the closet you appear on a normal street in Lisbon in 1960. You can go back through that portal at any time, and emerge from the closet in 2016, two minutes having passed since you left, but any changes you made to history will now be reflected. If you go back through the closet again then you’ll restart from the same point in 1960. Theoretically, this ought to give James Franco – and Chris Cooper before him – almost unlimited goes at getting things right, but this never seems to occur to either of them. Franco, a mild-mannered schoolteacher and a writer in his spare time, is peculiarly unambitious, happy to continue to follow Cooper’s advice and ideas when in the past. Cooper wants to be certain Lee Harvey Oswald really did assassinate Kennedy before taking any action, in case he ends up killing an innocent man. What never occurs to either of them is that they could kill Oswald in 1960, go straight back through the portal, and observe whether Kennedy still died that day or not. If he didn’t, then Oswald wasn’t innocent; if he did, then’s the time to start hunting for the real gunman. It’s one of only several plotholes that are caused by the unusually generous rules for how time-travel works. There is a wasted opportunity to see Franco trying various changes in the past and seeing how he impacts the present, but instead he jumps back in time ten minutes into the first episode, then remains there until towards the end of the final episode.
But the time Franco spends in the past is a real blast. 11.22.63 is a hokey show, and therefore lacks the social history of something like Mad Men, but its joy in period detail is infectious. The hallmarks of King are readily apparent everywhere: the procession of classic cars; the writer-in-peril protagonist; the Maine setting, even in a show whose key event takes place in Dallas, Texas; the frank treatment of human cruelty; a weird old tramp character with ambiguous motivations; the theme of the death of American innocence. King is more interested in American myth than American history, and so scholars of Kennedy’s life and death might be dissatisfied by the extremes of light and dark that they are respectively accorded. But that’s part of the show’s premise; one might as well quibble that time-travel is far-fetched. What matters is that Franco’s character believes Cooper’s theories of alternate history, and if we can buy that, then we can buy everything that follows. For all King’s flaws, his strengths are readily apparent here, most obviously the tightly-plotted, absolutely compelling storytelling. Episode 1 might begin slowly, but from the moment Franco gets into the spirit of the early-60s, getting a shave, a haircut, and a tailored suit, the tone is established, and the entertainment factor barely dips until the conclusion. If you have the DVD as I did, then you’ll be sorely tempted to watch the whole thing in a single sitting, like some monstrous eight-hour movie.
Whatever timeframe you watch it in, though, you’ll get a thoroughly entertaining, if lightweight, sci-fi/espionage/political thriller adventure with a beautifully-pitched ending. The look and the feel of the show are just lovely, but the flaw that is always vaguely apparent is that there’s something lightweight about it. Oliver Stone’s JFK is a steaming pile of hogwash, but it had the weighty feel of a major event picture. While eight episodes makes for a lovely, tight throughline of plot that never drags, it might have been too little to ever really explore why Kennedy mattered, or what surrounded his assassination. Typical of the treatment of history here is that a chance encounter with Jack Ruby is no more than that, an Easter egg for those who’ve done their homework ahead of time. Those who haven’t might find themselves bewildered; those who have will find themselves underwhelmed. Lee Harvey Oswald himself is a major character, but all we ever really find out about him is that he has a funny voice and a chip on his shoulder. In all, everything that’s here is handled very well, very professionally. What might leave a viewer unsatisfied is what’s not here; just like real history, it’ll do, but we might always look back and wonder how well it could have turned out.
11.22.63 is now out on DVD and Blu-ray, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!