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Since becoming a household name, Hulu has largely been known and championed for being one of the only legit websites out there with a sizeable selection of TV shows for next-day streaming, and it has gained more traction in recent years by producing its own original content, mostly in the comedy and documentary/reality realm. But now the streaming service is nearing the halfway point for its first adult drama, 11.22.63, and unless things go very wrong in the near future – for the show and not its trouble-finding lead character – then viewers can take comfort in knowing Hulu is just as capable of delivering engaging and high-quality dramas as Netflix and Amazon.
11.22.63 was a superb choice for Hulu to initially break into the drama genre with. For one, it’s based on a Stephen King novel, which immediately gave it a potential built-in audience. Second, it was developed by former Friday Night Lights and Parenthood writer Bridget Carpenter, along with Bad Robot’s J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk. Third, it tapped the ubiquitous James Franco for the lead role. Fourth, it’s a time-travel story about trying to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which is a primo narrative any way you look at it. And fifth, it’s only got eight non-imposing episodes to dive into, and although there are precedents for “limited series” getting more seasons – Under the Dome, you S.O.B. – 11.22.63 can’t really go on beyond the novel’s story it’s telling without becoming an anthology series.
In the show, Franco plays English teacher Jake Epping, who gets tasked with one of the most dangerous and seemingly impossible missions in the world after discovering his buddy Al (Chris Cooper) has a mysterious wormhole in his diner that leads back to one specific moment in October 1960. Al has attempted to get to the bottom of J.F.K.’s death, but there are problems, such as having to live in the past for more than three years while waiting for the big day. As well, though every wormhole trip looks like it only takes a few seconds to those in the present, the person going through is living in real time relative to their age, so that person emerges from the wormhole older than he or she was when going in. And every time someone goes back, everything in the past resets. No exceptions.
To be expected, Jake’s trip back to 1960 isn’t just him sitting around a barren apartment while waiting for 1963 to get there. He has to become one with the past, which includes figuring out how to get money (which Al helps with), how to dress and act, and remembering not to make references to post-1960 anything. Of course, there’s also a romantic interest, as played by Sarah Gadon, as well as several threats plaguing Jake, both human and…something else. You see, when you try to change the past, the past pushes back.
I could rhetorically ask, “What’s to not like about this premise?” but that risks an onslaught of snarky responses, so I’ll just directly state that there’s nothing unlikeable about the premise. It’s an endlessly intriguing take on time travel that differs from other shows that use the sci-fi trope, such as The Flash, Doctor Who and 12 Monkeys, to name a few. The stakes are huge in a situation like this, and if the story continues to follow the book’s outline, those stakes will certainly rear the ugliest of heads in the near future. And if Hulu is coming out of the gate with a show as high-concept as this, the sky is the limit for what the service will be able to do in the future.
This kind of a series doesn’t need to look spectacular in order to be interesting, but viewers are in luck on that front as well. The series’ aesthetic, particularly when Jake is in the past, is rather like looking a series of old photos; well, I guess it’s more like looking at newer photos with an 11.22.63 filter on Instagram, but you know what I mean. There’s something not quite modern about it all, understandably, and directors like Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Fred Toye (Person of Interest and James Strong (Broadchurch) lend the kind of cinematic quality that one has come to expect from high-concept streaming dramas. It’s no Man in the High Castle, admittedly, but then nothing else is quite like that either.
Sadly, if there is anything to occasionally complain about, it’s some of the performances. I’m neither one of those people who adores James Franco to death nor one that thinks he’s a complete waste of space, and I think he’s genuinely enjoyable more often than not. But there’s something missing from his all too subdued take on Jake Epping, and it might just be because the character is coming to grips with the incredible situation he’s caught up in, but Franco never actually looks like he’s mentally caught up in the thick of it. And while I think Chris Cooper is an incredible actor, his purpose here is 90% exposition-while-coughing. It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s unfortunate.
In any case, it’s not like those guys are actually terrible or anything, and they’re thankfully surrounded by awesome actors elsewhere, which will likely continue as the series goes on. The most notable of the second-tier performers is Josh Duhamel, who fucking kills it as Jake’s first hurdle, Frank Dunning, who is involved with a particular side quest that Jake has in mind in relation to one of his students in the present, played by Leon Rippy. As well, George MacKay is pretty solid as Jake’s partner-in-stopping-crime Bill Turcotte. And though he’s only had a few moments to shine in these early episodes, Daniel Webber is downright striking as Lee Harvey Oswald, the main antagonist in all of this.
Hulu has made us laugh over the years with shows like The Awesomes, Difficult People and the Hotwives shows, but now we know that the company is equally capable of putting together gripping dramas. And that bodes extremely well for the service, as it helps expand our optimism for Aaron Paul and Hugh Dancy squaring off later this month in the cult drama The Path, and it gets us even more pumped for Hugh Laurie’s return to TV in Chance coming later this year. Watch out, Netflix and Amazon. The competition is getting more fierce.
New episodes of 11.22.63 debut on Hulu on Mondays. Watch them, before it’s too late.