In February 2012, Hulu aired one of its first scripted original series, the charmingly lo-fi comedy Battleground, set behind the scenes of a Wisconsin senatorial race. Battleground was the sort of pleasant but slight, watchable but forgettable, cute but unambitious show that content providers typically make when they first start providing original content. These shows—think also of Netflix’s Lilyhammer or Amazon’s Betas—are gentle forays into the jam-packed world of original programming. Like anything slight lobbed softly into a seething crowd, they are swiftly stomped and smashed underfoot. The only way to make an impact is to go big, to spend loads of money on known talent in vast productions. The results may be imperfect, but, as Netflix has capably demonstrated, that doesn’t matter. They get noticed.
Hulu, the streaming service where you can watch the shows you forgot to DVR and their commercials, is finally going big. The show 11.22.63, an eight-episode miniseries based on the Stephen King book, produced by J.J. Abrams, starring James Franco, and focusing on the Kennedy assassination, began airing Monday night, with a new episode to come each week. (Hulu is owned by Disney, Fox, and Comcast, which explains both the tardiness with which it has embraced original content and its aversion to making its shows immediately binge-able: It should not be stiff competition for its network brethren.) The series could hardly be accused of being too little, but it might be too late. There is so much original programming out there that famous names, shiny plots, and a solid twist may be enough to keep a show from getting trampled, but they are not enough to keep it from getting lost in the fray—especially when a show, as with 11.22.63, is awkward and flat, never matching the promise of its premise.
Franco stars as Jake Epping, a divorced teacher living in present day Maine who learns there is a time portal at the back of a closet in his local diner. Al (Chris Cooper), the diner’s proprietor, has been using the portal for some time, and he swiftly explains its rules. It deposits whoever walks through it to the same moment in 1960. (In the book, which is more than 800 pages, Jake goes back to 1958, but the show has made many streamlining alterations.) One can change the past, but the consequences are erased once the portal is used again. And the past hates to be changed—it fights back. Al has become intimately familiar with these quirks because he has spent years in the past, investigating Lee Harvey Oswald and trying, with no success, to stop John F. Kennedy from being assassinated.
The show 11.22.63 has a world-building problem, and it begins at the moment when Al passes his quest on to Jake, who needs less convincing to spend three years in the ’60s than you would to walk your neighbor’s dog. Franco is a talented actor, but he has no facility for normal. In the early episodes he is wooden and spacey, seemingly reprising his downbeat, Quaaluded part as Oscar host, the last time he attempted to play regular. The performance is so inert that it has the decisiveness of a choice: Perhaps Franco means to play Jake, a time-traveler, as a man out of sync with his own time. If so, he has gone too far. He doesn’t just seem like a man living in the wrong time, he seems like a man living on the wrong planet. Even his goatee looks out of place, like pencil shavings growing on the face of man.
A more generous person, or, rather, one who liked this show, might argue that all its jarring, jangling alien-ness is to the point. The show is offbeat because time keeps skipping. But that’s like crediting undercooked brownies for tasting decent: They are still half-baked. The show is undercommitted to its own internal logic. What might be an admirably simple approach to time travel—a magical wormhole at the back of a closet, next to the brooms and the dust bunnies, as a sly joke on all but the most obsessive neatniks—is ill-explained. In 1960 the portal lives at an unmarked spot on open ground: Why aren’t people from 1960 constantly wandering into the diner? Al’s explanation of the butterfly effect misrepresents the butterfly effect, which does not suggest, as Al says, that doing something epic will change history— because, of course—but that doing something slight will have unforeseen consequences. As for unforeseen consequences, neither Jake nor Al seems much concerned with them. Maybe the show exists in a world where The Godfather has been released—Jake uses its plot to get himself out of a jam in the ’60s—but Back to the Future has not.
When Jake first arrives in 1960 and attempts to determine whether the CIA is running Oswald, the past fights back very hard, dropping candelabras, setting fires. But then it chills out for about three years, even while Jake investigates Oswald (played with convincing priggishness by Daniel Webber) and gets intimately wrapped up in the lives of half a dozen people. The past doesn’t seem to care much when he teams up with Bill (George MacKay), a minor character in the book turned major so that Jake’s internal monologue can be dialogue, and irrevocably alters his life, nor does it care when he falls in love with the librarian Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon) and gets violently entangled with her creepy ex-husband.
The crowd scenes are vast—the moments on the grassy knoll right before Kennedy drives through Daley Plaza have an elegance the show generally lacks—but the past and present are otherwise underpopulated. Cherry Jones is on hand as Oswald’s mother, but she is so underused she might as well not be. The insights into the early ’60s—they were more racist; the food tasted better; people wore hats—are so pedestrian they could come from a Wikipedia page or any three minutes of Mad Men.
The series intimates but does not explore some of its more interesting ideas. It seems possible that Jake, like Oedipus, might be encouraging the exact events he hopes to prevent. Oswald is convinced he is under surveillance from the FBI, but the only people who are bugging his house are Jake and Bill. Meanwhile, Bill flirts with Oswald’s wife, Marina, which may exacerbate the breach that pushes Oswald to harm Kennedy. Yet as 11.22.63 storms toward its ending, having become as much a romance as a thriller, it lets this possibility drop.
Unlike such feverish Kennedy fictions as Oliver Stone’s JFK or Don DeLillo’s Libra, 11.22.63 ultimately takes a very reasonable and measured position about a possible conspiracy, concluding that Oswald’s motivations were the most straightforward imaginable. Like the no-frills time-travel device, this is well-intentioned restraint that makes the show way less fun than it should be. The same can be said of the series’s final twist, a surprise that comes with a conservative message: The past might have happened for a reason.