When it comes to “11.22.63” (a title which has ensured that at least I, personally, will never forget the day that President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas), the best place to start is with Stephen King’s book.
But not the novel it’s based on, which tracks the time travel adventures of a high school English teacher who gets a magical opportunity to try to save Kennedy from assassination. Instead, the best way to approach the new Hulu series produced by J.J. Abrams and developed by Bridget Carpenter comes from King’s book on the basics of his profession.
“On Writing,” first released in 2000, is a compelling combination of memoir and King’s personal advice on the art of words, from the point of view of a man who’s easily one of America’s most popular authors, yet isn’t necessarily celebrated as a literary elite. He, in fact, notes in the introduction that no one ever asks popular novelists about what goes into their work, even though “many of us proles also care about the language, in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper.”
This complaint, however you might react to it, serves as a fascinating roadblock on the way to deliberating the difference between populist entertainment and high-brow art. (A debate that observers of television understand all too well.) But before digging into that too hard, let’s make clear what “11.22.63” actually is; a series which, as it turns out, might be one of Hulu’s smartest moves yet.
Jake (played by omnipresent James Franco) is living a relatively ordinary life as a teacher and aspiring novelist when Al (Chris Cooper) asks him to complete a universe-altering mission: Stop Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting President Kennedy. Do that, Al believes, and you prevent the Vietnam War and a legion of other national tragedies. So, armed with all the information Al has on Oswald and the assassination, Jake leaves the modern age behind for the adventure of multiple lifetimes, hoping to return to a better world.
With a high concept like this, there’s a lot of pipe to be laid, but Carpenter and her team maneuver through it relatively quickly. The biggest hurdle for the show to surmount comes at about 14 minutes into the first episode, when Al begs Jake to help in the most direct manner possible: “I need you to go back there to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.”
Chris Cooper does manage to sell the line because it’s a genuine truth that Chris Cooper can sell nearly any bit of dialogue you throw at him. (See our interview with showrunner Bridget Carpenter for more on that.) But it’s a tricky moment that might, just might, inspire a giggle.
The premise is deliciously simple to explain, as seen above, but that doesn’t mean the show lacks layers. The show digs as much as possible into the deeply problematic social issues of the time period Jake travels back to. Sure, it could do so to a greater degree, but there are only eight episodes, and there’s a lot of other work to do.
For example, there’s a love story to be told, as Jake can’t help but connect with the lovely Sadie (Sarah Gadon), a fellow teacher. And there’s plenty to cover about the life and times of Lee Harvey Oswald during those key years because while technically we know who killed Kennedy, the question of whether or not he was acting alone is what drives much of the show’s plot. As any conspiracy freak will tell you, thanks to the mafia, the CIA or maybe both, saving JFK is not as simple as killing baby Hitler.
While Hulu will be releasing the series weekly, all eight parts were made available for critics. There’s a touch of irony in writing a review of this show having seen the whole season but aiming to avoid spoilers, if only because that’s something Jake deals with constantly, as he attempts to fit in with the 1960s. But that’s also the ideal way to review it, because, in theory, this is all we’re getting.
“11.22.63” is constructed not as an ongoing narrative, but as a real, true “limited series.” And not even an “American Horror Story”-style deal. Executive producer Bridget Carpenter, in the interview accompanying this review, is very clear that she doesn’t see another season of this show existing — at least, with her as a showrunner.
That leaves these eight episodes as a clean, direct adaptation of King’s novel, in all the best ways. King’s genius is not in his skill with words, but in his abilities as a storyteller. While at times his books can run a little long, in general he’s a man who, to put it in a parlance fitting for this particular project, can tell a ripping good yarn. It’s this spirit that Hulu’s “11.22.63” emulates: It might never end up in the arena of high art, but it’s great grand storytelling — which is a feat worth celebrating.