As ridiculous as this may sound, try not to bring bring any baggage onboard “Snowpiercer.” TNT’s long-in-the-works science-fiction series about a post-apocalyptic train ride carrying the last remnants of humanity (and all their pretty stuff!) bills itself as an adaptation of Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s graphic novels and Bong Joon Ho’s 2013 film. But even though those stories send their titular trains down very different tracks, you don’t have to be familiar with either for expectations to burden the latest ride.
“Snowpiercer’s” journey to television was a highly publicized debacle, including more than three years in development, two directors shooting and reshooting the pilot, a controversial showrunner swap, and a ping-pong between WarnerMedia networks. “Snowpiercer” was originally your typical TNT series order. Then, it was announced as the first drama to debut on a revamped TBS, and finally it rerouted back to what, after all that, felt like the basic-cable dumping grounds — especially since the highly touted, originals-lite HBO Max was sitting right there. So, whether you’re a proud member of the BongHive or you simply pay attention to entertainment news, the “Snowpiercer” series either has to live up to Oscar-caliber filmmaking or down to an all-too-fitting train-wreck.
And yet… the first 10 episodes are neither. Season 1 is as about as far removed from Bong’s cinematic vision as you can get, without reaching the “so bad it’s good” level of TV that inspires mouth-agape hate-watching. The show is fine. It’s just fine. In an all-too-obvious twist, it’s exactly the kind of science-fiction drama that TNT has been making for roughly a decade — bound to satisfy former fans of “Falling Skies” or “The Last Ship,” even if it doesn’t quite fit the network’s more recent prestige model built with “Claws,” “The Alienist,” and “Animal Kingdom.”
It certainly doesn’t fit the prestige now synonymous with Director Bong. For those going into “Snowpiercer” with even the faintest memory of the savage Neo-Marxist action flick (now streaming on Netflix), there will be a lot of early hurdles to leap. First off, the TNT series is a reboot, so even though it’s set eight years before the events of the film, don’t expect it to end by introducing Chris Evans. This version picks up nearly seven years after the world froze over and Earth’s last 3,000 survivors climbed aboard Snowpiercer — a perpetually moving train that circles the globe, chewing up snow and ice to make water, grow food, and keep its passengers alive. Built by an eccentric millionaire called Mr. Wilford and made up of 1,001 cars, the train is neatly divided into class systems that mirror most modern capitalist societies: The richest ticket buyers live in luxury near the almighty engine, and each subsequent group sees their quality of life limited to what they can afford, from the working middle class back to the penniless stowaways stuck in a windowless caboose.
Much like reality, first-class passengers are insufferable one-percenters, who take their sumptuous morning breakfast in the Dining Car, before spending their evenings watching live music or betting on prize fights in the Night Car. They don’t have to work, and they each have their own fancy, schmancy room and fancy, schmancy clothes. Lower-class ticket holders have a little less privacy and considerably more responsibilities, whether it’s tending to 11 train cars of vegetable gardens or swimming in the Ocean Car’s floor-to-ceiling fish tanks to forage for seafood. Third-class gets the worst gigs (janitors, maintenance, etc.), but there’s a subset beneath them who would (and do) kill for a sanitation uniform.
© Justina Mintz / TNT
Referred to as “the tail” of the train, its occupants are given an appalling moniker — “tailies” — spat at them as an insult by everyone else on the train and reclaimed as a sickeningly cute rallying cry by the tailies [swallows vomit] themselves. Stuck in a windowless compartment, eating scraps, and kept in the (literal) dark as to the luxury provided up-train, these ticketless riders fought their way onto the train by any means necessary. The series opens with a scene only shared in the movie via monologue, as the desperate men, women, and children who couldn’t afford a ticket to Mr. Wilford’s Ark do what it takes to survive, but Bong saved that speech because the horrific imagery it evoked set the stage for a bloody ending — here, it plays out live because it sets up a bloody show, sure, but not one that’s too shocking to witness.
Aside from the unfortunate nickname, most of the above should sound somewhat familiar to film fans, but that feeling quickly disappears when the “Snowpiercer” series treats its audience like first-class passengers watching lower-class characters. Gone is the claustrophobic camerawork that wedged viewers in with the rebellious tail members. Walls that should push people together (and prohibit camera placement) are moved out of the way, and groups create privacy that shouldn’t be possible without actual compartments. The pilot also bounces around the train at will, introducing you to a sizable ensemble rather than staying in the back of the train until our protagonist, Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), fights his way forward. Gleaming white corridors in first class offer ample space to roam, but the dungeons in the tail feel just as roomy.
Such aesthetic choices may sacrifice the film’s squeamish intensity and, yes, they’re framed from the wrong perspective, but they do make sense for this kind of series. Asking viewers to spend 20 hours in the cramped train car Bong built is a preposterous request for a show gunning for mainstream ratings, and it’s the first hint that this “Snowpiercer” isn’t trying to imitate its cinematic predecessor. As episodes further explore the train, giant stages, generous lighting, and plenty of wide shots give the impression of more room than there could possibly be, while illustrating admirable production design, vivid costuming, and skillful world-building of its own. This isn’t Bong’s “Snowpiercer,” it’s TNT’s.
© Justina Mintz / TNT
Still, the series’ dead ear for goofy language nearly sends it off the rails with two simple words: “train detective.” Though Season 1 does revolve around the same tail section rebellion as the film, it takes a half-season detour when Layton, a former homicide detective, gets escorted up-train to solve a grisly execution. For about four episodes, “Snowpiercer” veers way too close to becoming a TNT police procedural, a la “Murder on the Polar Express” (credit to IndieWire’s Libby Hill for that turn of phrase), and the characters’ repeated insistence on calling Layton the “Train Detective” — as though that’s a normal, everyday title and not the placeholder used in scripts until the writers could think of something better, only they never did — would be reason enough to quit watching. (Why don’t they just call him, “Detective”? It’s not like when he was a homicide detective he asked to be called, “Bathroom Detective” or “Sports Arena Detective — College Division.”)
These are the kind of silly complaints that eventually drift away for fans of science-fiction shows; there were plenty to avoid in “Falling Skies” and even more to lob at “The Last Ship,” which is why if you watched enough of those shows to make a list, “Snowpiercer” will eventually win you over, too. As a season of escapist adventure, you could do far worse: Jennifer Connelly remains an expressive talent who, when she cracks her pristine porcelain features, can break your heart with a single teardrop. No one comes close to Tilda Swinton’s slimy, reptilian transformation — and Diggs often struggles to find a through-line from nuanced personal motivations to big, rah-rah speeches — but supporting players like Alison Wright of “The Americans” more than make up for any missing emotional heft. Most vital: The structure of the season keeps things moving, offering a clear arc and just enough intrigue to keep chugging into Season 2.
For those who stumble across “Snowpiercer” while flipping channels, or learn of its existence from a few online advertisements, it might offer enough silly fun to stick with ’til the end. For everyone else, adjust your expectations now. Sometimes, it’s best to travel light.
“Snowpiercer” premieres Sunday, May 17 at 9 p.m. ET on TNT. The network has already ordered a second season.