Hulu’s ‘Kindred’ Series Is Filled with Big Ideas, but They Haven’t Come Together Yet

Bogged down by exposition and mystery-box motifs, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' adaptation of Octavia Butler's classic needs more time to find its stride.
“KINDRED” --  "Dana" -- Season 1, Episode 1 (Airs December 13) Pictured: Mallori Johnson as Dana.  CR: Tina Rowden/FX
Mallori Johnson in "Kindred"
Tina Rowden / FX

FX assembled a formidable, curiosity-driving team to adapt “Kindred” for television. Showrunner and writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama, as well as a MacArthur fellow. Even though he only has a few TV credits, they still include a consulting producer gig on a little Emmy juggernaut called “Watchmen.” He’s joined by fellow tick-tock colleague Victoria Thomas, the exceptional, Emmy-winning casting director behind everything from “Ed Wood” and “Ali” to “The Leftovers” and “Insecure.” “Zola” director Janicza Bravo helms the pilot, while the series’ other executive producers include “The Americans” masterminds Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, as well as some guy named Darren Aronofsky.

Such talent behind the camera befits both the classic novel on which the series is based — Octavia Butler’s 1979 book is still a strong seller today, while being taught in high school classrooms and college campuses across the nation — as well as the big swings taken in translating the author’s words to TV. Ambitious creativity is often called for in telling an oft-told story in a new medium, for a new audience, and “Kindred” (available exclusively on Hulu) is full of bold changes that force readers to reconsider what they’re watching.

…they just haven’t landed. Not consistently during the eight-episode first season, at least, but perhaps “not yet” serves as the more appropriate warning. The FX production is meant to be an ongoing series, not a limited run (as previously reported), and despite a pilot that plows through quite a bit of plot, “Kindred” is just approaching some of the book’s most challenging character moments and thematic ideas when Season 1 ends. Given the people involved and its compelling premise, Season 2 could really take off. But for some, getting there may simply be too taxing, too indefinite, to keep pushing forward.

The first thing we see, spinning in rapid circles, is a ceiling fan, and Bravo’s camera, in a movement replicated later in the episode, pans down to a hand laying softly on the floor. The first-person perspective then shifts, and we see the woman who’s been muttering, then shouting, the name “Kevin,” while laying motionless in a shadowy, largely empty home. Soon, she stands. She examines her back, which is bleeding, and pours salt in a bathtub filled with warm water. As she soaks her wounds, she wraps one hand around the straps of a duffel bag filled with two small knives, aspirin, and other, unspecified supplies. (She did not take the handgun seen in her refrigerator.)

Almost as soon as she’s out and dressed (a painful endeavor made more difficult by her shaking hands), lights from a police car roll through her windows. An anxious neighbor is standing on her front lawn, straining to see inside. The cops knock on the door, asking to come in and make sure she’s OK. She tells them she’s fine, but they don’t listen. The pounding grows louder and louder, as she backs away, deeper into the house.

Then, she’s smiling. It’s two days prior, and Dana (Mallori Johnson) is sprawled out in bed, watching Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Caroll) eviscerate an enemy on “Dynasty.” Taking notes between laughs, we come to learn Dana has just moved to Los Angeles with hopes of writing for television. Yet unlike other aspiring Hollywood types in their mid-twenties, she’s got a house of her own and a bit of money to burn, after selling her grandmother’s New York City brownstone. Her huge financial decisions paired with a surprise cross-country move have Aunt Denise (Eisa Davis) worried, but Dana soon has bigger issues to deal with than figuring out how to format dialogue.

One evening, Dana dreams she’s in a different house — only, it doesn’t feel like a dream. She turns out the light by her bed, but when her eyes open, a lit candle reflects in her iris. There’s a baby in the room and strangers whispering in the pitch-black hallway. When they spot Dana, one woman screams and charges her. Dana wakes up shouting, clinging to her comforter, standing in her own living room again — not sure what’s happened.

“KINDRED” -- "Sabina" -- Season 1, Episode 2 (Airs December 13) Pictured (L-R): Micah Stock as Kevin Franklin, Mallori Johnson as Dana James. CR: Tina Rowden/FX
Micah Stock and Mallori Johnson in “Kindred”Tina Rowden / FX

Anyone who’s read “Kindred” knows exactly what’s going on, but the pilot hits the accelerator to make its core conceit clear: Dana’s dreams turn into an inexplicable reality. She’s going back in time to the year 1815, where a family of white plantation owners and a community of Black slaves may carry links to Dana’s past. Who she’s meant to see, why she’s being pulled back, and how she can move through time are all questions teased out throughout the first season, and not all of them are answered. But the opening shot alone — and how it stands in direct opposition to the book’s initial flash-forward — serves as a warning to anyone expecting the same story: This “Kindred” is a bit different.

Make that very different. Without spoiling anything for viewers coming to “Kindred” with fresh eyes, Dana is soon accompanied on her journey by Kevin (Micah Stock), a waiter who she starts dating shortly after her first “dream.” A former musician who lives with his well-off sister, Kevin, I believe, is meant to mirror Dana’s adrift state; two lost youths who cling to each other when there’s nothing else to cling to. But while Kevin is clearly a bit off — his scraggly beard, haphazard tattoos, and torn band T-shirts clash with his elegant dinner attire at the fine-dining establishment where he’s been working — it’s hard to tell if Dana is actually unsettled or just perceived to be unsettled. She’s got a plan, she’s secured a place to live, and she’s moved to L.A. in order to be close to “the only family I have left” — all of which are rather sound decisions for someone who still only finds purpose and conviction in her journeys to the past.

These choices are a shift from the Dana introduced in the novel, and such cloudy character-building combined with Dana and Kevin’s nascent relationship makes processing the rest of “Kindred”  — time travel! family trees! puzzles to solve! more time travel! — particularly challenging. The pilot launches into its central mystery before we get a grip on who Dana is, who Kevin is, what they want, or what they need. It ends with another twist sure to pique readers’ interest and meant to hold viewers’ attentions. The first hour is overwhelming, but at least it moves. Ensuing episodes slow way down, without providing a better foundation for its two leads and instead focusing on the Weylins, who run the plantation, and the show’s mystery-box motifs: What triggers each trip to the 1800s? How does Dana get back to the present? Can she bring people from one era to the other? How?

If you enjoy stitching together clues, “Kindred” might keep you hooked long enough to finish the first season. After the hourlong pilot, all but one episode clocks in at 42 minutes or less. There are plenty of tense interactions between Dana and the Weylins, as she tries to explain why she’s there or where she goes, and thankfully, “Kindred” is honest about the abuse Black Americans faced during slavery without fetishizing their pain. (The book was hailed for Butler’s authentic portrayal of what slaves endured, but times have changed, and the author herself said she toned down the violence in order to make the story accessible to readers.) Seeing the juxtapositions between Dana’s struggles in 1815 and her life in 2016 can be eye-opening, even though it feels like there’s more to be said.

Perhaps there is. Each actor settles in nicely. Stock’s jarringly deep voice takes some getting used to, but he depicts the contorting fragility of Kevin’s white privilege with nuanced precision, and Johnson threads a fine line between conviction and collapse, as her growing determination to help her 19th century family is met with escalating resistance to her very being. “Kindred” Season 1 ends on the precipice of some of the book’s most riveting concepts. A potential second season would have all the tricky exposition out of the way and could pivot harder into what works best in Season 1, as many second seasons do: like Dana’s internal dilemmas, further exploring her ancestors’ identities, and fleshing out the telling parallels at the heart of Butler’s time-hopping story. With a creative team carrying so much potential — who clearly have a vision in mind, even if its clarity has yet to shine through — it would be a shame not to see what’s next. Adaptations should forge their own space, and they shouldn’t be easy. “Kindred” knows that, and its audience should, too.

Grade: B-

“Kindred” Season 1 premieres all eight episodes Tuesday, December 13 exclusively on Hulu.

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