Operation: Save Kennedy.
Note: Minor spoilers for the 11.22.63 premiere follow. For my spoiler-free review of the miniseries as a whole, click here.
Even though it’s presented as a time-travel tale, 11.22.63 is more mystery thriller than science fiction, but that doesn’t prevent it from having fun with its fantastical premise. Based on Stephen King’s 2012 novel of the same name, Hulu’s new miniseries from King, Bridget Carpenter, James Franco, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk posits a fun “What if…?” scenario: “If you could go back in time and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, would you?” But it’s everything that goes along with that question that makes 11.22.63 worth watching.
In the premiere, we meet Jake Epping (Franco), an English teacher who goes back in time to 1960 and attempts to stop JFK from being assassinated three years later in Dallas. To do this, he teams up with a diner owner, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), who shows him a mysterious time portal in the backroom-closet of his eatery and urges him to save JFK in 1963. The reason why is disappointingly half-baked, but Al’s vague explanation is enough for Jake to believe him, so we as viewers go along with it too — at least for the time being.
The same can be said for the physics of the time portal, which are hardly explained at all, and if you’re a stickler for logic, I’m afraid to say no answers will ever come in that respect. Regardless, Al’s rules for time travel — or rather King’s — are incredibly simple and surprisingly ingenious: 1) Every journey through the portal transports the traveler to the exact same date and time in 1960; 2) no matter how long the traveler stays in the past, only two minutes have passed in the present; and 3) the past can be changed, but ensuing visits reset the timeline and erase any changes made during the previous trip. And for reasons that become clear later in the first episode, Al can’t accompany Jake on the three-year mission (though there’s plenty more Cooper in flashbacks).
While the first half of the series’ two-hour premiere sets Jake up for his journey to track down assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the second half revels in the character experiencing 1960 for the first time — and this is where the episode really begins to take shape. Simple things like Jake getting his haircut to look like everybody else’s and tasting real, non-processed food for the first time (which Al correctly insists is better than anything in the 21st century) make for some great character moments with Jake, and by extension Franco.
Later, when Jake arrives in Dallas, we start to learn more about how time itself “pushes back.” I think Al probably puts it best when he explains to Jake, “If you do something that really f***s with the past, the past f***s with you.” While that may not make much empirical sense, it does add a unique obstacle to Jake’s investigation, one that increasingly manifests as the show goes on. In a way, time is the “big bad” of this show, and that becomes clear at the end of this episode. Plus, it looks like Jake will soon begin his own personal vendetta for one of his students, Harry (Leon Rippy), in the second episode, which will likely cause even more trouble.