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11.22.63 review: James Franco tries to save JFK in Hulu's slick, if confusing, miniseries

The adaptation of Stephen King's novel weaves time travel into conspiracy theories to muddled effect.

Time traveler Jake (Franco) and Billy (George MacKay) listen in on Lee Harvey Oswald. This is all true.
Time traveler Jake (Franco) and Billy (George MacKay) listen in on Lee Harvey Oswald. This is all true.

11.22.63, Hulu's new drama, is the TV equivalent of picking up a book at the airport. It moves at a steady clip, is stuffed with cheese, and remains compelling enough to fill an afternoon. But it's also easy enough to leave behind once you have to get back to the real world.

Hulu's miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's novel — featuring former Friday Night Lights producer Bridget Carpenter as its showrunner and Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams as a producer — throws English teacher everyman Jake Epping (James Franco) headlong into the 1960s, so he can stop the assassination of JFK.

Why, you might ask? Well, his friend Al (a wild-eyed Chris Cooper) seems to think that would reverse just about everything bad that's happened since — like the Vietnam War, and maybe racism(?). Anyway, the recently divorced Jake doesn't have much going on right now anyway, so what the hell. Why not?

Once Jake falls through the "rabbit hole" — the time portal lurking in the back of Al's diner — he falls deeper and deeper into webs of conspiracy and the stalwart belief that he has a capital M Mission.

He stakes out Lee Harvey Oswald (a quietly disconcerting Daniel Webber) to make sure the assassin was working alone — the better to justify killing him. He even finds himself a peachy keen 1963 fiancée in Sadie (Sarah Gadon, who finds vulnerable humanity even in her character's thinnest moments), because what fun is time travel if you can't complicate everything with inconvenient love?

King did his research, so all eight episodes of 11.22.63 — now available on Hulu — are bursting with fun facts and figures. But at the end of the day, this is historical fan fiction. Everything presented has to be taken with an enormous grain of salt.

James Franco is just fine, but he can't make Jake less confusing as a hero

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Franco, all 1960'ed up (Hulu)

Even if you haven't read the book 11.22.63 is based on (and I haven't), you can tell what kind of hero Jake's supposed to be.

He's good-looking but doesn't flaunt it, since he's too busy frowning in a contemplative way. He's concerned about the Greater Good and likes the idea that he, of all people, might be the person to save the day. He probably read a Salinger story that blew his mind once, and he's been trying to recapture that moment ever since. He's on good terms with his exes, but they're his exes for a reason.

Franco, whose offscreen exploits have tended to get more headlines than his performances, is occasionally distracting in the role. While he's technically old enough to portray 37-year-old Jake, Franco certainly doesn't read as anywhere close to 37, or the world-weariness Jake's supposed to exhibit. It's telling that Franco's best moments are when Jake is barely treading water, and his worst are when Jake plays hero.

Part of this is on Franco's performance, which is either fully committed or barely present, depending on the scene. But much of the confusion around Jake's character is due to the show's thematic confusion. There are some hints that 11.22.63 is actually the story of how dangerous arrogance is, but it's never quite clear what the series thinks of Jake and his mission until maybe the last 15 minutes of the show. And even then, it's murky.

In theory, adapting a book into a television series gives the adapters more room to portray the intricacies of the original story. If someone had tried to make Game of Thrones a movie before HBO got its hands on it, for instance, it would have been three hours of character introductions and then a last-minute beheading.

But there's an inherent danger in adapting anything from one medium to another. How do you know what to keep? Which details do you excise for efficiency, and which are crucial to the fabric of the story?

It seems as though 11.22.63's attempts to stay streamlined ended up shortchanging its hero. When I asked book readers what they most missed, they mentioned a whole section in King's novel where Jake puts down roots in Jodie, Texas, as a schoolteacher. In the TV series, those two full years are reduced to 30 seconds of Jake walking down a school hallway as the decorations change to reflect the passage of time. It's a neat trick, and surely couldn't have gone as long as it did in the book, but it's still jarring when Jake emerges on the other side fully acclimated to the '60s.

Another example of where the adaptation goes wrong is with Bill (George MacKay), a wide-eyed boy who ends up becoming Jake's counterpart for the whole "let's save the President!" ride. It makes sense that the show would want to give Jake someone to bounce his ideas off. The book, after all, could live in Jake's head, but it would have been much harder for a TV show to let us know exactly what Jake is thinking.

But the way the series loops in Bill makes Jake seem so careless — and so casual with the lives he's affecting during his mission — that he ends up looking much worse for it. Jake has his priorities, namely saving JFK and being with Sadie; everything else is collateral damage.

This could be an intriguing direction to explore with a hero, but 11.22.63 is just here to entertain. And that's fine! But if the series wanted us to look past some truly awful things Jake does in the name of changing the past, it should've clarified what it wanted us to think of its protagonist.

The best moments of 11.22.63 have nothing to do with JFK

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Happy, totally normal, nothing-to-see-here couple Jake and Sadie. (Hulu)

If you're someone who likes to pore over conspiracy theories or fall down Wikipedia black holes until you can no longer see straight, 11.22.63 should be a whole lot of fun. Otherwise, it's hard to parse the actual particulars of the case against Oswald, though 11.22.63 tries to tell you over and over again how important random scraps of dialogue are.

Exposition comes in fits and starts. Whenever Jake encounters a new obstacle, we get clunky flashbacks of him learning everything about JFK and time travel from Al over the course of a single frantic night.

Cooper gets his episode credits in (even though his character dies in the first installment), but these flashbacks are jarring and clumsy. They often serve only to remind us that Jake is assuming he can save the world on the word of a man who seems more unbalanced every time we see him.

The miniseries is at its best when it pauses its political speculations and lets the personal relationships breathe. Jake and Bill's "friendship" is a disaster, but both of them find better onscreen partners elsewhere. Jake makes a friend in Miss Mimi (Tonya Pinkins), a black employee at Jodie High School who deserves much, much better than she gets. Bill, meanwhile, gets close with Oswald's wife, Marina (Lucy Fry), after listening in on the couple's abusive relationship for years.

Jake's romance with Sadie comes at us quickly — again, he logged two years in Jodie without us — but Gadon is wonderful, skewing empathetic and determined as she lifts Franco's lower energy to make sparks happen.

Over time, the show becomes less of a conspiracy thriller than the pair's high-octane love story. Sometimes it's unbearably corny, but other times it's great fun, with Jake and Sadie racing through 1963 Dallas against the tide of the past steadily pushing back against their efforts to change it.

In fact, the throughline of the past fighting back is one of the 11.22.63's silliest concepts — but only because the series never fully commits to it. If it had embraced the messed-up aftershocks of time travel more, not to mention the horrific consequences that come with getting stuck in a time loop of your own making, 11.22.63 could have been a much more complex and satisfying horror series instead of a perfectly competent time travel romp.

The series would've been much more exciting if it had leaned harder into King's horror conventions

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Frank (Josh Duhamel) and Jake (Franco) face off. (Hulu)

For all 11.22.63's exhaustive efforts to recreate this seminal moment in history, its most cohesive, thrilling episode is the second (arriving February 22), which sees Jake abandoning his original mission. "The Kill Floor" features him trying to reverse the fate of Harry, his favorite adult student from the present (Leon Rippy, heartbreaking), who was just a boy when his abusive father killed his entire family in a drunken rage in the 1960s.

"The Kill Floor" is a tense, terrific hour. Jake's messy attempts to reverse fate make for the best, most viscerally disturbing moments of the series, whether he's in a warm and dusty bar or on the chilling "kill floor" of a slaughterhouse.

Harry's father, Frank (Josh Duhamel), is truly terrifying; Jake is terrified of him, and as Frank proves time and again throughout the hour, he should be. Duhamel is terrifically sinister in this role, making Frank a smirking shark who can turn from whiskey-drenched camaraderie to sudden, catastrophic temper tantrums in a heartbeat.

Duhamel's performance and the strength of "The Kill Floor" is underlined even more when, a few episodes later, T.R. Knight tries his hand at a twitchier performance as Sadie's similarly abusive ex-husband, but the material he's working with is just not as strong.

The moments when 11.22.63 leans into the Stephen King of it all are so much more interesting than Jake's boilerplate "heroic" journey. So it's disappointing that these more horrific moments only pop up sporadically after "The Kill Floor." There will be a disorienting hospital visit here, a waking nightmare there, and it all rests on the knife's edge of creepy that defines King's best work.

For the most part, though, 11.22.63 lets the pulp detective story take over, the better to let you immerse yourself in Jake's world for a day before letting it fade away into the recesses of time.

All eight episodes of 11.22.63 are currently available on Hulu.

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