11.22.63, a Hulu production based on Stephen King’s novel, is a sneakily involving mini-series. It makes you wonder why it’s spending so much time on stories other than its main tale of a writer named Jake Epping (James Franco) traveling back in time to try to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but after a while you relax (or should) and accept that it’s pursuing its own peculiar agenda, and it’s not quite what you thought. I went into it with arms folded because I’ve seen lot of time-travel stories and a lot of conspiracy thrillers. But this mini-series is not either of those things, exactly. Pretty soon the real point sinks in. 11.22.63 is mainly about telling stories and listening to stories, and the empathetic transfer that happens when the listener really feels what the speaker is saying, and the danger of the listener wanting not merely to help the speaker by validating his experiences but by directly intervening in his life — a gesture that can lead not to resolution but more complications, or disaster.
Although it gets cooking as a thriller eventually, the first three hours are a protracted detour — or feel like one. The pilot starts with an older man named Harry Dunning (Leon Rippy) telling Jake about how his mother and sister were murdered by his father on Halloween night in 1960. We see horrific glimpses of the crime in flashback. Then Jake’s good friend, a diner owner named Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), collapses of cancer-related exhaustion, reveals his disease to Jake, and asks him to take over for him as a time pilgrim, traveling through a portal in a closet of his home and entering 1960. The ultimate goal, says Al, is to somehow prevent the president’s murder three years after that, perhaps by finding out if accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) attempted to kill General Edwin Walker on April 10, 1963, with the same rifle allegedly used on November 22, 1963. There are rules, which Al explains to Jake: You always enter on the same date in 1960, and you have to stay there continuously because if you leave and return to the present, time resets to exactly where it was before you intervened (which means this mini-series’ time-travel scenario is a bit like the plot of the Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow).
Al says his concern is making the life of the United States collectively better by stopping JFK’s murder, but he seems like he’s mainly working through his own personal demons. By Al’s “Butterfly Effect” logic, if Kennedy doesn’t die, Johnson doesn’t succeed him, U.S. presence in Vietnam shrinks and disappears rather than escalates, and Al never serves in combat in Vietnam. Jake initially enters the portal out of loyalty to his friend, not because he deeply believes in the scenario that Al is trying to sell him. And then he gets sidetracked. The very qualities that make Jake a good writer and teacher — his ability to really listen to other people and take their emotions personally — makes him a dangerous candidate to travel through time and intervene in history (if indeed there’s such a thing as a good candidate, and there probably isn’t). Jake is an interventionist do-gooder. And as in Holden Caulfield’s description of the dream that gives The Catcher in the Rye its title, Jake can’t save everybody — and maybe he shouldn’t be trying to save anybody, because the universe prefers linear time and abhors do-overs. “If you do something that fucks with the past, the past fucks with you,” Al warns him.
The highlight of the first couple of episodes is a scene where Jake takes a room in a small-town boarding house run by a God-fearing couple played by Annette O’Toole and Michael O’Neill. I would rather not describe exactly what Jake is doing in that boarding house and in that particular town (if you’ve read the novel, you already know; no spoilers in the comments section, please) except to say that this scene is only tangentially related to that subplot, which in turn is only tangentially related to Jake trying to stop the murder of JFK. But it seems all of a piece with the rest of the mini-series, because as the man tells the tale of a battlefield atrocity he was party to during World War II, the camera focuses on his face, and on Jake’s face listening, and suddenly we’re traveling down a different branch of the time tree, and you can see from the horror and fascination in Jake’s eyes that he’s identifying with and reaching out to this man, too, and that the story could just as easily be about Jake trying to change this man’s history.
As produced by King, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burke, and Bridget Carpenter, 11.22.63 is sprawling and rather leisurely, to an extent that might prove a deal-breaker for some. And many of the storytelling choices are overly emphatic. Beginning with “Stay” in the very first 1960 scene (“Why don’t you stay / Just a little bit longer”) the music editorializes in a Robert Zemeckis–y way, which is not out of bounds, considering the Back to the Future aspect, but is annoying.
But the net effect is ultimately intoxicating if you accept that the digressions are the point of the story, and are in fact inevitable given the sort of person Jake is. Franco is a very good actor when he seems 100 percent focused on the material at hand (which I gather is not very often considering all the stuff he’s involved with at any given moment), and he’s in rare form here. A lot of the production consists of simply following Jake around as he talks to people and listens to people and improvises lies to get himself out of tight spots (at one point he says he served in Korea in a MASH unit, the 4077th). Franco just has to be present for the other actors and listen to them and feel whatever they’re feeling. Considering how terrific most of the character actors in 11.22.63 are, that must have been a pleasurable job. As a classic Stephen King–style preening alpha male, Josh Duhamel is genuinely scary, and there are excellent supporting performances as well-known historical personages as well, including Webber as Lee Harvey Oswald and Cherry Jones as Marina Oswald. Jack Fulton is affecting as young Harry Dunning, an abused child who seems to have developed the nonchalant, slightly blank demeanor of a kid who’s been terrorized in so many different ways that he starts living half in and half out of a waking dream state. This mini-series is taking place in a waking dream state, too. When Jake reenters the portal it’s as if he’s going to sleep in hopes of having the same dream yet again and making it turn out differently.