11.22.63 TV review (Stan)

A common element in the trajectory of many film and TV narratives – particularly those structured around a would-be hero rising to a challenge – is sometimes referred to as ‘the passage’. It is the point of no return, where the protagonist travels to another place (literal, symbolic or both) and proverbial shit gets real.

The day-glo Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey is a memorable example. Other passage-enabled journeys take themselves less seriously. The phone booth time travelling in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, for example, or when Harry Potter characters run into brick walls.

The title of the first episode of 11.22.63 – a new eight part series that premieres this evening on Stan, adapted from a lengthy Stephen King paperweight of the same name – is titled The Rabbit Hole.

That’s a reference to one of the most famous passages in literature and cinema, Alice’s long and trippy tumble. But in this show the way the protagonist bridges between worlds is more like something out of Narnia.

English teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) is gourmandising at his favourite diner when the owner of the place, Al (Chris Cooper) takes him out back and asks of him an odd request: walk into the closet.

After some tetchy to-and-fro (“can you do me a god damn favour and just walk into the fucking closet!”) Jake obliges. He finds himself magically transported to a Happy Days-looking street, where people drive vintage cars and a milk delivery man in a spotless uniform struggles with a crate of bottles.

A moment later Jack returns to the diner. “What the fuck was that?” he asks. Al responds: “That was October 21st, 1960”.

If the design of the street Jake zaps into resembles the sort of landscape a young Ron Howard might stroll across, milkshake or Mountain Dew in hand, the premise of 11.22.63 is even more all-American. Al believes the time-closet in his kitchen provides an opportunity to rewrite history – particularly to prevent the assassination of JFK.

The entrepreneurial time-travelling restaurateur (entrepreneurial because he buys his meat, literally, at 1960s prices, lugging produce back to present day) has dedicated his life to the cause but is now sick and dying. He convinces Jake to take on the job of finding out who did it and stopping them.

The show’s executive producers include Stephen King and J.J. “The Force Awakens” Abrams. Its directors include Franco and Kevin Macdonald, a former documentary filmmaker who transitioned from making fine non-fiction work (One Day in September, Touching the Void) to narratives including 2006’s Oscar-winning The Last King of Scotland.

Which is to say, 11.22.63 has pedigree. The first (movie length) double episode, which forms the basis of this review, has a Spielbergian feel to it. There are slick production elements all round, a style-takes-backseat-to-story approach and a kind of snazzy old-time appeal.

It’s been sexily marketed as a time travelling action/thriller, but it’s more of a mystery/drama with a fish out of water twist. Jake brings knowledge imparted by Al (recounted to the audience via flashback) to his investigations, often related to specific dramatic situations the old man has already experienced.

Al provides advice on how to get through them, with the mysterious caveat that “if you do something that really fucks with the past, the past fucks with you”.

If Jake tries to prevent something significant from happening, for example, he does so with knowledge that “history” will likely strike back in one way or another. This Final Destination-esque twist means a lot can transpire in purely visual terms – a spontaneous fire or car crash, for example – and also feeds into the story’s key themes.

These revolve around differences between destiny and fate; particularly that the former can be pursued but the latter experienced. Readers of the book will have a handle on where the plot is likely to go, but being clued in doesn’t reduce the fun. It’s been a while since a new TV show has hooked me so quickly.

The most important question is probably how to best consume it. 11.22.63 is thoroughly binge-worthy but new episodes arrive on Stan weekly, after they screen on US streaming service Hulu. To wait and gorge, or to watch piecemeal? That’s not a bad conundrum.

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