Major parts of Dallas were shut down last year for the filming of 11/22/63, and I got excited that this was actually happening after the initial film adaptation of Stephen King's 2011 novel was canceled. Then for some reason it completely left my radar until suddenly I realized the first two episodes of the 8-part series are available.
While 11/22/63 cannot be judged as a whole until the remaining six episodes are up for viewing (instead of the whole thing being put up at once for binging, Hulu's releasing one episode each week), I will say that, I've thoroughly enjoyed these first two episodes, and I think the format suits the material perfectly. A feature film would have been a disaster, as condensing King's novel to its most primary elements would take away some of the great pleasures of the story.
What's most interesting about the book is not so much that it's about a man, Jake Epping (James Franco, and before you groan I'll say he's actually really good here: this is the kind of character Franco excels at, an unexceptional everyman, all sense of smug self-satisfaction we tend to associate him with these days stripped away) who goes back in time to prevent the JFK assassination, but that he must go back to 1958 first: three years is a long time to wait, and it allows King slow down and really give the sense of what it might be like for a man to go back in time fifty years, where the only thing he can really do is start a brand new life.
It also allows him to develop various subplots that seem extraneous but also give the narrative a kind of unhinged freedom. For example, the first episode starts with a old man named Harry who is attempting to get his high school diploma at the school where Epping (James Franco) teaches writing classes. Harry reads a highly succinct and very disturbing account of how his father murdered his mother and sister on Halloween night in 1958. When Epping goes back to 1958, he initially travels to Dallas for some preparatory investigations about an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald, but he runs into trouble and leaves town. He then winds up in the town where Harry grew up and realizes that he can stop his father's killing rampage. This story, which is exciting in its own right, takes up the entire second episode, without any mention of Kennedy or Oswald.
You might ask what's the point of this, why this time travel world created by King has to begin in 1958 rather than a few years later when it could just cut to the chase and delve into all the geeky JFK stuff? We're not even in the third episode and already we're asking ourselves: what exactly is this story about? Having read the book, I can tell you that it will only wander even further from the initial premise to the point where it really seems that this is several different stories packed in one.
But part of the allure of the show is not the novel premise of a man from the future preventing the JFK assassination, but the idea of someone being thrown into a new world and watching how they remain the person that they were while also creating a new self dictated by the new environment (though the show does have fun with Jake's knowledge of the future: he bets on sporting events to which he already knows the outcome, uses his i-phone with a stupid youtube video to thwart off a thug, and when he tells a man he served in the Korean War, he claims his outfit was 4077 MASH). At the end of the day, this is a character piece, which is why the entire second episode is devoted to Epping carrying out a task that means something to him.
But it is also based on a King novel, so it has fun with all sorts of strangeness too, like a mysterious man in a yellow suit who keeps appearing before Epping, and the idea of the stubbornness of the past, that it doesn't want to be changed and will throw obstacles in the way to prevent its alteration.
It's fun, just campy enough, as any story of this sort should be, and anchored by a strong character who we don't quite know, but care for nonetheless. We'll learn about him and what he's capable of, just as he will. I'll keep watching.