11.22.63 S01E01 “The Rabbit Hole” REVIEW

11.22.63 Season 1 Episode 1: The Rabbit Hole

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stars 3.5

Airing in UK on: FOX, Sunday, 9pm
Writer: Bridget Carpenter, based on novel by Stephen King
Director: Kevin Macdonald

 

Essential Plot Points

  • The first episode begins with a story, told by Harry the janitor at a school in Lisbon in Maine, USA. It’s about murder of his family by his father when he was young.
  • Jake Epping is his friend and English teacher.
  • Jake signs his divorce papers with his wife in the diner owned and run by Jake’s friend Al Templeton.

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  • Al gets a mysterious illness (time travel cancer) and shows Jake his time travel closet, which he calls “The Rabbit Hole”.
  • Jake goes through closet to 31 October 1960 but leaves quickly after being told he shouldn’t be there by the creepy “Yellow Card Man”. Also, he’s a bit shellshocked by the experience.
  • Al gives Jake a mission to save JFK.
  • The rules:
    • Every time Jake goes back in time events are reset.
    • No  matter how long he stays in the past, only two minutes ever pass in the present.
    • You only ever emerge on 31 October 1960 so Jake will have to stick around for three years to prevent the assassination of JFK on 22 November 1963.
  • Jake accepts the mission after seeing Harry graduate but finding out he will not be promoted.
  • In the past he used the Back To The Future way of making money by betting on sport where he knows the outcome.
  • Jake places a bet after buying fancy car and makes an enemy of “little Eddy” after winning (too) big.
  • When Jake checks into motel, Little Eddy’s man comes for him – he escapes using his mobile phone as a distraction.
  • Jake gets rid of his phone.
  • Jake tries to call his dad but a random car crash nearly kills him and the dying driver says; “You shouldn’t be here”.
  • Jake has to track a Russian expat – who Templeton believes has links to JFK’s suspected killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. He tracks him to a JFK rally.
  • Random events get in the way to stop Jake on his way to Tex-Mex restaurant while following the Russian.

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  • Jake returns to the boarding house to find that a random fire destroyed all of his things.
  • Jake decides to head south to save Harry the janitor’s family from being killed.

 

Review:

The first episode of 11.22.63 proves to be classic Stephen King with plenty of intrigue and suspense, centred around time travel but its foundation comes across a little too fractured to make it entirely satisfying.

Based on the book of the same name, 11.22.63 tells the story of Jake Epping (James Franco) a recently divorced English teacher from Lisbon, Maine USA who is tasked with traveling back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. While this is quite an abstract premise this is just as much a period piece as it is science fiction. The has much more fun exploring how America has changed since 1960 (Stephen King is also good when it comes to nostalgia) rather than playing with time travel, although there are some excellent “timey wimey” moments.

The first notable point about this show is its opening sequence, an aspect of television production that is becoming an artform in itself. The minimalist sequence combined with a theme tune that sounds like it was played by an orchestra of clocks evokes the tension and paranoia of an espionage thriller set in the ’60s. A good opening sequence is a staple of a successful contemporary TV show and 11.22.63’s title sequence perfectly sets the tone.

The first episode, titled “The Rabbit Hole”, begins with an unsettling tale from one of Jake’s mature students who also happens to be the janitor at the school. He tells a harrowing story of his mother and sibling’s murder at the hands of his father. It’s important to note this is how the show opens because it shows the effect of significant events in time. Harry the janitor (Leon Rippy) is weary and monotonous so much so that he almost seems entirely unhinged because of what happened to him in the past. This is also an intelligent foreshadowing of events to come in the second episode.

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Jake is an affable character but there’s not an awful lot of depth to him. Franco plays Jake with his usual charm but he’s certainly not stretching himself. This is best illustrated by an early scene where Jake signs his divorce papers like he’s signing for a parcel. We do learn he has writer’s block (something that seems to affect many King leading characters) but this is quickly sidelined by the big reveal of the “Time Closet”. It’s not much of a defining character trait.

The closet is revealed by Jake’s friend Al Templeton (played by the industrious Chris Cooper) and despite an initial, “I don’t believe it,” reaction Jake seems to accept the fact that his friend has time-wormhole in his diner pretty much in his stride. This is one of the first major issues with this narrative: the lack of gravity that is given to this discovery. Jake takes almost no time to consider accepting the quest to save JFK when Al reveals he can no longer pursue it because he has cancer. The tension is sucked away from the moment and it tells us very little about what drives Jake. You begin to suspect  the brief divorce papers scene was deliberately inserted to tell the audience he has nothing tying him to the present.

But what follows is a slick montage of Jake blending into the 1960s juxtaposed against Al explaining the rules of time travel. The most notable is that any trip back in time – no matter how long – lasts two minutes in the present. Also, while changes in the past will affect the present in a “butterfly effect” way, another trip into the past will reset those changes. This rule seems a little convenient but has the potential to be an interesting plot device if handled correctly. However, what really stands out in this sequence is the attention given to the setting from the clothes Jake purchases to the car he drives even the way random people interact with him. It feels authentic, an excellent aspect of this show that asks viewers to reflect on how different, a not long forgotten time, this is to the present.

Another interesting element of this narrative is that time is fighting back. This is to say that the more Jake changes the more the world around him puts him in jeopardy. Examples include thugs trying to kill him when he wins a bet in a Back-To-The-Future-style scheme to make money, and a freak car accident almost killing him when he tries to contact his father in the past. This is textbook Stephen King – a sinister, intangible adversary – further emphasised when Jake is repeatedly told, “You shouldn’t be here” by different characters, including the dying woman in the car crash, which is particularly unsettling. The tone of the first episode, especially the creeping tension, is what will make sure audiences to return for the second episode. Certainly, Jake’s decision to save Harry and his family could have dire consequences considering how his meddling in the past has panned out in this episode.

There is certainly potential for 11.22.63 to become a big success. Its all-star cast and production values will deliver but its characters, in particularly Jake, need to be explored further for audiences to be fully invested in the narrative. The rules of the show will also need to be explored and contextualised in order for the lengthy set-up in the first episode to be justified. But for now it would be no mistake to stick with this intriguing story, as to its success, only time will tell.

 

The Good

  • The opening titles are fantastic.
  • James Franco looks excellent in 60s clothes.

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  • Time fighting back is such an intriguing concept.
  • Great cast.
  • Sets are extremely authentic.
  • The musical arrangement is on point.

 

The Bad

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  • Jake seems a to be a bit too casual about the whole idea of time travel and there isn’t a great deal of depth to him right now.
  • The “rules” so seem to have the potential to create massive cop-outs.

 

The Random

  • Old Harry is played by Leon Rippy, the scientist from Universal Soldier and the Angel from Saving Grace.
  • Who knew being an English teacher/writer could be such an advantage when trying to talk your way out of tricky situations, eh Stephen King?

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  • The scene where James follows the Russian to a JFK campaign speech uses actual audio from the speech JFK gave that day, in that location.

Review by Ned Newberry


 

 

 

 

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