Blast to the Past
Forward: I am a huge fan of the book on which this series is based. As I review this series, I will be judging the show on it’s own merits, leaving my criticism of the actual adaption to the last paragraph. That being said, you should all read the book because it’s already way better.
In its hour-and-a-half premier, 11.22.63 has wasted no time in getting the narrative going. There is a lot of story to be told, and the show is moving forward incredibly fast, something that might leave viewers a bit confused. It’s a very dense story with lots of moving pieces, but the show has attempted to capture the richness of the story while still moving forward as it would with any other show. Where to even start here…
Jake, our lead, was given very little information going into this whole journey, so there is a lot to be discovered about the nature of time travel. Al Templeton, the owner of the diner, knows the intricacies of the mechanics, but in order to make the show engaging and enjoyable, that exposition is dolled out bit by bit. We learn things as they become relevant, with the assumption that this was all told to Jake prior to his trip. The only problem with this is that we saw Jake and Al’s entire exchange. It never looked like time had passed, so it’s unclear when this information exchanged hands.
While the plot was given to us through these brief exchanges, a lot of the issues I have with the show’s tone stem from how ideas are conveyed. Jake spends the vast majority of the episode (and will likely do the same for the next two or so episodes) by himself, so there is a lot of thinking out loud and stating the obvious. It can be frustrating, bordering on cheesy, to watch, so it’s sad that they didn’t find a more creative way to adapt internal monologue (especially given how many other liberties they’ve taken).
The whole episode suffered from a bit of cheese throughout, actually, and I’m not sure what to pin it on. There were more than a few poorly written lines (“George de Mohrenf*ck!”) that marred the exchanges in the episode. Were they going for humor? Or was it just uninspired dialogue from the screenwriters? It’s hard to say, unfortunately, because they went so off-book with the situations in which we heard these lines.
The setup, likewise, was a bit clunky, as we were introduced to many elements that didn’t have any payoff. We met a woman named Sadie on the park bench and she took off. That’s it? She will, of course, come in to play later, but it’s curious as to why she showed up in this episode given how little she actually had to do. If she doesn’t have any bearing on this episode, save her for an episode where she actually plays a role!
That being said, this episode did nail the setting. The sheer scope of it all is impressive right off the bat, as the late-50’s cars, clothing, and music truly set the stage for this story. We yearn for a time when people were friendlier, food tasted better, and the economy was booming. At the same time, however, we’re forced to confront the racism, sexism, and tense international climate that was coexisting (and is often overlooked when we say we want to make America…something…again).
It’s an entertaining show and does a lot of things right, but it’s not perfect. Some cheesy lines, lazy exposition, and a general lack of payoff made for a clunky premiere, but the fantastic setting and familiar climate fill this show with a lot of promise.
As for changes from the book, there is…a lot to discuss. There were some annoyingly stupid changes (switching the name from George Amberson to James Amberson), some changes that were annoying but will likely work when all is said and done (switching the Dunning’s home from Maine to Kentucky), and some elements that are culled to trim down the story (preventing the hunting accident). As a huge fan of the book, it’s sad to see pretty much every one of these changes occur, even if they are understandable. My gripe with the show is that it adds elements to the story that never appeared in the book. Some of these changes a) don’t make sense and b) aren’t important to the story. Did Jake really need to be attacked by a horde of cockroaches? And what did sneaking into a JFK rally actually add to our understanding of his mission or his emotional state? It was an unnecessary detour that took up time…time that could have been used fleshing out the mechanics of time travel and setting up these characters a bit better. There is a certain haunting unease through the first few chapters of the book, and that tone is absent from this episode.
The most important aspect to the book is that it, essentially, is told in two halves: The Test and The Mission. I don’t know if this journey will be a test run or if this will be the only trip into the past. Either way, there has been a lot of important background information that has been glossed over (The Yellow Card Man, the past harmonizing, the past not wanting to change), so it’s unfortunate that viewers will lose some of that. Not unexpected, of course, because that is the case with most adaptations, but still unfortunate.
Alex Russo likes to talk about television. You can read more of his insane ramblings on Twitter.