11.22.63 Review: Hulu Remakes History With a Gripping Stephen King Yarn

grade_A-“Time is a flat circle,” Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle famously mused in True Detective.

Hulu’s new limited series 11.22.63 (premiering Monday, and airing weekly) goes one better – fashioning that circle out of polypropylene mesh, stretching it over a steel frame and turning time into a terrifically taut, fantastically fun trampoline.

Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, the action centers on recently divorced English teacher Jake Epping (127 Hours‘ James Franco), who gets introduced to a portal in the back of his favorite diner that transports users to Oct. 21, 1960. The owner of the greasy spoon, the crusty, paranoid Al Templeton (Oscar winner Chris Cooper) has been using the wormhole to try to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and his dying hope is that Jake will take his years of research and surveillance on Lee Harvey Oswald, his close friend George de Mohrenschildt (among other sujects) and alter the course of history.

11-22-63-chris-cooperThe task is hardly as simple as getting a good spot on a certain grassy knoll, though. While Al explains that you can spend years in the portal with only two minutes passing in the present day, all of your actions reset if you return back to 2016, then enter the portal again. Oh, and seeing how time isn’t a fan of extreme makeovers, she has a tendency to throw big, nasty wrenches into the plans of anyone fixing to hijack her appearance.

It doesn’t take long for Jake to accept the assignment, and soon, he’s donning period garb — tailored suits, stylish hats, and no sign of his scruffy goatee — and trying not to drop any 2016-isms under the assumed identity Jake Amberson.

It’s a testament to the show’s set and costume designers that 11.22.63‘s version of the 1960s feels so fully realized that you almost instantly accept its out-there premise and immerse yourself in the yarn.

And what a yarn it is! In the first five hours screened by TVLine, 11.22.63 functions as a good old-fashioned spy thriller, a sweet love story, a freaky slice of sci-fi (there’s a scene involving cockroaches in the pilot episode that’ll give you nightmares) and in Episode 2, a classic tale of horror. Plus, every time Jake hears someone utter the words, “You shouldn’t be here,” you’ll shiver at the prospect that there’ll be terrible consequences to the mission.

That mix of genres and overarching sense of dread make sense, considering 11.22.63 is executive-produced by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias) along with writer Bridget Carpenter (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights) and King.

Franco anchors almost every scene, and does a terrific job letting us see slivers of his 2016 persona slip through the 1960s veneer in which Jake is so surprisingly cozy. He also nails the task of bringing to life the way Al’s obsession quickly becomes Jake’s. That’s especially true in a pilot-episode sequence where Jake uses Al’s past experiences as a sort of cosmic GPS to follow de Mohrenschildt to a fancy restaurant in Dallas and determine if he’s in the employ of the CIA — while avoiding the booby traps “time” has constructed to stop his progress.

11-22-63-Sarah-GadonThe story resonates on a deeper level, though, because Jake ignores Al’s advice to not get close to anyone in the past. His meet-cute with a beautiful stranger in a Dallas park carries with it all the electric, Technicolor possibility of love at first sight, but the scene doesn’t pay dividends until Jake’s paths cross again with the woman in Episode 3. Being Erica‘s Sarah Gadon radiates intelligence, toughness and a special brand of early ’60s sweetness as Sadie, and her reintroduction to the story raises the emotional stakes from the historical (save JFK!) to the deeply personal (can these two broken kids overcome their penchant for secrets and make it work?).

Oh, and keep an eye out for T.R. Knight (Grey’s Anatomy), keeping it wonderfully icky and very much against type as a man from Sadie’s past.

A surface-level diversion into the private lives of Oswald and his wife Marina feels shoehorned in to an already crowded story, capturing the imagination only when they’re reduced to grainy voices coming through the bugs set up by Jake and his unlikely partner-in-sleuthing Bill (the boyishly charming George MacKay).

Ultimately, though, that little bit of bloat hardly slows down a slick production that, while transporting us back in time, stakes Hulu’s claim as a serious streaming player of the future.

The TVLine Bottom Line: An engrossing, utterly unique story and winning performances from Franco and Gadon conspire to make 11.22.63 a can’t-miss TV event.

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. “all of your actions reset when you return back to 2016” that’s what I don’t get. If all the actions reset, then how can they stop JKF’s assassination? Wouldn’t that reset too?

  2. kari says:

    This was an amazing book, and I’m hoping I can figure out how to use my new smart tv to watch it on free Hulu. Thanks for the great review, now I can’t wait!!

  3. Jennifer says:

    will it be available on DVD after it finishes on Hulu? I really don’t feel like getting another service. Also, can i assume it’s better than the book? I couldn’t get through the first 3 chapters.

    • Big Mike says:

      I have no idea why you’re here.

      • Jennifer says:

        Easily explained Big Mike. I HATE ***reading*** Stephen King. He’s too wordy and overly descriptive. However, pretense of his stories are fabulous (much like Anne Rice). And the movies / TV shows are appropriately scary and so much better than the books. So I was interested in seeing the review. And I’m not exactly rolling in $$, so I don’t want to have to order another service, but i would buy / rent the DVDs. And from this review, it really sounds like the story translated well to the screen.


        • Big Mike says:

          Reading is hard. Gotcha.

        • justin says:

          Not one of the adaptions of King’s books even comes close to being better than the original (EXCEPT MAYBE the ending of the Mist).

          • Jennifer says:

            Justin – I just can’t get through King’s books. They could be cut in half (or at least 2/3) without losing anything. I love the ideas and stories … just too drawn out.

        • Z says:

          I agree with you on a lot of his works, but this particular book I felt didnt have that problem… I was into it from the getgo… As to the service, you can probably get it and then cancel after the show and it would still be cheaper than buying the thing on dvd next year.

        • Jon says:

          Getting Hulu for the 3 months it takes for the first season to air would still be considerably less than purchasing the whole season on dvd when it comes out (considering tv seasons often fun for $40+ dollars). Also you could just get Hulu for like one month when the season has finished airing and watch all the episodes back to back for like $11 sans commercials

    • Ryan says:

      FYI – Stephen King’s books translated into films are rarely as good on film. The two exceptions are The Shawshank Redemption (SK’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption) and Stand By Me (SK’s The Body).

      • Jennifer says:

        Sorry Ryan – Can’t stand the books. Overly long. Can’t get through any of them. And I’ve tried most of them

        • I thought Cujo was his best written book. In the car by like page 20. You really feel for the dog as he goes nuts.

          I also thought Pet Cemetery was good too. A bit slow at the beginning, but, by page 150, it really picks up. Also, Salem’s Lot was very good. Some of his short stories were quite good including the Mist and the Raft.

        • justin says:

          You have tried most of them? Really?
          So you try over and over to read an author that you say you hate reading? Why?

          • Jennifer says:

            Because i keep hoping I can get through them. Like I said … I love the stories. He’s just too wordy. Which is why I watch the movies. They scare the bejeezus out of me (at least the ones that are supposed to), He rambles. And again, I keep hoping that i’ll be able to get though them, or at least to a point where it pulls me along. Haven’t hit that yet.

          • Jennifer says:

            And yes, I understand Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – never claimed to be sane :)

      • MC says:

        Dolores Claiborne is my favorite film adaptation of a King story. Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh were at their best and the emotions were palpable.

    • justin says:

      You are missing out, this was one of the best books I have ever read.
      It seems like the series is leaving out about the first half of the book which is shame.

  4. herman1959 says:

    I’m in!

  5. I know where this idea came from. He must have seen La Jatte, the first movie about time travel. It’s a 30 min masterpiece and I can see some of the twists coming from my couch.

    I might check it out, but, between this and 12 monkeys (which is directly based on La Jatte), it’s hard to watch the same series with different players.

  6. Et al. says:

    This should come with the cheaper ‘includes commercials’ package right? I plan to subscribe to see this. (And to get a sense if I might finally be able to cut the cable).

  7. Jeff D says:

    As someone who doesn’t watch any Hulu original series, would I have to be a paid subscriber to watch this show or can I watch it free, even on a delay?

  8. Z says:

    I really liked the book so i have hopes for this (even with Franco who i usually cant stand)…. wish they hadnt shortened the time in the past though… the book had him pop up in the 50s so he had to stay there a bit longer… a lot of subplots in the book too so im glad its a mini-series rather than a movie so they can touch on a lot of stuff.. though the book has tie-ins to some of King’s other works that might be difficult to pull off here.

  9. vaeng says:

    Stephen King got the inspiration for this story while teaching a literature class on Fantasy and Science Fiction.