Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 9, 2016)
25 years after Oliver Stone’s JFK, the Kennedy assassination receives another noteworthy filmed examination via a 2016 mini-series. Based on Stephen King’s 2011 novel, 11.22.63 spans eight episodes and provides a fantasy take on events. All the plot synopses come from the set’s packaging.
The Rabbit Hole: “Burned-out high school teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) is tasked with traveling back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.”
God knows we’ve seen umpty-skillion time-travel stories over the years, and the “go back in time to alter a major event” concept doesn’t exactly seem new either. Can 11.22.63 bring anything fresh to the table?
Based on “Hole”, the preliminary answer is “yes”. The show realizes the audience has seen other “warped reality” flicks like Back to the Future or Groundhog Day and it throws self-knowing allusions that way.
These reflections don’t seem overly self-conscious, though, and they give the show a nice zing. Though “Hole” exists mainly for expository reasons, it still manages a lot of entertainment and launches the mini-series in a winning manner.
The Kill Floor: “Jake decides to make a difference by saving the family of his friend Harry Dunning (Leon Rippy), whose other family members were murdered by his father Frank (Josh Duhamel).”
In the first episode, we learn that the past “fights back” against changes, and “Floor” exists mainly to illustrate that concept. I like the idea but it seems as though the series expends an awful lot of cinematic real estate just to demonstrate this notion.
“Floor” still entertains – and Duhamel fares better than expected as the abusive Frank – but the episode seems like an unnecessary detour. I do love the quick Donnie Darko Easter egg, though.
Other Voices, Other Rooms: “Finding an ally in his quest, Jake moves to a small town near Dallas to teach while he lives a double life spying on Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber).”
To some degree, it feels like “Floor” exists mainly to set up the accomplice mentioned above, a young man named Bill (George MacKay). I suspect we’ll eventually see the ramifications of Jake’s actions in “Floor” – the series has to reveal how his interference with the Dunning family changes history, doesn’t it? – but right now, the addition of Bill to Jake’s cause seems to be the most obvious ramification.
As an episode, “Rooms” takes us back on task after the detour of “Floor”, and it does so fairly well. We finally get to meet the Oswalds and the plot thickens in that regard. I could live without the contrived – though perhaps inevitable – romantic subplot between Jake and Sadie (Sarah Gadon), but the rest of the show moves events along well.
The Eyes of Texas: “While romance blossoms between Jake and Sadie, the conspiracy of secrets surrounding the unpredictable Lee Harvey Oswald deepens. Has Jake put his new love in danger?”
While some of 11.22.63 provides material of questionable historical accuracy, it gets a lot right – and I think it pretty much nails the personalities of the Oswalds. The series shows Lee’s volatility along with Marina’s cantankerous nature and Marguerite’s (Cherry Jones) self-obsessed melodrama.
Unfortunately, the episode’s focus on the Jake/Sadie relationship causes it to sag. Perhaps some like this aspect of the series, as it may add some humanity to the proceedings. As for me, I’d prefer greater focus on the overall plot. We’ll see which direction the second half of the series takes.
The Truth: “Everything begins to fall apart as Jake struggles to live as both teacher and time traveler. When Sadie’s life is threatened, Jake has to make a terrible choice.”
With the involvement of Sadie’s psychotic husband (TR Knight), “Truth” offers more drama than usual for the Jake/Sadie subplot, though it seems like it takes twists more suitable for Hannibal than for 11.22.63. At least the episode moves along some significant events and involves Sadie in a way that hopefully will make her less of a drag on future shows. As much as I dislike the romantic side of the series, “Truth” pushes the series in a positive direction.
Happy Birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald: “As the threats to the president continue to build, Jake takes drastic action to establish their full dimensions – and is hit by an unexpected death.”
For the most part, “Birthday” acts as a plot-thickener. It moves along various elements in a fairly efficient way – even if one that uses some iffy history. Still, enough of the episode creates intrigue to lead us toward the final two shows well.
Soldier Boy: “While Kennedy remains on a collision course with his assassin, Jake is concerned that he may not have changed things enough in the past to alter the future.”
Jake’s concussion that he received in the last episode acts as a pretty convenient plot device, one that I don’t think adds much to the series. Yeah, it throws Jake off the trail but it seems like a cheap tactic that makes much of “Boy” a drag, as we’re stuck with Jake in “memory recovery” mode too much of the time. These factors turn “Boy” into a lackluster lead-up to the finale – or maybe I’m just annoyed that the series features an “alternate past” in which Marina Oswald speaks good English!
The Day In Question: “The Past pulls out every weapon it has to keep Jake from saving Kennedy.”
To some degree, the prior seven episodes feel like little more than a long lead-up to “Day”. Honestly, do we care about anything other than whether or not Jake stops Oswald and what impact this has on the future?
Not really, though I think the series could’ve explored his investigation better than it did. As I’ve noted, I think the show got too hung up on Jake’s romantic/personal life, and those elements caused a drag that steered away from the basic story too much of the time.
“Day” offers a fairly tepid conclusion to the series. It creates more questions than answers, and it wraps up matters in a jumbled manner. While it comes with some excitement, “Day” seems like an unsatisfying finale.
Which doesn’t come as a shock since so much of 11.22.63 feels up and down. I like the series’ premise and think it occasionally lives up to those expectations, but too much of the time, it lacks coherence and gets hung up on unnecessary tangents. I really wanted to enjoy the series but view it as a letdown.