The Internet loves a grand conspiracy theory.
From the shows and movies that rack our brains to true crime, truther movements, and those of the reptilian variety, we can’t resist diving down a good rabbit hole. They might not have a shred of evidence, but that doesn’t matter to the people who craft and believe them.
One of the greatest conspiracies of all has little to do with 11.22.63, Hulu’s latest big splashes into original content to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon. But for the limited series—which is compelling and intense, despite sometimes uneven pacing and rushed storytelling—that doesn’t really matter.
The limited series from J.J. Abrams, which fittingly premiered on Presidents Day, is a mostly faithful adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. It’s a balancing act between a period drama and a sci-fi-esque thriller that follows Maine high school English teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) as he’s looped into an elaborate time-travel scheme from an unassuming little diner. He becomes deeply involved in diner owner Al Templeton’s (Chris Cooper) obsession to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy—and eventually recruited to finish what Templeton couldn’t do.
Templeton has spent years gathering notes and obsessing over all of the possible players: Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Was he put up to it by someone else? One thing Templeton is sure of is that if Kennedy hadn’t died, the Vietnam War wouldn’t have happened, nor the deaths that came with it. When failing health prevents Templeton from going back in time to prevent the assassination himself, he recruits Jake to pick up where he left off.
The rules of time travel are explained in a rather straightforward manner from the get-go, which makes it easy to follow. The portal takes you to Oct. 21, 1960. No matter the amount of time you spend in the past, only two minutes pass in present-day. If you go back to present-day and go back to the past again, everything you changed the first time around resets. And the people in the past aren’t the only force working against you.
“The past doesn’t want to change, and there are times when you’ll feel it push back,” Templeton tells Epping. “If you do something that really fucks with the past, the past will fuck with you.”
Epping is forced to quickly acclimate into 1960 and set up shop in a time where he doesn’t exist yet, all while testing the many taboos of time travel, whether it’s trying to call his father or attempting to save the family of one of his present-day students. Although he does it for Templeton, Epping’s reasons for going back in time aren’t as convincing, and every so often the past working against him and some ominous words of warning seem like they might get to him.
But once the dust settles, the show manages to tackle of the more subtle themes of the time, from sexist double standards and gender roles to racism and segregation, plus the threat and fear of Communism amongst Americans at the time. Occasionally, it mirrors The Man in the High Castle in that a single change in history can have ramifications beyond anything we can imagine.
At times, the first episode (which clocks in at 91 minutes) feels overlong. But it takes some time for Franco to settle into the role, and once he does, he offers a nuanced take on a man who seems more comfortable in his own skin in the past than he does in his own time. We watch intently as he juggles trying to figure out Oswald’s possible guilt and the risk of becoming too attached to a time where he doesn’t belong. He’s surrounded by a talented supporting cast including Sarah Gadon, Josh Duhamel, and T.R. Knight. Daniel Webber as Oswald is a particular standout; his performance gives a man shrouded in so much mystery and conspiracy a multitude of dimensions, even if they aren’t exactly pleasant to witness.
While some of the show’s conflicts don’t have enough of an effect to make a huge impact, the characters are compelling enough to make you care. And before it all ends, they might just have you convinced.
The first episode of 11.22.63 is available to stream on Hulu.
Screengrab via Hulu/YouTube