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In this role, Franco is ideal. There’s a cheery blandness to him that makes him the perfect, awestruck amateur gumshoe.
In this role, Franco is ideal. There’s a cheery blandness to him that makes him the perfect, awestruck amateur gumshoe.

John Doyle: Stopping the JFK assassination? Great action in 11.22.63 Add to ...

It’s an old twist, but one that still gets a lot of people instantly intrigued – the time-travel twist. What if you could go back in time and change the course of history?

What if you could go back and prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? Well, Stephen King, being Stephen King, wrote a very, very long novel about that. He had exuberant sport with the idea and, being King, there is an ominous quality to that sport. What if there are forces that bite back when you try to change history?

11.22.63 (starts Wednesday, Super Channel, 9 p.m.) is the lavish eight-part adaptation of the novel and it’s rather good. At times it’s brilliant, actually. The executive producer is J.J. Abrams and the series is made for Hulu, part of the streaming service’s plan to have a substantial footprint in scripted drama.

It stars James Franco as Jake Epping, a high-school teacher and writer in Maine in 2015, who is in a creative and personal slump. Basically, he’s a nice guy, but lost. A good friend to him is Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), the local diner owner. One day, when Al feels ill and knows he might not have long to live, he tells Jake his secret – at the back of the diner is a closet and if you walk into it, you come out in October, 1960.

Al tells Jake he’s been going back in time and investigating the conspiracy surrounding the Kennedy assassination. Long story short, he convinces Jake of the “butterfly effect” importance of stopping the JFK assassination – saving JFK means Vice-President Lyndon Johnson doesn’t take office and escalate the Vietnam War, thereby saving an entire generation from the brutality and scars of the war.

Jake is skeptical. “Changing the past is arrogant,” he says. And after a brief trip back to 1960 he says: “I just don’t think I’m the right guy for this.” But he’s still intrigued. And back he goes, at first charmed and intrigued by the world he now occupies.

The series dramatizes the entry into 1960 with beautiful precision and style. King’s long-winded observations about nostalgia and the reality of the authentic past are suggested briefly and deftly – the past is at first candy-coloured, fabulously bright and sexy. You want to bathe in its softness.

Mind you, as Jake discovers when he’s in the past, any attempt to tinker with it will have grave consequences. At first, there are mysterious figures who simply say to him, “You shouldn’t be here.” Then it gets much worse. While King’s novel took flight and entered into the labyrinthine conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination, the series put the focus on Jake and his more personal entanglements. In this role, Franco is ideal. There’s a cheery blandness to him that makes him the perfect, awestruck amateur gumshoe. He’s not a great actor but not much greatness is required here. It’s all in the plot, the visuals and the vignettes of America in the early 1960s.

A good portion of the series was made in Toronto and several fine Canadian actors turn up. By far the most prominent is Sarah Gadon, who is radiant and excellent as Sadie, a married woman who has left her husband when Jake meets her. And, of course he falls for her. You can tell this is a career-leap role for Gadon. The camera adores her and she is presented as a sort of incandescent sixties goddess of style and grace. It’s all part of King’s point, mind you. The past is never quite what we have imagined so ardently.

11.22.63 is not top-notch drama of serious intent. Nor was it meant to be. It’s an instance of beautifully crafted pop entertainment. While the idea of time-travel has been handled better – in episodes of The X-Files, for example – the delight Stephen King takes in the story is infectious. And, yes, there is a gruesome aspect to the story that does surface regularly. It wouldn’t be King without that.

There is a knockout opening – an old man telling people about the day that changed his life. It was Halloween, 1960, and his mother and siblings were murdered by his father, who wielded a hammer. It’s a warning – the breezy journey into the past that follows will contain horror. But it’s all highly enjoyable and recommended.

Airing tonight: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (PBS, 9 p.m., on Independent Lens) is an excellent, forthright history of the Black Panther Party. Founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif., the party came into being in response to the local African-American community’s rage at harassment by police. Echoes of today abound in the documentary.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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