'11.22.63' Review: James Franco and Stephen King Try To Save J.F.K.

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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It may seem odd to say that tender-hearted sincerity is the best reason to watch 11.22.63, a TV adaptation of a Stephen King novel about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but it’s true for me: As I watched this eight-part series, I was moved by the earnest urgency with which James Franco’s Jake Epping works to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets from being fired. The underlying theme of the show is the — again, sincere, never ironic or cynical — belief that our lives today would be better had J.F.K. lived.

Working from King’s thick historical thriller, this adaptation overseen by producer Bridget Carpenter is suspenseful, moving, and funny — exactly the qualities you expect from a story derived by the latter-day King, whose work has grown only more emotionally complex over the years.

Franco, who’s portrayed more than his share of eccentric or extreme characters, here plays Epping as an easygoing Everyman, a schoolteacher, one who gets caught up in what sounds like madness. The guy who runs his local diner, played by the wonderful Chris Cooper, shows him a portal to the past located in the pantry. (It’s a measure of how well King and Carpenter do their work here that you say, Sure, I’ll buy that — let’s get inside that closet!)

Convincing a skeptical Jake that it’s worth a try to save J.F.K., the young teacher is hurtled back to 1960, and must plan how he’s going to find Oswald, and uncover the truth about one of the most mysterious and conspiracy-encrusted assassination plots in history. Along the way, he makes friends, enemies, and meets a girl to fall in love with. She’s Sadie, played by Sarah Gadon as a bristlingly intelligent, vibrantly funny woman whom you would indeed have to be a block of wood not to fall in love with. There are inevitable lines that are both funny and spooky — “I come from the future”; “You shouldn’t be here” — along with action scenes staged with energetic precision.

11.22.63, whose first episode starts streaming Monday on Hulu, with one new hour released per week, is co-produced by King, Carpenter, and Bad Robot boys J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk. It’s filled with small touches that will appeal to hardcore Kingians (Jake’s schoolroom chalkboard has a reading list that includes August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshhold), but it doesn’t get bogged-down with in-jokes or quibbles about the nature of time travel.

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Instead, it posits Jake as a fellow who’s plucked from obscurity to become a hero — and perhaps a tragic one — if only he can find the steel in his backbone to fulfill his mission. Featuring fine supporting performances by an evil Josh Duhamel, a perverse T. R. Knight, and a sly Cherry Jones in addition to the aforementioned Cooper and Gadon, 11.22.63 is the kind of fantasy realism that any sort of viewer can latch onto and find something to be intrigued and moved by.

11.22.63 is streaming on Hulu now.