Kindred review: Octavia Butler's sci-fi classic makes a thrilling transition to TV

It feels wrong, somehow, to call Kindred "addictive." The FX on Hulu drama — based on Octavia Butler's classic work of sci-fi literature — follows a twenty-something Black woman in modern-day Los Angeles who finds herself pulled back in time to the Antebellum South, where all the horrors of slavery await her. It's not something one expects to binge breathlessly in a weekend. But this gripping adaptation, developed and exec produced by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Watchmen), expands Butler's groundbreaking exploration of America's racist history into a profound puzzle-box thriller.

In 2016, Dana James (Mallori Johnson) sells her late mother's brownstone in Brooklyn and moves to Los Angeles with a vague plan to break into TV writing. The news comes as a shock to her last remaining family member, Aunt Denise (Elisa Davis), who fears that her niece may have inherited her mother's depressive tendencies and "fragile" psyche. "Near the end of her life, she claimed to see things that weren't there," she warns. Sure enough, during the second night in her LA home, Dana finds herself yanked back in time to Maryland in 1815, where a little white boy named Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan) is drowning in a river. Kevin (Bonding's Micah Stock), the cute waiter Dana hooked up with earlier that day, witnesses her literal disappearance from the bedroom closet — and sudden reappearance a few seconds later — and soon gets pulled back to the Weylin plantation with her.

In adapting Butler's text, Jacob-Jenkins makes some modifications that infuse the story with additional TV-friendly stakes. Once in Maryland, Dana discovers that her mother, Olivia (Sheria Irving), is actually alive and has been trapped in the past for years. Though she has no control over her sudden trips back and forth through time, Dana determines that figuring out her family's connection to Rufus — the spoiled, obnoxious child of Margaret (GLOW's Gayle Rankin) and Tom Weylin (Ryan Kwanten) — is the key to bringing her mother back home. At times this leads to some pat exposition ("There's gotta be rules to this thing!"), but Kindred's compelling themes remain intact, as Dana and Kevin are immersed in an awful new reality that forces each of them to reckon with America's history in real time.

Newcomer Johnson is absolutely mesmerizing as Dana. Her transformation from rootless millennial in the present to calm and focused leader in the past feels grounded in the truth of her character, an orphan who's used to relying on herself to survive. "Stay calm," she urges Kevin. "Pretend it's like a game." The aspiring writer is quick to concoct plausible backstories to explain her sudden appearance on Tom Weylin's land with a white man in a ratty X-Ray Spex t-shirt. From the outset, Kindred highlights how Dana is far more prepared for the ugliness of plantation life than Kevin, whose whiteness affords him a layer of protection in both eras that she'll never have. "They think you're my slave," he says, aghast, after Tom advises him to procure a more "docile" servant. "Yeah," Dana replies with a bit of a shrug. "That's not surprising."

Stock is immensely engaging as Kevin, a sweet, 21st-century nice guy shocked into near stupefaction by the vile truth of his country's (and his ancestors') past. With his plaintive gaze and sonorous voice, the actor brings a wonderful blend of humor and empathy to the role. His intense discomfort in the face of antiquated and offensive social norms is almost tangible, making Kevin an effective surrogate for viewers squirming at home. Though the enslaved men and women on the Weylin plantation are subject to all forms of mistreatment, Kindred never fetishizes the violence, instead honing in on the casual, everyday brutality of a slave's existence. Unable to pay the doctor who tended to Rufus, Tom offers his servant, Sabina (Cherrie McRae), as payment. The plantation's cook, Sarah (Sophina Brown), seethes with hatred for Margaret, who sold Sarah's sons to buy a new set of furniture for the parlor. Even Dana, herself forcefully removed from her home and thrust into an unfamiliar and terrifying new place by forces beyond her control, can barely fathom the cruelty unfolding in front of her eyes.

Fans of the book should know that Kindred's eight-episode season only covers about the first third of Butler's novel, and the cliffhanger ending packs a visceral wallop. Hulu has yet to renew the series for a second season, which means for now we must wait in anxious limbo like Dana, deeply enmeshed in a story we don't fully understand and yet desperately want to see through to the end. Grade: A-

Kindred is streaming now on FX on Hulu.

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