Woe to those who mess with the past—specifically Jake Epping (James Franco), who breaks the cardinal rule of time travel in 11.22.63. The high school English teacher travels back to the early 1960s to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, while the past physically tries to stop him from doing so with everything from freak accidents to dysentery. Time travel and the C.I.A. conspiracy to kill the president may be well-worn material in TV and film, but executive producers J.J. Abrams and Bridget Carpenter make a sinister and surprising effort that’s more about how to live with the unchangeable than who may or may not have been responsible for the death of America’s prince.
Staying true to the genre, the eight-part adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is heavy on fantasy and light on physics. The first episode takes us to a present-day diner in small-town Maine, where the owner, Vietnam vet Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), lets his loyal customer Epping, a frustrated and idealistic divorcee, in on a big secret: The backroom closet has a wormhole to 1960. Templeton has been secretly living in the past for multiple year-long stints (we’re told that two years in the past equals two minutes in the present) in a stymied attempt to prove who assassinated Kennedy and kill said person in order to nip the Vietnam War in the bud. It’s a highly dubious plan, and yet Epping takes little convincing to help Templeton, who has cancer, and establishes a double life in 1960 as a teacher near Dallas.
The miniseries is odd and unpredictable for the way the timeline and nuances of the president’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963 take a backseat to the existential battle between the past and Epping’s desire to change it. In almost bibilical fashion, the “past” here is a supernatural force, responsible for Templeton’s illness and testing Epping’s resolve with mad motorists, roaches, fires, falling chandeliers, food poisoning, and a faulty nitrous oxide tank. Franco, given his embrace of an über-ironic persona in all aspects of his work, straddles a sometimes awkward line between the serious and the goofy throughout that nonetheless leavens the narrative’s dramatic high notes, as well as a boilerplate love affair with a librarian, Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon), with a sense of liveliness.
11.22.63 takes an unpredictably dark and violent turn early on that shakes up the staid pace of Epping’s exploits. Whether he’s capable of committing violence in order to fulfill his mission is posed and quickly resolved during his brief stay in Kentucky en route to Texas. It’s there that he picks a fight with burly, psychotic Frank Dunning (Josh Duhamel), the abusive father of one of the James Agee-loving English teacher’s favorite night-school students in the present. Their tussle has nothing to do with Kennedy or Oswald—only with Epping’s resolve to prevent JFK’s assassination and whatever sense of purpose he feels that will give him, a resolve he proves again in later battles with a Texan bookie, Dunhill’s jealous ex-husband, and even his drifter sidekick turned enemy (George MacKay).
“I’m not going to let a little thing like ballistics get in the way of the truth,” a cocky F.B.I. agent tells Epping at one point. Likewise, the “truth” about November 22, 1963 depends on who you ask, more than forensic evidence. King, Abrams, and Carpenter draw out an imaginative but highly plausible rendering of the House Select Committee’s conclusion that Oswald (Daniel Webber) acted in a conspiracy. Most of Epping’s pre-assassination investigation sees him wiretapping and trailing Oswald, a stuttering, Marx-loving mama’s boy and abusive husband who wants to etch his name into the history books, and meets with a stocky, chain-smoking Russian ex-pat who moonlight as a C.I.A. handler. But whatever “truth” there is to this conspiracy is left open-ended, as Epping fails to conclusively connect its many dots. Reckoning with the past, in 11.22.63, is understood as a fool’s errand.
Roger Ebert once defended Oliver Stone’s conspiratorial JFK because the landmark film, regardless of its historical accuracy, passionately homed in on the feelings Americans have about the JFK assassination, that understandable but irrational belief that the president could have saved us from our post-Vietnam shame. 11.22.63 also artfully captures the full scope of this confusion. If the moral of the series, at once trite and completely undeniable, is that we must accept the things we can not change, it’s one that it vividly brings to life by looking beyond the clichés of genre and at the ways life’s smallest disruptions test our faith.