I’ll be honest upfront. I didn’t expect much. But there was some level of excitement within my bones for 11.22.63, the new eight-part miniseries that premiered on Hulu this Monday. The excitement was because of the potential and everyone involved with the project. I champion James Franco and his funny man yet simultaneous artistic person, I love J.J. Abrams, I like Bryan Burk, and I love Stephen King with a burning passion. A lot of love there and a little bit of like. What could go wrong? That question popped into my head after seeing the first ads for the series, which seemed to be for a historical bore of a series with a smiley James Franco to pull in crowds. To make matters worse, why would Hulu, a streaming service that promotes binge-watching, decide to release one episode per week, eliminating the joy (sadness) of paying monthly for the service and being able to sit through five episodes of a new series in one sitting?
Many questions, many worries; but they practically evaporated after about ten minutes as this this terrific, eighty-minute kickoff episode pinned me to my seat and entertained me for its entirety, never getting tedious despite a could-be-dreadful running time. And it is a lengthy episode for TV standards, with most usually clocking in anywhere from forty-two minutes to sixty minutes, to sometimes even seventy. But this isn’t the first time a pilot episode has ran at eighty minutes (see Joss Whedon’s Firefly initiator ‘Serenity,’ which is eighty-six minutes), but it somehow finds a way of not feeling like a complete movie, despite being as long as one (factoring in the ads, if you don’t pay for the ad-free plan, you’re looking at a good ninety minutes). Instead, this series seems to be taking its time, something that is quite smart given the source material.
I haven’t read all of Stephen King’s novels, but I’ve read my fair share, and from an author that wrote so many great and influential pre-2000s horror stories, I couldn’t believe it when I finished the last page of 11/22/63 and decided that it was, maybe, my favorite of his. Looking back, I’m not so sure I still think that, but it’s certainly up there with his absolute best works, and to take that lengthy brute of a book (eight-hundred and forty-five pages) and turn it into a mere two-hour film would be foolish. This is looking like it’s going to be a series that slows things down, examines King’s details, and takes its time with bringing his vision to life (there’s a nice Castle Rock reference, something of an in-joke in most of his novels that suggest they take place in the same universe).
I’ve read some reviews of the pilot (something I don’t normally do because I prefer examining films over single episodes of television series), and one of the major gripes critics seem to be having is the lead performance from James Franco. I may be biased here, but I didn’t think he did a poor job whatsoever in this role, and while when I read the novel I did picture this character to be older than Franco, I don’t think there’s anything in his performance that lowers anything of value in the show. If anything, I think he adds likability to the character that the script doesn’t really give us much backstory about.
But the best thing about it, in my opinion (and this goes for the book as well as the series), is that it’s sci-fi for people that love sci-fi and it’s sci-fi for people who despise it. It mainly finds itself in the 60s, as Franco’s James Epping sifts through this new world (to him) and attempts to find out who killed John F. Kennedy and prevent him from doing so. I think this is a series many elderly war-vets will love, especially the ones that find themselves watching American history related History Channel specials on repeat. This is, at its core, not science-fiction at all, but rather a story of identity, love, and worldviews, and I’m eager to see how the next seven episodes bring King’s beautiful tale to the screen. If the rest of the season is as good as this pilot episode, this may turn out to be a truly fantastic science-fiction series.