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Stephen King adaptation 11.22.63 isn't going to turn Hulu into HBO

While Netflix and Amazon have been able to transform themselves into legitimate creators of high-end, award-winning television, Hulu has continued to find itself on the outside looking in. The streaming service has invested hundreds of millions of dollars locking down classics like South Park and Seinfeld, and rescuing favorites like The Mindy Project from the deathblow of network cancellation. But it has yet to create an original series that has driven the cultural conversation the way House of Cards, Transparent, or Making a Murderer have.

Hulu is taking its biggest swing with 11.22.63, an eight-part mini-series adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, about an English teacher who travels back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s a pedigreed production from top to bottom: produced by J.J. Abrams, starring James Franco, with the pilot getting a sneak preview at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of its February 15th release. Clearly the hope is that that show can catapult Hulu into the big leagues, turning it into a creator of original programming on par with giants like HBO.

SyFy might be a better comparison.

It kicks off with 'Back to the Future'-style time travel fun

While King’s known as a master of modern horror, 11.22.63 is more of a dramatic thriller with a sci-fi set-up. Franco is Jake Epping, newly divorced and teaching in a town in Maine, when the owner of the local diner (Chris Cooper, always the best part of anything he’s in) approaches him with the most ludicrous of pitches. Al tells Jake that in the supply closet of his kitchen there’s a rabbit hole through time that leads directly to 1960, a portal that he’s been exploring for years. Al has been tracking down Lee Harvey Oswald, trying to determine if he was the sole individual that killed Kennedy so he could then stop the President’s assassination. Saving Kennedy, Al tells Jake, would prevent the Vietnam War, and unquestionably turn the world into a better place. (Anytime a time traveler says interfering with the past will improve things, they’re probably wrong, but we’re just talking about the pilot here.)

Unfortunately, Al has come down with cancer, and needs somebody else to take over his mission, and after some convincing Jake takes the gig. What follows is the exact kind of fish out of water, Back to the Future-style fun you’d expect from a basic time travel scenario. People from 1960 gawk at Jake’s rock n’ roll t-shirts and goatee until he goes full Don Draper with a period suit and hat. He’s stunned by the cheap price of food, and amazed even further by how good everything tastes when compared to the GMO’d, mass-produced present he’s used to. But the mission inevitably calls, and Jake ends up heading to Texas where he can start researching the people that knew Oswald best.

Real talk: this is a fantastic premise for a TV show

I’ll say one thing straight out: this is a fantastic premise for a limited-run TV show, and knowing King’s book, the source material itself provides enormous amounts of opportunity for rich relationships, exciting sequences, and some truly powerful emotional moments. Despite his genre notoriety, King’s best work truly succeeds because of the nuanced and vibrant characters he draws, and the novel 11.22.63 is one of the most engrossing pieces of his fiction I’ve read since Bag of Bones. That awareness and focus on characters is something shared by the very best King adaptations — don’t forget, The Shawshank Redemption was based on a King novella — but it’s something the two-hour pilot appears to miss.

Written by Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights) and directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last Kind of Scotland, State of Play) the episode does a tremendous job setting up 11.22.63 from a plot perspective. Along with the ticking clock of the JFK assassination itself, the show quickly launches several other storylines, including the ominous presence of the past "pushing back" and trying to stop any changes Jake makes. But it feels rushed, so eager to get to Dallas and get the action moving that it never takes the time to establish a main character we’ll actually want to spend eight episodes with.

Franco's performance is dissonant at best; off-putting at worst

Though maybe that’s due more to Franco than the writing alone. It would be an understatement to say that the actor can be uneven at times, nailing a performance in something like 127 Hours, and then turning around and creating a character like The Interview’s Dave Skylark. His performance here is full of strange, dissonant notes and odd glances; he comes off as angry when he’s playing repentant, and utterly insincere when Jake lets his guard down. The sole exception is a chance encounter with a young woman named Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon). There, the Franco charm turns on and sparks fly.

Whenever you write about the pilot of a television series, somewhere you have to acknowledge that one episode doesn’t necessarily determine the fate of a show. Things change, writers adjust, and shows with lukewarm starts can become runaway hits. That all holds true here, and 11.22.63 could absolutely end up surprising me by episode three or four (Hulu provided only one episode for review). But we’re also talking about a television pilot produced by J.J. Abrams, and that means — rightly or wrongly — it has some pretty high standards to live up to. Ones established by shows like Alias and Lost, where no matter what you thought of the series itself, you could unequivocally say that the pilot was an absolute home run, setting up a slate of fascinating characters with complex dynamics and a world of opportunity.

11.22.63 is no home run. But for Hulu, it’s still a step in the right direction.