Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s gripping sci-fi film, doesn’t seem like a natural fit for television. A tense post-apocalyptic story where the remnants of humanity succumb to class warfare on an endlessly running train, the movie was a finely tuned thriller that also succinctly articulated its themes. More of something isn’t always a good thing. You run the risk of diluting it, especially when the leaner medium of TV forces you to reproduce the original on a tighter budget. There are good ways to do this, but TNT’s Snowpiercer series has found probably the most mundane way to pull it off.
Ironically, the first change in Snowpiercer’s TV adaptation, despite being a television cliché, is a really good one: making its protagonist a detective. The broad strokes are otherwise mostly the same as the 2014 film. When our climate crisis reaches an untenable state, scientists inadvertently create another one, making the planet inhospitably cold. In order to save humanity, a 1,001-car supertrain is built to endlessly circumnavigate the globe, a place for the human race to ride out the apocalypse — provided they can buy a ticket. Those who do are stratified by wealth, with the rich in luxe cars up front and the poor stowaways who forced their way aboard penned in the back, living in squalor.
Layton (Daveed Diggs) is one of those “tailies,” eking out a miserable existence as his cohorts plan a revolution. Things are complicated, however, when Layton is recruited by the people in charge because he is the only passenger who was a former homicide detective, and there is a murder that needs solving — one that slowly, over the show’s first season, causes the fraught balance of the Snowpiercer population to fall apart.
Shifting the story’s perspective to a detective is a smart way to make Snowpiercer interesting over 10 hour-long episodes. Snowpiercer quickly shows why: Layton’s recruitment allows him to introduce viewers to the world as it’s been re-created aboard the eponymous train, drifting from car to car as the story requires. Check it out: there’s a nightclub car, a twisted morgue where troublesome individuals are put in suspended animation and stashed in drawers, a school car, suites for the first class, okay rooms for fourth class, and so on.
This is where dilution starts to be a bit of a problem. Snowpiercer wasn’t a terribly subtle film, turning the evils of capitalism into a speeding freight train that hurtles at the viewer, but every way it expounded on its sci-fi future felt vital. As a TV show, Snowpiercer has to be about more things and show the audience more of the world in order to build a longer, serial story. Unfortunately, that longer story is a drag.
There’s some really good stuff. The third episode, in particular, “Access Is Power,” delves into the train’s circular, closed economy and the way nothing is ever wasted as passengers from front to tail barter everything imaginable in order to get a peek at life above their station. But the majority of Snowpiercer feels perfunctory. It’s a competent show that’s efficiently made and is steadily working toward its big season-ending goal of revolution, just like the movie. But lacking the urgency of a shorter runtime, it’s not an engrossing experience, just a nice idle one.
Watching Snowpiercer, I found myself wishing it was more of a detective show. Something more strictly episodic, with Layton being asked to investigate a different case every week, would give the show’s writers and directors enough to make the show different every episode. Unfortunately, like every passenger on Snowpiercer, once you’re on this particular train, you’ve got no choice but to barrel ahead toward the same destination as everyone else. The only difference here is you can get off if you want.