What makes a great time-travel book, television series or movie work almost always comes down to the time-travel rules. The number one rule of Back to the Future, for instance, was not to change the past, and everything worked from there. In About Time, you couldn’t go back past the point of having your first child, because you’d end up with different children. In Terminator, there are multiple timelines. In Looper, there’s one timeline that remains in flux. In Doctor Who, the rules are whatever the hell Steven Moffat decides they are in any given episode.
What’s most intriguing, so far, about the new Hulu series, 11.22.63 — produced by J.J. Abrams and Stephen King, and adapted from a Stephen King novel — are the rules that King has set up, and one wrinkle that’s original to this series: If you try to change the past, the past will push back. It’s that pushback that creates the tension within the series, and also gives Stephen King ample opportunities to throw in some creepy sequences or freak tragedies to keep us on our toes.
Here’s the story: It’s the present day when a high-school teacher, Jake (James Franco) from Maine (holla!) is confronted by a diner owner and friend, Al, who seems to have aged — and gotten ill with cancer — in a matter of minutes. What Jake eventually learns is that Al has a secret closet in the diner, and whenever he walks through the closet, it takes him back to an exact point in 1960. Now, Al wants to take advantage of that portal to the past to stop the assassination of JFK. The problem is this: He’s got to stick around in the past for three years in order to stop it, because JFK doesn’t get assassinated until 1963. It’s not a portal that you can travel in and out of, because if a character returns to the present day and then walks back into the closet he’s right back at that fixed point in 1960 and everything that’s been done to change the past is undone.
Here’s the rub: You can’t Groundhog Day this bitch because you continue to age, which is to say: You could go back to 1960 and try again and again and again until you eventually stop the assassination of the President, but if you keep doing that, people are going to notice that you’ve aged two decades in a matter of minutes. You also lose two decades of your life in the present. This is what happened to Al: He hung out in the past for two years, and returned to the present on death’s door.
Moreover, it’s dangerous in the past, on account of the whole past pushing-back wrinkle, and by pushback, I mean: A runaway car nearly runs him over, or his house goes up in flames. The longer he is in the past, and the closer he gets to preventing the assassination of JFK, the more dangerous it is, and the more he wants to go back to the safety of the present.
It’s a smart yet simple set-up replete with dramatic possibilities and so much potential for suspense that the goal itself — to prevent the assassination of JFK — is almost beside the point. It’s the MacGuffin that propels the story. James Franco is also practically beside the point — it’s not a character that requires much heavy lifting, and Franco is not an actor who offers much (Cooper,on the other hand, is solid, as always). It’s a story that hinges upon those rules, and how those rules affect Jake’s decision.
It’s good stuff. It’s a little early to offer a strong assessment of the series based on one episode, but it feels bingeworthy — it’s got a monster of a hook — which makes it all the more frustrating that Hulu is only releasing episodes one week at a time. But anytime a viewer can watch a James Franco series and like it enough to not care that James Franco is in it, it has to be considered a success.