From “Romeo & Juliet” to “Dracula,” some fictional concepts that are so simple yet so rich, they’re always ripe for reimagining — and apparently now we can add the story of humanity’s last train ride to the list. If you read the original French graphic novels “Le Transperceneige” or — more likely — watched Bong Joon-ho’s film adaptation, then you know the basic Snowpiercer set-up already: The world is a frozen wasteland, and the remnants of the human race are trapped on a perpetually moving train, 1,001 cars long, that’s circling the globe as class warfare and vast conspiracies ensue. It’s a post-apocalyptic dystopia to be sure, but the comics focused more on the post-apocalypse while the film, featuring Captain America reminiscing about eating babies, was far more interested in the dystopian aspects of the premise. All of which begs the question: What’s TNT’s new TV version got to say? What angle will it take on the familiar material? What will it add to the mix?
And the answer, based on last night’s premiere, appears to be… a dash of Agatha Christie? It’s been a rocky road to the small screen for this television adaptation, which was developed by Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’s Josh Friedman before he was (acrimoniously) replaced as showrunner by Orphan Black’s Graeme Manson. With Bong Joon-ho still listed as an executive producer, the series seems to be slotting itself into the film’s timeline as something of a prequel, set just over six years after the titular train’s departure. The luxury locomotive, designed by an industrial magnate named Mr. Wilford, is still divided into classes, with the “Tailies” at the back of the train suffering the most. Passing references to cannibalism and some pretty suspicious, sludgy nutrition bars bring to mind some of the most memorable details from the film, but there’s plenty of new details as well. Our point of entry into this closed world is Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a Tailie who apparently led the initial infiltration of the train by the destitute survivors prior to its departure, and has spent the intervening years trying to organize some sort of revolution — until the day he’s mysteriously plucked from the last car by a security detail and led up-train. In his life before the big freeze, Layton was a homicide detective, and now the Snowpiercer staff need his help solving a series of murders involving dismemberment (in a vividly literal sense).
Jennifer Connelly plays Melanie Cavill, the head of onboard hospitality who also serves as the “voice of the train” during announcements. And if she seems to be the person in most direct contact with Mr. Wilford himself? Well, as we find out at the end of the premiere — it’s because she is Mr. Wilford. She’s not just a figurehead but the actual person in charge, and it’s her duty to maintain the precisely calculated balance on board the train for the good of all the survivors. She’ll use Layton to solve the murder and prevent unrest in the upperclass cabins, while Layton will use this opportunity to get a look at how the train really works, to aid the Tailie unrest in the back. Turning Snowpiercer into a procedural by slapping a murder mystery framework on it is maybe the most perfectly TV-ified solution to the question of how to stretch the material out across 10 episodes (with a second season of 10 eps already confirmed). It’s simple, it’s familiar, and through Layton’s investigation we are offered a more in-depth exploration of the glitz and comfort afforded to the privileged passengers — and the broad middle-class full of workers who really keep the train on track (shout out to the head of security played by Mike O’Malley, who never failed to make me cry as Kurt’s dad on Glee). The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t quite feel like Snowpiercer anymore. The film brilliantly charted a violent, linear trek from the back of the train to the front, uncovering injustice and secrets along the way, and frankly I think the show is smart to avoid covering the exact same ground because there’s no way it can compete. Instead, it has opted to put the revolution on the back-burner for the time being and use the murder to deepen the story’s own world-building — which means the show’s success is probably going to come down to how satisfying that mystery ultimately is, and what new information it adds to Snowpiercer that we didn’t get in any of the previous versions of the story.
For now, I’m intrigued enough to stick with it. Diggs and Connelly are perfectly cast as two sides of the same coin — people you can’t help but trust, even when you know they’ve got a lot hidden up their sleeves. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? Even if the show isn’t as incisive as the movie, or as entertaining as the graphic novels, or even if it devolves into a derivative mess, it’ll still be a diversion in a time when I could really use one. I made it through Westworld, I can make it through a season of Intercontinental Murder Express.
Header Image Source: TNT