J.J. Abrams has undoubtedly been a busy bee these past couple years. Not only did he put his directorial skills to the test in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but he also’s been playing his hand in the production of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and the upcoming features 10 Cloverfield Lane and Star Trek Beyond. With all of these works stuffed on his plate as it is, it’s amazing Abrams managed to find the time to be a part of the mini-series 11.22.63. Yet, of all the times Abrams has delved into the world of television shows, getting involved with the production of 11.22.63 feels like one of the best decisions he could have possibly made in the area.
11.22.63 stars James Franco as Jake Epping, a newly divorced and well-meaning teacher who just so happens to have unknowingly been long time friends with a time traveler. Diner owner Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) has just discovered he’s riddled with cancer, and can no longer keep his secret if he wishes to change the world for the better. With nobody else to turn to, Templeton reveals to Jake that within the back of his diner lies a closet that, once you’ve entered, will immediately transfer you back to the year 1960. With this revelation, Templeton had been trying to stop the Kennedy assassination for most of his life, but without any success. Of able body and mind, Jake Epping is tasked by Al into going back in time to do everything he can to stop Kennedy’s death, although he just might learn how strongly the past doesn’t want to be changed.
Most of you, right off the bat, are probably wondering if James Franco works well in the leading role of this series. From this, it is with great satisfaction that I can attest that Franco works wonderfully as Jake Epping. Thanks to Franco’s blend of charisma and heart behind his performance, Epping manages to come off as a deeply relatable character; one we can root for the entire way through. In addition to this, Franco bounces really well off Cooper’s equally important performance as Al Templeton, and the two end up feeling like a perfect fit for one another in the process. When Templeton begins showing signs of his progressing cancer, you really begin to feel the depth of the friendship between the pair, and as to why Jake would actually go along with this for his friend. That’s not to say the two don’t argue over the proposition, there are times where they’re almost at each other’s throats during a breaking point, but it actually adds to the severity of the mission at hand, and it builds their chemistry along the way.
However, what ends up being the pilot’s biggest strength is the world we’ve been given to explore in 1960’s America, and the plot that goes along with it. Not only does the series’ team do a great job of setting up the era to look as authentic as possible, but with a great character like Jake Epping guiding us through it, there didn’t feel like a dull moment to be had. If you’re unfamiliar with the central twist behind the story, this time traveling escapade has the concept of “the past not wanting to be changed” with Epping’s intrusion. Random acts will befall on him in an attempt to prevent history from changing, such as nearly being run over by a car, and it is with this broad, yet intense, twist that most of the show’s suspense arises from. We are only left to guess what might happen next in Epping’s bid to save John F. Kennedy, and every calamity that occurs feels more fierce than the last. This is exactly what a thriller should be, and it appears that Stephen King’s suspenseful novel is being handled extremely well.
The only real gripe that this superb pilot contains is that it, like just about every other time travel story out there, suffers from the occasional hole in its mythology. We aren’t really lead to understand how this closet came to be a hole in time, or why you can leave for years on end, and return to your timeline with only two minutes having passed. All we’re really given is that “this is how it is, and that’s that.” Admittedly, this is probably a good idea to keep the story rolling, we don’t want too much time focused on the “how it works” instead of the interesting concepts and plot. It just would have been nicer for the set up to have been smoothed over a bit more.
However, that is far from a major detraction of the piece. Despite being almost an hour and a half long, the hectic nature of Epping’s journey is bound to keep you engaged from beginning to end, and leave plenty of viewers excited for the next episode. Both tense and engaging, the pilot of 11.22.63 makes the series feel, thus far, like another worthy addition to both the legacies of Franco and Abrams.