Monday, February 15, 2016

REVIEW: '11.22.63' - Jake Discovers that His Friend Has a Time Portal Back to 1960 in 'Part 1: The Rabbit Hole'

Hulu's 11.22.63 - Episode 1.01 "Part 1: The Rabbit Hole"

High school teacher Jake Epping is shown a secret time portal by his friend, who begs him to go back to 1960 in order to prevent the Kennedy assassination. But Jake finds that changing the past is far more dangerous than he ever would have dreamed.

11.22.63 has a pretty out there premise. It's completely ridiculous. But it's also a good thing that it doesn't take itself too seriously either. This plot is incredible and Jake has the appropriate reaction to all of this craziness. He's living a normal live in 2016 when his friend and diner owner, Al Templeton, shows him that the storage closet is actually a time portal back to October 1960. It's a premise that is so outrageous to believe. And yet, the series does a very smart thing in showing Jake find purpose with this ridiculous mission. He comes to accept all of this as something that can realistically happen. This first hour is about him accepting that mission from Al and learning as much as he can. It is a bit of an information dump but it's still quite entertaining while it's setting up all the details of the story.

So, there's this time portal that can drop whoever goes through it to the same day and time in 1960. A lot of time is spent on setting up the rules of this kind of time travel. It's a lot to take. Even Jake wants to question why things are the way that they are. Al doesn't have any good explanation for why the portal is there or why it takes people back to that day or why only two minutes pass when the person returns to 2016. It's completely crazy and defies explanation. The show turns into that skid though. It just embraces the crazy for what it is and then moves past it. Al wouldn't know anything about it. This is just what his reality has been for years. And now, he needs Jake to pick up the baton for him. He is dying of cancer following his latest excursion into the past. Jake promptly freaks out once Al returns to the dinner disheveled and with a major coughing spell. He also looks a couple years older. It's this fantastical premiere that will soon consume Jake's life as well.

The premiere does an adequate job in showing what Jake's life is like before he decides to travel to the past to continue his friend's life mission. It's not so bad that it pushes him to the brink and forces him to flee to a simpler time. He has just fallen into a rut that isn't all that exciting. He has just finalized his divorce from Christy. His father has died and he wasn't able to say goodbye. More importantly, he's just teaching English at a community college. A place where the celebration is very minor and trivial. His fellow facility aren't excited to be in this job. He's excited for one of his older students, Harry, to graduate. But even his strong recommendation letter isn't enough to change Harry's life for him. He'll still be the same man during the same job he has always been doing. It's a job. He's content with it. But he's not changing the world at all. When his younger students come in, he can't even keep them interested and engaged for more than a few minutes.

Al's diner is a successful business. But he enjoys going back to 1960. It's a simpler life and he enjoys getting to see the world that way again. Time travel has changed his life though. Because he found a way back to 1960, he has become obsessed with finding a way to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. To him, that was the pivotal moment that doomed the country for the next few decades. Change that event and the entire world would change. It has been a very difficult and personal struggle for him. He has lived the same years over and over again. Each time getting a step closer to unraveling the truth about what really happened on that fateful day in November 1963. He knows how to survive and get by in this time period. He has experienced it enough to know how to live in that time while not standing out too much. At times, Al does appear as a crazy old man obsessed with a event that isn't so willing to be changed. And yet, Jake finds purpose in the mission as well because of his friendship with Al. He sees just how important this is to him. He experiences firsthand just how much change can happen due to their actions in the past. But that has an incredible amount of weight to it as well.

After all of this heavy-lifting is done, Jake finally travels back to October 1960 dedicated to the mission and fulfilling Al's dream for him. It's weird and predictable that Al's death is the reason why Jake decides to go through with this very complicated mission. He is traveling back to a time that he is not a natural part of. He's an outsider in this time period. He doesn't belong there. Nefarious things are afoot as well. The timeline doesn't want to be changed. That's what adds to the thriller nature of this hour. Every time Jake gets close to understanding a crucial piece of information about the future, the universe tries its best to stop him. And yet, it's also suspicious that that only happens because he's trying to stop JFK's assassination. The timeline apparently knows that's what he's up to. If he wanted to change some other event, would the timeline react just as seriously? If he just wanted to live in this time and didn't have any big plans of changing the future, would the timeline leave him alone and let him live his life? These are questions best not to ask of the show.

But Jake's commitment to the mission is very important in this opening episode. He's doing it to give his life more purpose and to fulfill the dream of his friend. Jake is a guy who cares about the people who are in his life on a daily basis. But when he actually goes back in time, he finds himself confronted by a lot of chaos and destruction. His actions have severe consequences. He is able to adapt to the world. Al has plenty of suggestions for him. Even though Al dies early, he still lives on throughout the hour to serve as an expositional device for what Jake should do during this time in the past. Al knows how to survive in this world. He passes all of that knowledge onto Jake. That information becomes quite invaluable to Jake too. He thrives in this world because of the advice that Al has mapped out for him. It's because of it that Jake is able to get much closer to crucial events than Al ever did. Even that only gets him so far in this endeavor though. Again, the timeline doesn't want to be changed. It's exciting to watch as cars run over phone booths and things catch on fire just to keep Jake from finding out information about the assassination. And yet, the further Jake pursues this, the more damage he actually causes.

In the beginning, Jake is motivated to continue this mission for Al because he meets a young boy dedicated to joining the army in four years when he's old enough. Al believes that the Vietnam War wouldn't have happened if JFK was still president. That suggestion was enough to fuel Jake into traveling into the past. But a face was put on the struggle. This young boy would surely die at war if Jake just let things play out as they should. That's what forces him into action. And that action gets the kid killed anyway. It's a personal loss for Jake. He didn't get close to the kid but he's dead because of Jake nevertheless. The timeline tried to stop Jake from learning about Lee Harvard Oswald's potential Russian handler. When that failed, the house where Jake had been staying catches on fire and destroys all the notes that Al had accumulated over the years. It's a crushing and personal loss for Jake. His actions caused that and it forces him to question everything that he has done in 1960. This mission isn't as meaningful or personal to him as it was to Al.

The only thing that Jake wants to change about the past is for his friend from 2016. Jake cares about Harry very much. He's proud to see him get his diploma. The premiere even opens on Harry's chilling story about his father coming home on Halloween night to kill his mother, brother and sister. It's a horrifying story. The passion in which he tells it really moves Jake. When he actually returns to the past, he questions his purpose with Al's mission. But he also figures he could do something very nice for a guy that he loves. He could change Harry's past so that his future isn't as bleak as the reality that Jake knows. That's the mission that means the most to Jake after he loses so much in that fire. Again, the timeline doesn't like to change. Taking care of this problem doesn't mean Harry's future will be any better. But Jake at least wants to try. That's an exciting and very personal place to end the character on in this premiere. This over-an-hour episode is filled with a lot of exposition. But it's still fun and exciting to see the story be set up while the narrative will only get more complex in future installments.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Part 1: The Rabbit Hole" was written by Bridget Carpenter and directed by Kevin Macdonald.
  • Jake has a pretty innocent bump in with a pretty blonde woman, Sadie, in 1960 as well. It's a brief interaction but they enjoy talking about books and how they are always better than the movie adaptations. Of course, things are complicated by the fact that she is married.
  • In case you couldn't tell, T.R. Knight is playing Sadie's husband and Josh Duhamel is playing Harry's father. That casting would indicate that those two characters will become important to the narrative at some point.
  • Chris Cooper seems to be having a lot of fun playing Al as the man who has come to accept this as his reality and his life's mission. Too bad he's killed off so early in the series. But again, he will continue to exist in little expositional moments. Those can be amusing as well.
  • The simple sight of seeing Jake dressed up in 2016 attire walking around in 1960 is great. It's even more amusing when he drops his iPhone - and later uses it as a distraction to get out of some trouble.
  • However, Jake seems like a nice guy. Why is Al so convinced that he has the ability to kill another person? That's would this mission will require once it gets closer to the assassination date. Right now, Jake doesn't seem like a killer. That could change the more time he spends in the past though.