James Franco gets a shave and a haircut and sets out to save John F. Kennedy from an assassin's bullet in Stephen King's time-travel drama 11.22.63, starting Monday on Hulu.
Maybe someday a TV network will green-light a show in which one of its suits goes back in time to strangle streaming technology in its cradle, but until then a certain amount of confusion reigns. The online service owned by Disney-ABC, Fox, and Comcast's NBCUniversal continues to ramp up production on original series meant to help it compete with Netflix and Amazon, two other services that first bought TV reruns and out-of-the-theater movies and now compete with their sellers by making their own. CBS, meanwhile, has hired Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies) to command a Star Trek reboot that after its premiere airs on the network next year will be available only on CBS's digital subscription service.
It doesn't reduce the confusion that 11.22.63, the most ambitious Hulu original to date, will be released, like all its originals, one episode each week, just as it would on a TV network. (Monday's premiere, set to coincide with Presidents' Day, runs about an hour and 20 minutes without commercials, with subsequent episodes ranging from 44 minutes to nearly a full hour.) Original content may have made cutting the cord on your cable an easier call, but if a show's not released all at once, Netflix-style, it's not a weekend binge, it's an appointment. There's also the math: If you're not a subscriber, you can watch the first episode for free on a computer, but after that, it's a monthly fee, which also allows streaming on other devices. Pay more and you can skip the commercials.
A show like 11.22.63 is meant to drive those decisions for drama junkies. An absorbing eight-episode show based on King's best-selling 11/22/63 and produced by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it stars Franco as Jake Epping, an English teacher in present-day Maine who's enlisted by diner owner Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) in a quixotic quest to prevent the assassination of JFK, with the help of a portal to the past that happens to be tucked at the back of the diner's pantry.
You were expecting standing stones? Outlander, which operates its own time-travel rules, returns to Starz on April 9, with Claire (Caitriona Balfe) working with her 18th-century husband, Jamie (Sam Heughan), to prevent the Battle of Culloden, a 1746 event that changed the fate of Scotland and that may seem only slightly more distant than JFK's assassination to the under-50 viewers most advertisers target.
It's distant to Franco's Jake, too, who requires some persuasion by Cooper's character, a Vietnam veteran who believes Kennedy's death took the country in the wrong direction. Franco's at his best as Jake settles into life in early-1960s America, and 11.22.63 makes good use of a strong supporting cast that besides Cooper includes Cherry Jones, Sarah Gadon (A Royal Night Out), Nick Searcy (Justified), T.R. Knight (Grey's Anatomy), Josh Duhamel, Leon Rippy (Saving Grace), and George MacKay (Pride). Daniel Webber and Lucy Fry play Lee and Marina Oswald.
Executive producer Bridget Carpenter's adaptation doesn't always feel as streamlined as it is. The book, which I enjoyed immensely, wanders even more. An episode or two fewer might have made it stronger, or it could have kept it from happening at all. Director Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia), who originally optioned the book for a movie, dropped the project, reportedly because he and King couldn't agree on what to leave out. Hulu's version takes some liberties with his characters but preserves the essentials of his not-so-short story: a reexamination of the case against Lee Harvey Oswald and possible coconspirators and the romance, both with a woman named Sadie Dunhill (Gadon) who may distract Jake from his mission, and with the past itself, which stubbornly resists change and doesn't always look so pretty up close.
'Better Call Saul' returns
nolead ends That change-resistant past is also at work as AMC's Better Call Saul returns for a second season 10 p.m. Monday.
In its first surprising season, the Breaking Bad prequel took Walter White's future attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and transformed someone who'd mostly been a figure of fun into the antihero of his own life, with a backstory sympathetic enough that fans wouldn't necessarily be in a hurry to see struggling lawyer Jimmy McGill become Saul. It introduced his neurotic, and highly judgmental, older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), and reintroduced Breaking Bad's Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). And amid a season full of extralegal shenanigans, it even dangled an opportunity for Jimmy to go straight.
It can't last, of course. The Cinnabon in Omaha awaits, and so does the future that is Breaking Bad. The first two episodes of Season 2 should feel then like an elaborate tease, as we see Jimmy slipping into his old rhythms even while reaching for what looks like a brighter future, one that may include Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). That they don't is due to the show's respect for the present, the place that Jimmy lives right now, and where he still has hope and where anything might yet happen.