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In “The Rabbit Hole,” 11.22.63 recites the rules and wastes no time

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Just like Stephen King, 11.22.63 seems to have a knack for beginnings.

Adapted from the novel of almost-the-same-name (11/22/63), the latest from Hulu (and J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot) jumps into King’s sprawling time-travel story—a little bit sci-fi, a little bit romance, a little bit what-if—at top speed. In the first 15 minutes, Jake (James Franco) hears a story that rattles him from a GED-seeker he then tries and fails to help get a promotion, gets served divorce papers and says a begrudging farewell to his wife, watches a friend go from healthy to death’s-door in two minutes, accompanies said friend to his cancer diagnosis, has a few seriously confusing conversations, and walks into a pantry and out onto a street in 1960. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and if viewers who haven’t read the book feel their heads spinning just a bit, it’s more than understandable.

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Packed, however, doesn’t always mean rushed. Writer (and show-runner) Bridget Carpenter has a lot of ground to cover in bringing King’s doorstop of a book to the screen. Hulu has given her what seems like a lot of time (and energy, and money—this thing looks great) to accomplish that. Here and there, it’s easy to feel a bit cheated, with discoveries and decisions coming left and right. But while Carpenter (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights) wisely sets the story rocketing forward, she and director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) also give the characters lots of room to breathe. And when I say ‘breathe,’ I mean that they let James Franco and Chris Cooper be the damn movie stars they are.

Sometimes James Franco’s too busy being James Franco to be an actor, but that’s not the case here. Part of this is the material: Jake Epping needs to a bit of a blank slate, an everyman through who the audience can experience this strange story, and so Franco needs to play things pretty close to himself while also removed from what those car commercials Hulu keeps showing refer to as ‘Performance Artist James Franco.’ Part of it’s just that when he puts his mind to it, he’s just a really good actor. But perhaps more than anything else, he spends a big chunk of “The Rabbit Hole” squaring off with Cooper. As Al Templeton, Cooper’s in fine form, and pulling out quite a few of the finest tools in his tool-box: a little wry charm here, a lot of exhausted there, a dash of menace, a dollop of mania, and above all, that undeniable gravitas. Whether in his scenes with Franco or in instruction-manual mode, Cooper sucks all the air out of the room. He’s an actor’s actor, and more than anything else, it’s his ability to peel back layers with the smallest gesture or silence that make up for the episode’s sprint through the formalities.

And formalities, there are. There’s no way to tell a time-travel story—no good way, anyway—that doesn’t involve spending just a little time setting up the rules. Carpenter shoots first and explains later, having Templeton wander into the back looking hale and stumble out minutes later a total wreck, and then doubles down, with Templeton practically shoving Jake into his titular ‘rabbit hole.’ Once he’s seen it, Templeton thinks, he’ll believe it, and it’s a theory that seems to work for Jake as well as for viewers. After that, we get through most of the technicalities, with more little bits scattered throughout, the most compelling (and unusual) being this: “You fuck with the past, and the past fucks with you.”

It’s with this idea that the episode starts to feel like less of a race to the story and more of a story. During Epping’s phone call, his trip to see J.F.K., and his night following George de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne) as he meets with the C.I.A., Macdonald manages to drum up dread, rather than suspense. It’s here that the past feels live, and inhospitable, and like the antagonist that, according to Templeton, it wants to be. It’s also where it starts to feel most human, particularly as the episode reaches its conclusion (and sets up the next installment).

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After one shock, unintended consequence, and failure too many, Epping decides to head home, but not before trying to change one small thing. Of course, it’s not so small, and that’s what makes the story of Harry Dunning (Leon Rippy, who does the best work of the episode in a few short scenes) so compelling. 11.22.63 is about the Kennedy Assassination, of course, and about the effects or lack thereof that our lives can have. You know, big stuff. But it’s about little things, too. For better or worse, Templeton’s plan to make a better world doesn’t seem all that compelling to Jake, and it may not to the audience, either. But fulfilling a dying wish, changing the fate of a broken man, changing even one life for the better—that stuff matters.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to our weekly coverage for 11.22.63! From here on out, reviews will post on Monday mornings.
  • Speaking of what you can expect from these reviews: I have read (and loved) 11/22/63, and I’m of the opinion that looking at why an adaptation does what it does can enrich enjoyment of both the source material and the resulting show. From now on, those of you who’ve read the book can look to this section for any such thoughts, which will clearly be marked as such—but with no skipping ahead. I’ll stick to what someone reading along concurrently would already know. I’d ask that you do the same, and clearly mark anything book-related that could be considered a spoiler as such.
  • To that end, book talk: I’m not sure why 1960 instead of 1958. Rereading the book now, so maybe I’ll figure it out. And while I think Harry’s story as King wrote it is plenty powerful, nothing in it hit me nearly as hard as “I remember the blood smelled like pennies.”
  • There are obviously some tremendous actors involved—I’d willingly watch Chris Cooper take out the trash for an hour—but even the minor characters are seriously well cast (by Erica L. Silverman and April Webster). How great was Cody, the dancing parrot video kid? Or Little Eddie? Or Alice, old and young?
  • If I have one nit-picky complaint, it’s that some of the directoral choices seemed a bit on the nose, particularly when it came to the musical choices (fun though they were) and the Nixon stuff.
  • “Who makes up these rules?” “I hate the fucking dark.” “There better not be any spiders in here.” I like cranky Jake Epping.
  • Cute, old-timey slang of the week: “Oh, for the love of Mike.”
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