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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Snowpiercer overcrowds its initial ride with a murder mystery

Illustration for article titled iSnowpiercer /iovercrowds its initial ride with a murder mystery
Photo: TNT
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Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Snowpiercer the television show is not Snowpiercer the movie. That becomes clear pretty early on in the first episode of the long-gestating sci-fi series. But it’s a truth I had braced for. Cable television has a tendency to... cable television-ify its adaptations. I had my doubts that a splashy television reinvention of the story here could possibly evoke the same anti-capitalist, anti-mainstream feel of the brilliant and yet still somehow underrated Bong Joon Ho film (which itself is based on previous work—the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige). Indeed, TNT’s Snowpiercer dilutes some of the story’s best parts by injecting the narrative with a crime procedural arc, absolutely cable television-ifying the story. And I’m not fully sold on the show needing it. In its first episode, Snowpiercer struggles a bit to really define itself beyond its setting.

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As far as the strong world-building goes, that’s where it bears the most resemblance to its film predecessor. Like the movie, the show is set aboard the 1,001-car train destined to indefinitely circle the globe, which has frozen over after a very backfired attempt to stop global warming. The train is an ever-moving ecosystem that starkly mimics capitalist class structures from the before-world. First class cars are outfitted with saunas, private dining cars, luxury food grown and harvested onboard. All the way at the back are the Tailies. Below even the third class passengers, they are the non-ticketholders who forcibly boarded the train—run by an unseen billionaire Mr. Wilford—at the last minute.

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They did it so they could, you know, live. Because people who could afford to board the Snowpiercer or were lucky enough to secure jobs aboard shouldn’t be the only people who survive a global disaster. But to everyone else on board, the Tailies are vermin. They’re completely stripped of their rights, seen as interlopers. They’re being starved out, sterilized, oppressed. Revolution is brewing, and that’s where Snowpiercer’s real intrigue gurgles. But alas, there’s also a murder mystery onboard. Snowpiercer’s similarities with the movie start and end with its setting.

Enter: André Layton, the series’ protagonist played by Daveed Diggs. He’s smart and resourceful, a fitting leader for the Tailies even though some prefer to rush plans. Right before an attempt at revolt, he’s snatched up-train to solve a murder, because apparently he’s the only former homicide detective on board. Diggs is an instantly captivating lead, although he isn’t given much meaty material in the pilot. Character development is a little slow on the uptake here, crowded out by a focus on setting up this murder mystery. The big emotional climax of the episode, when Layton has to return to the Tail after a failed, bloody attempt at revolt where the Tailies only gained one car before being thwarted, doesn’t completely work, particularly because the Tail’s inhabitants are drawn in pretty broad strokes outside of Layton at the moment.

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More so than it does with the movie, Snowpiercer has similarities to showrunner Graeme Manson’s previous work Orphan Black, especially on a visual level. The Tail is dark and crowded and grimy, while the first class cars glisten in bright whites, filmed in wider shots that capture just how much more space the rich folks have. There are touches of The 100 (early seasons) here, too, as well as Battlestar Galactica. It’s similarly a highly stylized sci-fi series dealing with class, uprising, and what it means to rebuild a ruined world. The outside world has crept into the train, seen in the rigid class structures as well as in the continued social construction of nations. Physical and invisible borders still exist aboard the train. The Americans don’t like that the Europeans use the saunas naked. The end of the world doesn’t magically end social constructs or systems.

It’s always hard to deeply develop characters right away in a pilot, especially on an ensemble show, which I think Snowpiercer is trying to be? We spend so much time with Layton, which makes sense, since he’s sort of a viewer surrogate for introducing the world of the train. He’s seeing it all for the first time. In fact, he has to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun coming in from the window when he leaves the Tail. There are glimmers of depth for some of the other characters aboard, especially when it comes to Jennifer Connelly’s Melanie, head of hospitality onboard as well as the god-like voice of the train who makes daily announcements. Beneath her cool, calm demeanor, there’s definitely something else there. Battlestar Galactica is absolutely an example of a sprawling ensemble sci-fi series that manages to give specificity, stakes, and motives to its many characters right away. And Snowpiercer feels just a little less sure of itself early on, messily mixing its class revolution metaphor with this murder storyline. The world-building is solid, but everything else hasn’t quite snapped into place yet.

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Stray observations

  • Hello, welcome to Snowpiercer coverage! Gonna go long here for a second, but I wanted to talk about the parallels to real life outside of the actual review: It is of course surreal to watch this show in the midst of a global pandemic. There are the obvious parallels, like the fact that the train’s passengers are unable to go outside. But the show also evokes the reality that global crises tend to exacerbate existing power structures and inequality rather than solve them. Anyone saying that the COVID-19 pandemic is some sort of “social equalizer” lives in a safe and delusional bubble not unlike the first-class cars aboard the Snowpiercer. Decreased access to healthcare for vulnerable groups, systemic racism, a clamping down on reproductive rights—all these things are typically heightened during crisis, not fixed by them. Snowpiercer exposes that quite emphatically.
  • I’m going to try to not write about the movie too much in these reviews, because I do think the show has already established that it’s its own thing, and I don’t find it super useful to keep hammering points about its differences over and over.
  • The annoying rich teen who wants to go to third class to get some noodles feels like a very believable annoying rich teen who thinks they’re rebelliously slumming it by being in proximity to poor people!
  • We get almost nothing of Susan Park’s character, but I immediately need to know everything about this hot chef who casually goes nude deep-sea diving in an aquarium car (!!!) for uni?????????
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