NEW YORK — No one would figure going back in time to spare the life of JFK would be easy or quick. But does it have to drag on so long and be this tiresome to watch?
On Monday, Hulu launches its first weekly episode of “11.22.63,” based on Stephen King’s novel. The eight-part series has a captivating premise: Modern-day high school teacher Jake Epping (played by James Franco) gets the chance to rewrite history in a big way. Armed with the knowledge of what happened that terrible day a half-century ago, and all too acquainted with the aftershocks that persist to the current day, Jake beats a path back to the 1960s to right this wrong.
Of course, everyone knows that messing with history is a dicey proposition. And any viewer comes to “11.22.63” all too aware that by the final fade-out, despite our hero’s best efforts, President John F. Kennedy will remain as before, fallen by gunfire.
The audience appeal of a saga like “11.22.63” resides primarily in tracking Jake’s progress as he sets out to defy fate, then in observing how (not if) fate retains the upper hand.
The trouble with “11.22.63”: Jake’s mission is a convoluted slog that may very well tempt the viewer to take a break until Episode 8, when the do-or-die moment in Dallas arrives at last. Hint: What will happen then exposes the series as a bloated parable the likes of which you might have seen on “The Twilight Zone,” though more efficiently portrayed there in its tidy 30 minutes.
The series begins with some promise as Jake takes up the cause of his friend Al (Chris Cooper), the cantankerous owner of a diner in their Maine hometown, who has found a portal to go back in time but has failed to reach the moment of truth when he can thwart the assassination and, he says, “make a better world.”
Adding potential intrigue to the task: “There are hundreds of questions that haven’t been answered,” Al declares. For instance, after more than 50 years, there is still no consensus for why Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger, and whether he acted alone. Those nagging mysteries must be solved, Al tells Jake. If Oswald was part of a conspiracy, stopping just him won’t be enough.
Clearly, this is a tall order.
How tall is soon all too evident to the viewer. Jake, entering the “rabbit hole” in the diner’s pantry, is catapulted back to the past. But not to 1963. He arrives in 1960. Viewers will soon be wishing for a rabbit hole to move him forward faster.
Instead, the plot calls for Jake to spend years keeping watch on Oswald to build an airtight case against him before taking action.
Why such mind-numbing caution is needed is unclear. Jake knows that every time he flashes back to the ’60s from the present day, the past will greet him by resetting to its original state. So if he were to conclude he had made some kind of blunder in meddling with the past, he always has the option to return and undo it.
Likewise padding the narrative is a preposterous love affair: Jake falls for Sadie, a winsome blond librarian at the Texas high school where he lands a job as his cover while keeping tabs on Oswald (Daniel Webber). Even when he lets her in on his big secret — he’s just visiting from the future — she accepts his pledge of undying devotion, seemingly as unconcerned as he is that he won’t be sticking around.
Not that Sadie (Sarah Gadon) has much luck with men otherwise. Besides her inevitable put-down by Jake, she suffers physical brutality from her ex-husband. And, in the best spirit of bad-guys-and-the-good-women-who-love-them, Sadie isn’t the only one whose man treats her wrong.
Despite all this, “11.22.63” isn’t without merit. The art direction recapturing the early 1960s is remarkable across the series’ nearly countless scenes and locations. To revisit Dallas’ Dealey Plaza of November ’63, complete with the spirited crowd and doomed presidential motorcade, is particularly stirring.
Meanwhile, several of the actors — Cooper, Gadon, Webber — are impressive in their mostly thankless roles.
Not so with Franco. A figure distinguished not for his acting skill but for his show-biz ubiquity, he appears here in nearly every scene, freighting the series with a performance that jockeys between grinning and determined scowls.
Franco’s performance, like the series overall, reflects the tale that unfolds: a well-intentioned mission that accomplishes little.