11.22.63 “The Rabbit Hole” Review (2016 Mini-Series Episode 1) : Time May Change Me…

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The latest adaption of a Stephen King novel, “11.22.63,” based on the book of the same name, also has the distinction of being the first to be made exclusively for streaming, which basically means that it’s the first with a decent shot of replicating the material without compromise, at least in the sense of violence, nudity, cursing, etc.

Somewhat ironically, it’s also one of King’s more sedated works, in that it actually doesn’t have that much of the aforementioned things to be concerned about in the first place, but that, of course, doesn’t stop it from dropping some choice F-bombs just to let you know they can, for better or for worse.

On the more negative side, “11.22.63” is also based on one of King’s patented magnum opuses, which is to say it ranks with the likes of “The Stand” and “IT” as one of his longer works. Clocking in around 850 pages, even as a mini-series some stuff is bound to not make the cut, and this is certainly no exception, even with a relatively lengthy 8 episodes to fill out, the first of which at least, is near-future length, clocking in a just over an hour-and-twenty-minutes.

Still, not being as contained by time constraints can be a good thing, as we’ve seen with certain cable shows like “Mad Men,” “American Horror Story,” “Justified” and “The Walking Dead.” Granted, it can also backfire, as every last one of those shows has featured unnecessary material that didn’t really validate the extra running time, and worse, wreaked havoc on peoples’ viewing schedules- and occasionally their DVRs.

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Enter streaming. With sources like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, we can now watch things at our own leisure and not have to worry about pesky things like time slots or running times, much less unwanted censorship. This can be a double-edged sword, naturally, as shows that are released all at once, as Netflix does, tempt one to watch everything at once, binge-style, while those that brave the old-school, once-a-week format, as “11.22.63” does might risk alienating viewers who want it all and want it now.

Of course, none of that matters if the mini-series or show in question isn’t worth watching, but thankfully, this one is. I was a little skeptical at first about the casting of James Franco in the main role of Jake Epping, but reportedly he was interested in the role early on and really fought for it, and I’m happy to say he does a fine job with it.

Though he comes off as not quite as adept as Jake does in the book, that may well be his typical “bro” persona betraying who he really is, after one too many movies like “Pineapple Express” and “This is the End.” But in a way, it also works in favor of the character, as just by virtue of his being a little slow on the uptake, it makes his getting caught or messing up what he’s setting out to do a bit more likely, and thus, more tense for the viewer.

As book readers know, the essential plotline is actually pretty straight-forward, even more so that, say, it’s most obvious precedent, “Back to the Future.” Jake is an English professor in a small town that stumbles into a doozy of a scenario: if you could go back in time and stop the Kennedy assassination, would you? Better yet, could you?

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It’s actually a query that has a precedent in King’s own work, when, in the classic “The Dead Zone,” another character asks: “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?” (Amusingly, this very question gained some traction not too long ago in politics, when it was asked of Jeb Bush, only with the hot-button change-up of “Would you kill baby Hitler?” “Hell yeah, I would!” he said, without irony, “You gotta step up, man!”)

Here, the scenario is given credence by actually becoming a distinct possibility, thanks to a time portal found in, of all places, a low-rent, old-school diner run by an ailing man named Al Templeton (Chris Cooper, “American Beauty”). Stricken with cancer, Al beckons Jake to finish what he tried to start- go back in time, finish his research, and once he was sure that the alleged culprit Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber, “Home and Away”) was indeed the guilty one, kill the bastard.

But, this being a Stephen King novel, there is going to be catches, of course. In this case, it’s the fact that, as Al puts it, “Time doesn’t want to be changed” and oftentimes, it “pushes back.” In other words, things happen to compel you to stop, if not threaten your very life. In Al’s case, it was the cancer, which he apparently didn’t have upon going back in time on his most recent visit. As someone of advanced age, he doesn’t think he has it in him to try again, which is why he recruits Jake in the first place.

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The other catch is, when you leave the past and come back, though only a matter of minutes have passed in your absence, years can pass in the past, and if you go back in again, it “resets” time and everything you did the last time you were there goes back to the way it was, as if it never happened.

Also, because you enter in 1960, that means you literally have to wait years until Oswald even shows up, and over three years until that fateful day of Kennedy’s assassination rolls around. Although, as Al points out, if Jake can prove what he couldn’t- that Oswald was indeed responsible- then he can take him out immediately and get out of there, mission accomplished, without having to wait around for the titular date.

So, needless to say, it’s a fantastic set-up for a novel and it certainly lends itself well to an extended mini-series to boot. My main concern was whether the adaption would capture the overall tone and feel of the novel, which, as ever, is rendered in exquisite detail by King, who did extensive research on everything concerned, having had the initial idea way back in 1971, before his first novel, “Carrie” was even published.

I’m happy to say that, for the most part, it absolutely does, though, as one might expect in an adapted version of such a massive tome, a lot of detail does go by the wayside in favor of streamlining things. Some of the changes are sort of arbitrary: i.e. the place Jake exits into the past is different, as is the date. In the book, as I recall, he comes out into an alleyway, and it’s early September of 1958, not seemingly out of nowhere and in late October of 1960.

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Be that as it may, no one notices his materialization, save one man, and that is in the book: the so-called “Yellow Card Man” (Kevin J. O’Connor, “Chicago P.D.”), who immediately says, upon seeing Jake: “You shouldn’t be here.” Al says the YCM doesn’t matter, but we know better, and sure enough, he will crop up time and again on Jake’s quest.

In addition, certain things happen to conspire to get him to give up his quest, including the deaths of various innocents, making his decision to continue that much tougher- as well as the temptation to go back and reset time once again to right his unintended wrongs.

I get the advancement in time to, if you’ll pardon the expression in this context, save time, but some of the other changes seem a bit arbitrary at best. On the other hand, because they are just that, it’s not as much of a big deal as it could be. So, they changed where Jake exits the time portal? Or the year? Big whoop. All it does it serve to move the action ahead in time so we can get to the good stuff. Is it bad news if you loved King’s minute detail? I suppose so.

But that’s why, as chance encounter Sadie (the lovely Sarah Gadon, “A Dangerous Method”) notes, “The books are always better than the movies.” You don’t plant a comment like that without being self-aware, and producer/screenwriter Bridget Carpenter, of “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood” fame is nothing if not that.

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Indeed, I fully expected to not get the amusing little references that King peppers throughout many of his novels, serving as a sort of connective tissue to them all, and though the one to the Derry kids of “IT” did indeed fall by the wayside, there’s a few nods to King’s work that will surely please hardcore fans, including a mention of Castle Rock, Jake telling some security guys that he’s Kennedy’s “#1 fan” (shades of Annie in “Misery”) and what I’m fairly certain was a famous ’58 Plymouth Fury that some might know by the name of Christine.

King fans will eat this sort of thing up, and the pilot episode slowly-but-surely does generate that feeling of dread that permeates the novel as Jake’s task gets harder and harder to fulfill. So, yes, it’s all very streamlined, but in a way that’s tolerable, even to the fans, though some may quibble about the changes. But, like I said, the book’s always gonna be there for one to read, so if you like the idea but not the execution, then by all means, abandon ship and stick with the book.

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Personally, I dug it, and was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the project, given its seemingly modest means and the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, Hulu has never attempted something quite of this scale before. It probably doesn’t hurt that one of the producers is the never-hotter J.J. Abrams, fresh off of his triumphant “Star Wars” sequel. (King himself is also a producer.)

The cast is rock solid and I can’t say I have a complaint about a single one as of yet, though we don’t get a lot of the Oswalds as of yet, nor much of Sadie, either. But that’s a minor quibble, as this was just the pilot, and there’s plenty of time to get into all of that.

Given the nature of the show, which clocks in at eight episodes, total, I’m going to check in around the mid-way point for a halfway report, then again at the end to revaluate things, nonetheless, but so far, so good, I must say.

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What did you think of the premiere of “11.22.63”? Have you read the book? If so, how did you think it stacked up against it so far? Did you dislike the changes, or did you find them to not be a big deal on the whole, so far? If you didn’t read the book, did it grab your interest? Will you keep watching over the weeks to come? What did you think of the cast and Franco in particular? How about the writing? Did the scenes set in the past ring true to you? Sound off on this and more down below in the comments section, and see you in a few weeks!