Prestige cable flatters us about the past. It lets us vacation in the backwardness of previous generations, usually while throwing some empathetic side-eye. Gape at Mad Men's blithe white dudes, each convinced he earned every bit of authority he commands over women and minorities. Or thank Jezebel that we've evolved slightly past the cruel and clueless media of The People v. O.J. Simpson, which asks, “Marcia Clark, bitch or babe?”
These shows vault us back and ask, obliquely, “You would have transcended that time, right?” Maybe you did, if you lived through those days as an adult. If you didn't get the chance, though, it's impossible to say that you could have brought today's relatively enlightened consciousness to times long gone.
The engaging Stephen King/J.J. Abrams/James Franco Hulu miniseries 11.22.63 purports to be about a man of today going back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That pulpy setup gives the show its spine, but its heart isn't in alternate history, conspiracy theories or (until its final two episodes) a race against time itself. Instead, in its first six episodes, 11.22.63 is often most concerned with questions of what we today would make of the early 1960s — and how we might fare if we tried to right some of the wrongs that Americans used to accept as givens. Its bracing answer: Probably not all that well.
Franco plays a present-day English teacher tasked with venturing back to 1960, through a wormhole in the back of a Maine diner, and then living in the past long enough to stop Lee Harvey Oswald — or the FBI, the Communists or whoever — from murdering Kennedy in Dallas' Dealey Plaza. Franco, to his credit, is too perverse a public figure to play the usual white-hat hero. His Jake commits to the job out of a desire to save millions of lives in Vietnam but is easily distracted, often clueless about how he comes across and almost always slow to take action, even when his life's in danger. He spends much of the series listening to other people gab. Often, he's wearing an incontinence diaper. As a hero, he's a pretty convincing English teacher.
The show suggests that any good-hearted white guy going back in time and beholding the historic roots of his privilege would have a hard time not pissing himself.
Jake at first conceives of his time trip as a bizarre getaway: In 1960, he immediately strikes it rich with sports betting, buys a vintage ride and gushes over how much better greasy-spoon pie tastes way back when. It's the purest of white-boomer-dude fantasies: road-tripping through the America that Sarah Palin touts and Merle Haggard eulogizes. But then the bookie he scored off tries to kill him. And then, driving south, he starts spotting the “Whites Only” signs.
11.22.63 holds conflicting opinions about the past: People didn't lock their doors! But some husbands beat their wives with impunity! At times, Jake is tempted to let history play out and just live the life of a teacher in Jodie, Texas — the town he adopts as his own, where he serves as an example of tolerant decency. On occasion, in tense and upsetting scenes, Jake attempts what we might hope we would do. He stands up for an African-American friend (Tonya Pinkins) who is refused service by a gas-station attendant. He assures the school librarian (Sarah Gadon) he has fallen in love with that he doesn't hold her sexual past against her. And then he'll go further still into pulp-thriller darkness, as when (in the first two episodes) he resolves to stop a 1960 murder in Kentucky before even arriving in Texas.
That killer (a terrifying slab of King-standard bad-man played by Josh Duhamel) is the second of the series' vengeful white-dude louts, but its first announcement of sad, murderous white guys as its great horror theme. Again and again, Jake encounters brutal, vindictive men — more husbands, more bookies, but also commies and G-men and Jack Ruby — eager to kill in order to hold onto what little in the world is theirs. Jake himself has to kill, sometimes, to stop these guys, but it's never easy. It takes a village: Every time, he needs the help of the women and/or children he's endeavoring to save.
The show (developed and often written by showrunner Bridget Carpenter) isn't positing the Greatest Generation as History's Greatest Monsters. Instead, it's simply noting — as Mad Men once did and as The People v. O.J. Simpson currently is, with its Mark Fuhrman nastiness — the corruptibility of those given power and advantage simply for being born the right color in the right year. Sterling-Cooper ad bros fought against the hiring of women and minorities; the LAPD of the Daryl Gates era convinced itself black Los Angeles was subhuman; 11.22.63's torture-enthusiast hubby with a clothespin on his dick simply believes that the wife who fled him belongs to him — all of these men on all of these shows have been promised nothing less by the cultures in which they steeped. Here, they turn deadly when denied what they consider their birthright.
Unlike those dramas, 11.22.63 is lively pulp, violent and sometimes soapy. In the late running, it gets away with one of the hokiest of all time-killing, suspense-building plot developments — and wrings terrific suspense out of it. It's also often sweet, and it sees kindness and courage in many of its minor characters, white or not, who object to the racism of their age but don't dare say so out loud. It's a sturdy love story, an engaging essay about how America has changed and a corker when it comes to tension — although it might wear you out with how much time it’s willing to devote to everything but the Kennedy assassination.
But above all else, it's continually surprising, both on its own dramatic terms and in how it addresses our current political moment. It's one thing to wonder what you would do as Jake and his partner Bill (George MacKay) eavesdrop on Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) beating his wife Marina (Lucy Fry) and choose not to intervene. It's another to watch them observe, in early episodes, the rise of a fascistic politician and wonder what, outside the world of pulpy fantasy, any of us can do. Better to be loud now rather than hope visitors from the future come to straighten things out.