What Hulu’s absorbing ’11/22/63′ tells us about the harm of dwelling in the past

Sarah Gadon and James Franco in "11.22.63." CREDIT: Alex Dukay, Hulu

Such is the inanity of present-day life that it includes asking your buddies (and even your GOP presidential contenders) whether or not they would, if possible, travel back in time and snuff out the infant Adolf Hitler.

It’s a question that pretends to be philosophical by probing the limits of one’s ability to discern between moral impulse and heroic urge. As an intellectual exercise, the question is barely complex enough to fill the time it takes to wait for a pizza to be delivered to the dorm.

OK, then, here’s another: What about thwarting the assassination of John F. Kennedy? American society still cannot shake the what-ifs that loop endlessly around that particular tragedy, imagining a world in which Lee Harvey Oswald (and whoever was working with him, if your opinions lean that way) missed his target on Nov. 22, 1963. From there we imagine that JFK went on to win a second term in 1964 and then … well, we’re never quite sure what happens next, are we?

This obsession will probably die off with the last of the baby boomers, but one of that generation’s most popular novelists, Stephen King, gave the scenario new life in 2011 with his well-received and ambitious 849-page novel “11/22/63,” about a man who steps through a time portal in the present with a plan to prevent the assassination.

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King’s work doesn’t always happily travel through the portal connecting the page to the TV screen, but Hulu scores with an impressively stout-hearted, eight-episode adaptation of “11/22/63” that begins streaming on Monday. It’s a fun and easily absorbing thriller wrapped inside a cautionary tale about indulging in nostalgia – and best of all, it has a definite and emotionally satisfying conclusion. That’s saying something in this era of “limited” series (“event series” is Hulu’s term here) that get automatically renewed at the first whiff of viewer or critical interest.

With J.J. Abrams as an executive producer (riding high after “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the sight of Abrams’ name on a TV show is not necessarily the warning label it recently has been), series developer and co-writer Bridget Carpenter (a “Friday Night Lights” alum) has excised some of the bloat in King’s novel while retaining the natural shagginess and strange detours that make it a wild ride.

James Franco, always zigging where Hollywood agents might suggest that he zag, stars as Jake Epping, a newly divorced high school English teacher in Lisbon, Maine, who learns a secret from Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), the owner of a local diner: The closet behind Al’s kitchen pantry is, inexplicably, a portal to October 1960. (In the novel, it was 1958.)

A disbelieving Jake takes a couple of trips there and back, learning from Al that no matter how long he stays in 1960, when he comes back to the spot where the closet exists in 2016 and returns the present, whatever happened while he was in the past will “reset” to the way it was. And no matter how long he stays in the past, whether it’s for a few seconds or three years (or longer), only a couple of minutes will have elapsed back in 2016.

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Got that? It’s admittedly hokey and a little too convenient, but “11/22/63” isn’t envisioned as a work of sci-fi that’s preoccupied with relativity, paradoxes and other restrictions pop culture imposes on a make-believe phenomenon. As a literary device, time travel is older than what H.G. Wells envisioned in 1895; it’s a narrative device that goes back centuries and crosses different cultures, indicating that magically visiting the past is so inherent to our nature (much like exploring, whether across the oceans or the galaxy) that we find it irresistibly possible – and perhaps one day it will be.

There are distinct differences, you see, between plausibility and believability. In its writing, visualization and performances, “11/22/63” is remarkably easy to buy into. Perhaps that is why Franco’s Jake listens attentively as Al tells him, at length, about his own efforts to travel back and forth between the 1960s and 2010s to get a fix on the plot (if there indeed ever was one) to assassinate Kennedy.

Al has spent so much time in the past – erasing his work each time he returns to the present, but still enduring the toll of time spent – that he’s come down with cancer. It’s up to Jake to take over the mission.

Arriving in October 1960 with expertly forged identification and contemporary cash provided by Al (who also kept a notebook filled with future professional sports outcomes, enabling Jake to earn a living off bets), Jake gets a car and drives from Maine to Texas.

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JFK scholars and conspiracy buffs might find some delight in Jake’s initial investigation of Oswald’s Marxist leanings, his friendship with George de Mohrenschildt and the assassination attempt on conservative Dallas politician Edwin Walker in April 1963. The show isn’t an extreme dive into the lore and documents, but it has done a respectful amount of homework.

That doesn’t intrigue me as much as how seamlessly – and in many scenes extravagantly – “11/22/63” portrays the look and feel of mid-century American life. (It’s another example of the “Mad Men” effect; the era of junky period pieces is gone, and once again we see just how big the budgets can get as various online and cable networks duke it out for high-quality content.) The series may well approach high-class pornography for vintage car and truck aficionados, especially in chase scenes that involve whole streets and highways filled with shining examples of our automotive glory days.

An early, disastrous setback convinces Jake that he should return through the portal, reset things and start over. But he changes his mind and acquires a young accomplice, Bill Turcotte (George MacKay); the two move to a small town between Dallas and Fort Worth and prepare for the imminent return from Moscow of their man Oswald (unhingingly played by Daniel Webber) and his new bride, Marina (Lucy Fry). Jake gets a job at the local high school teaching English, where he falls in love with the school librarian, Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon).

By this point, “11/22/63” has revealed itself to be so much more than a tangle of what-ifs. It has an eloquent soulfulness and is sprinkled with smart and lovely references to literature and popular culture. (When an elderly war veteran cross-examines Jake’s claim of Korean War service, Jake describes his time with the 4077th M*A*S*H unit.) Throughout each episode Franco reminds us of his range as an actor, from goofy to tearful in a flash.

Without spoiling the outcome, I can say that “11/22/63” bears a stern warning – not just about time travel and altering the past, but also about dwelling in it, literally or figuratively. Al warns Jake that “the past pushes back” whenever the future feels threatened, which manifests itself in King’s usual affection for the supernatural unseen. As Jake gets closer and closer to his goal, the past tries to kill him – or those he loves.

There’s a lesson in here for all of us, obsessed as we are with milestone anniversaries, retro reflections, throwback Thursdays, and our manic revivifying of old TV and movie favorites so that we can have them around again, like it used to be. Along with its meticulous treatment of the past, “11/22/63” presents forceful evidence that what we really need these days is to move on.

“11/22/63” (eight episodes) begins streaming Monday on Hulu.