Welcome to Last Night on TV, our daily column that looks back at what happened on television the night before. If we’re going to stay up all night and watch TV, we might as well talk about it the next day.
Last night on TV, Kevin goes back in time alongside James Franco in 11.22.63, Alisha continues to revel in the glory of The X-Files, and Kevin catches up on The Magicians.
Kevin Kelly: When I first heard about Stephen King’s “11/22/63” a few years ago, it was complete fantasy fulfillment. You’ve got time travel combined with someone to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Two things I was obsessed with when I was a kid. But when I heard that J.J. Abrams was developing it into a miniseries for Hulu (oddly enough titled 11.22.63 for the series), I was skeptical. Because just like one of the characters says to James Franco in this first episode, “Please, the book’s always better. Everybody knows that.”
But just like I’ve found out with The Magicians, the adaptation can still be good. But what’s really strange is that the entire premise of 11.22.63 is much harder to swallow in televised form. There’s just something entirely ridiculous and someone stumbling out of a time portal, and having the person who introduced it telling them that they need to use it go back and stop JFK’s assassination.
That comes in the form of an almost a laughable line delivery from the otherwise stalwart Chris Cooper, but it’s central to the entire storyline so you have to choke it down like a horse pill. Otherwise you won’t really care and why James Franco is puttering around in the past, unless you’re a real Kennedy assassination conspiracy buff.
Which, granted, is entirely the appeal of the show. Because you’ll be meeting all of the main players in that story over the course of eight episodes. From Oswald on down, every major character will make an appearance as James Franco’s Jake Epping tries to find out who the real killer was, and to stop it from happening. He’s the only person in the whole series who knows what’s coming, and he isn’t entirely sure how to stop it.
The setup is that Jake Epping (James Franco) is a teacher in a small school in Maine. While he’s happy with his job, he’s just signed his divorce papers and is sort of on cruise control. He spends time grading papers at a roadside diner owned by Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), and everything is par for the course. Until one day when Al steps away from his table for a moment looking fine, and comes back looking haggard and coughing up blood. Which is usually a death knell for anyone in a movie or tv show.
Jake asks Al what’s wrong, and Al asks him to step into his supply closet. Once inside, Jake finds himself in 1960, full of color, rock and roll music, and a real gee-whiz attitude. Jake looks around in shock before stumbling back through the portal, and Al lays everything on him. It’s a portal to the past, and it’s also how Al has been keeping prices at the diner low. He buys cheap meat back in the past and mules it over to the present to sell. He also tasks Jake with doing the work he can’t finish: to go back and stop JFK’s murder.
Jake wants to think about it, which angers Al who tells him to get out. Jake goes home, only to toss and turn throughout the night before heading back to Al’s, where he finds the front door unlocked and Al dead (presumably of cancer) inside. He gathers up Al’s research, including a notebook referencing winners of sporting events, and heads through the portal. Once there, he begins the processing of blending into the past by abandoning his beatnik look and getting a haircut, having his goatee shaved off, abandoning his t-shirt and buying a suit with a fedora. He also buys a car, and samples the ‘local’ food, having been told by Al that everything tastes better in the past.
This sequence is easily the most entertaining in the entire episode, as it’s set to the jangly sounds of Paul Evan’s “Happy Go Lucky Me,” and it’s what time travel films and shows are all about. How would you blend into the past if you found yourself there? Like the look of horror on Jake’s face when he accidentally drops his iPhone on the ground while buying clothes. I found myself wishing that it would be an entire show about adapting to the past, while trying to conceal the fact that you’re from the future.
But, there’s a real plot here that is better than my make-believe one. And Jake follow it, setting off via Al’s research to discover Kennedy’s killer. But as Al warned him, the past has a way of pushing back. Several times Jake finds his path thwarted by near-supernatural occurrences: a pack of cockroaches, a freak accident that destroys the phone booth he was trying to call his father from, the guest house he’s staying in burning down. And then there’s the mysterious “Yellow Card Man” who keeps telling Jake “You shouldn’t be here.”
By the end of this first episode, Jake has abandoned the plan to stop the JFK assassination, and instead seeks to stop the murderous rage of a father (Josh Duhamel) who ended up killing his son and daughter and his ex-wife, while brain damaging his other son who is a school janitor in Jake’s present day. That happened in 1960 in Kentucky, and that’s where Jake is heading as the credits roll.
I know things will swing back to JFK, but I’m still not entirely convinced about 11.22.63 just yet. While I have always enjoyed Franco as an actor, I’m not getting the sense of conviction that I got from book-Jake. We’ll see what he does with the character in Episode Two next week.
Alisha Grauso: The beauty of the limited run X-Files miniseries-that’s-not-a-miniseries is that it’s had a lot of fun experimenting so far. In some cases, it’s worked, such as episode “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” In others, such as the pilot episode, not so much.
Last night’s episode, “Babylon,” fell somewhere in the middle. It wasn’t executed as well as I’d have liked, but I give it a 10 for the attempt. It wasn’t as all-in on the meta humor and standalone format as the aforementioned “Were-Monster,” introducing fresh-faced Agent Miller (Robbie Amell) and Agent Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) as younger versions of Mulder and Scully. And perhaps that was the problem. It was simply trying to do too much in the episode, and the story got convoluted and clunky. The X-Files works best when it goes all-in on the goofy and absurd, or walks a straightforward line. There are only a handful of writers who have ever gotten it to walk the line right down the middle without it getting messy, and this episode only reinforced this.
But I appreciated the concept for which it was aiming. At its heart, once you dug down past the confusing story, it was simply about communication. In trying to communicate with an almost-dead man, and how human beings communicate with one another. What happens when different forms of communication clash was an interesting idea to explore.
Things got real, REAL weird when Mulder went cowboy line dancing and tripped balls on magic mushrooms, satisfying anyone who has ever asked themselves, “Self, I wonder what Mulder would be like on shrooms,” but probably confusing many. No clue why it was in the episode, but it right in line with the “screw it, let’s try it” way The X-Files has gone guns blazing into this miniseries. “Babylon” was a shining example of this mindset – not a perfect execution, but a perfectly weird idea they were comfortable with trying. It hasn’t always landed, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun not knowing what’s going to happen next.
Kevin Kelly: First up, let’s take a quick look at last week’s episode as I was out of town last week. Episode Four, “The World in the Walls,” was a bit jarring. The Magicians has been building up a great head of steam and chugging down the track at a good clip, but this episode put the brakes on Brakebills and slowed things down a bit.
From the outset it’s clear that this is a “dream” episode, and knowing that it takes some of the stakes away. Quentin wakes up thinking he’s at school, but he’s actually in the mental facility where he used to receive treatment before taking the wizardly route. But the twist is that his doctor keeps telling him that Brakebills is an illusion that only exists in his mind.
Backing up that story is the fact that everyone from Brakebills is in the mental institution: Alice and Eliot are fellow patients, Dean Fogg is a doctor, and Penny is an orderly. Quentin bounces back and forth between believing the story or not, but starts to question things when Julia comes to visit.
Turns out, Julia has helped Marina (the top hedge-witch-bitch from the underground magic school) cast a spell on Quentin in order to get the Dean to drop the protection wards around the school so that they can waltz in and steal stuff. Apparently Marina was a student at Brakebills, but got kicked out and had her memory erased and spells taken from her just before graduation.
Quentin is able to contact real Penny while he’s dreaming because of Penny’s psychic abilities, and eventually he gets out of the spell. But not before Marina gets her spells/memories back and banishes Julia right out of the club after removing her spells by x-ing out her tattoos. That girl just can’t catch a break.
All things considered, this was a fair to middling episode. However, two of the funniest moments from the show so far came out of it. First was fake-Penny’s extremely thick Indian accent, which was as over the top and stereotypical as they come. When real Penny visits the dream and hears fake-Penny, he calls Quentin a motherfucking racist. Second was Quentin bursting into a full-on rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” once he realized he was trapped in a dream. Top marks all around.
Next up is Episode Five, “Mendings, Major and Minor.” This was a much stronger episode, picking right up with Julia being kicked to the curb. She marches back up to the underground magic spot, determined to face Marina, but Pete intercepts her and warns her how dangerous she is. So, Julia leaves and tries her hand at finding spells on the internet. But after she almost torches her place, she heads back to Pete to use her sex appeal and get more magic from him. She’s determined to continue climbing up that magical power ladder by any means necessary, and apparently she doesn’t care how she gets there.
Back at Brakebills, Quentin learns that his father has brain cancer and visits him. However, his father doesn’t want to try any of the therapies available. Instead, he’s wanting to repair the relationship with his son. Struggling with this, Quentin returns to school and begins playing Welters with his housemates. It’s a magic game, sort of like chess on steroids and with tons of magic. Quentin unleashes a huge spell without thinking that quickly gets out of hand, but Alice is able to step in and keep it under control, and they win.
Quentin decides not to give up his father and to try and cure him via magic. But after trial and error, as in accidentally killing a 150-year-old adorable enchanted puppy, Quentin comes to the realization that not everything can be fixed by magic. He comes clean to his father, and reveals what he’s been studying by magically repairing an old airplane model that Quentin’s father bought for them to put together when Quentin was a kid.
Meanwhile, Pete gets Julia placed into another hedge witch club, but when she shows up it’s like getting booted off the mathletes premiere squad and relegated to the remedial math team. These guys barely know any magic, and are an extremely poor replacement to say the least. So, she heads off to see her boyfriend James and tell him about magic, because he’s the reason she’s been unable to travel and study. But, surprise! When she talks to him… he doesn’t know who she is. Thanks, Marina.
Just before the episode wraps, Penny decides to astral project in order to deal with the voices in his head. He winds up seeing a girl from an entire class that went missing in the past locked up in chains with the Beast. When he returns to reality, he describes a symbol he saw while traveling. And hey whaddaya know? It’s a seal from Fillory. I have a feeling we’ll be heading there soon.
What did you watch last night?