Maybe I’m just too critical.
I’m sitting here, watching the seventh and penultimate episode of 11.22.63, running through my mind all the different ways this particular hour is annoying me, and I realize that something has happened so gradually and subtly I didn’t even notice it until it had fully happened: I’m actually kind of enjoying this. Granted, in the unconscious pursuit of said enjoyment I’m forcing myself to ignore all the most ridiculous bits of the story (This is a story, again, about a time travel machine in the back closet of a diner which only takes you to a particular place and time in 1963, so “ridiculous” is a bar set from the outset.), but I’m enjoying it nonetheless.
Where’s the disconnect? I’m wondering. Why can’t I just, you know, like this TV show without getting almost irrationally annoyed at the characters who do things that don’t make sense and say things that make my eyes roll so hard they almost fall out of my head and onto the floor?
Perhaps it’s this: the legacy of The Wire, or of The West Wing. The curse of Walter White.
See, there’s an episode, oh, about halfway through the run of Breaking Bad, where cancer survivor-slash-drug kingpin Walter White kind of loses his shit and leaves his family to cause some mayhem. A “fugue state” they end up calling it—convincing his doctor that he’s gotten some sort of emotional trauma-induced amnesia that’s caused him to forget everything about his life for the past several days but, hey, I’m all better now. And though his family accepts it on the surface, just below that it’s clear nobody believes that Walter has had amnesia—and the beauty of the episode comes from the realism of the scenario: People don’t just get amnesia at convenient times, and to hell with you, Walter, for looking your family in the eye and asking them to accept that that’s what’s occurred.
…. And then we have a show like 11.22.63, where our protagonist actually does get amnesia, at the exact moment where it makes for the most tension in the plot. Jake, our would-be JFK assassination preventer, got the crapped kicked out of him by some shady bookie at the end of the last episode, and wakes up in this episode in the hospital with some very selective holes in his memory: he remembers who he is, that he’s from the future and has a Very Important Job to do, but with no recollection of what that job is or who his target is. Sadie knows he’s here to stop the assassination of JFK, but Jake, of course, has never told her Oswald’s name, so that’s a dead end. And the one guy who could help him out—Bill—is stuck in a mental institution. Oh, yes: And Jake doesn’t remember who Bill is, either.
It’s all just so… unnecessary, and needlessly convoluted and unrealistic (again, I know, time travel machine in the diner, but whatever): The matter of Jake remembering who Bill is and that Bill can help him is summarily and quickly dealt with by Jake signing a piece of paper, which makes him remember signing Bill’s admission forms for the mental institution. And when he’s later trying to remember where he lived—another convenient piece of his memory gone—that comes back to him after Sadie is dancing to a song that mentions the name of his street.
Now, I’m not some big fancy TV show maker guy, but both of these memory holes are so quickly dealt with it raises the question: Why have these plot points at all? Jake could have just as easily spent some time in a coma or otherwise incapacitated, and emerged on the other side and back to relative health, albeit with much less time to complete his mission, without the need for narratively convenient TV-style amnesia.
What’s here, what we actually see on the screen, is, in so many ways, very, very good. It’s just some of the other parts—the choices made in the writers’ room—that drag the whole thing down. Like this: Bill, having spent several weeks in a mental institution and emerging a pale, broken shell of himself, having convinced himself that this whole “mission” was just a grand delusion, is a great scene and downright heartbreaking to witness—Bill, moments later, telling Sadie to not be sad and then unceremoniously committing suicide by jumping out of a window? Not so much.
Or: The episode ending as it does with Oswald walking quietly, stoically, through the book depository on the morning of JFK’s murder, actually whistling to himself as he unpacks his rifle, loads it, and then stands by the window to wait for the right moment, is very creepy and effective; Oswald finally deciding to kill JFK almost on a whim, only days earlier as he sits on a park bench reading a newspaper about the President’s upcoming visit to Dallas, isn’t.
And there’s only one episode left for a whole lot of stuff to occur: obviously JFK has to either die or be saved, but we also need to have all the fallout from the event (or nonevent). I’ve stopped myself, thus far through reviewing this show, from doing too much of the whole “from reading the book I know such-and-such,” but one of the most important aspects of the source material is what happens after Jake’s mission ends (as it were). And I’m not too sure how the fallout will be portrayed, or, more importantly, how its depiction can be done justice, in one more single hour.
In a roundabout way, my point is this: For better or worse, we are, as has so often been claimed lately, in a golden age of television. The best shows are no longer the bastard sons or black sheep little brothers of only barely-good movies. Now, because of HBO’s rapid fire critical success of The Wire, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos, and because of cable’s willingness to take chances on formerly nontraditional stories like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, we are in an entertainment world where if you want to be considered a good TV show, man, you gotta bring your A-game. And sorry for your luck, CSI: Toronto, or whatever the hell iteration we’re on now, but a book form of your story would sell for four bucks in the “please, please buy me” section at Barnes and Noble, and the legacy of great shows before you only further magnifies your ridiculousness.
Shows like The Blacklist, or Scandal, or, indeed, 11.22.63, obviously aren’t on the same basement level, but the smart kid in class has nonetheless wrecked the curve for everyone else. And James Franco may have studied his ass off to get 80 percent of the questions on the chemistry test right, but Walter White’s perfect score turns that 80 percent into a relative C-.