Hulu’s ‘11.22.63’: Stephen King Series Explores the Stubborn Romance of What Might Have Been

112263-hulu-James-Franco-Chris-CooperIn some Irish-Catholic households in America, a portrait of slain President John F. Kennedy hung next to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, right above the statue of the Virgin Mary.

Kennedy is our only Catholic president and — unless Sen. Marco Rubio pulls a minor miracle out of his hat and wins the 2016 race — he’s likely to be the only one for a while yet. Just for that, he would be very significant to American Catholics. But add in that he was assassinated under circumstances that generate heated debate even to this day, he looms equally large in the imaginations of many Americans, especially Baby Boomers.

And author Stephen King, at 68, is definitely a Baby Boomer.

In Nov. 2011, he released a novel called “11/22/63,” in which a high-school teacher in Maine (of course, it’s Stephen King) named Jake enters a local diner and discovers it contains a portal back to the late 1950s. The proprietor tells him that he’s been using it to travel back and forth in time in an attempt to prevent JFK’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.

Because the proprietor is dying, he recruits Jake to continue the mission.

The novel became an eight-part series called “11.22.63” for streaming service Hulu, where the first two episodes are currently available. Earlier this year, press screeners for all the episodes were released, so I’ve seen how it ends (don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you).

James Franco plays Jake, with Chris Cooper as Al, the diner owner. Daniel Webber plays Lee Harvey Oswald; Lucy Fry is Marina Oswald; and Josh Duhamel is Frank Dunning, the father of one of Jake’s students (Leon Rippy).

In the series, Jake goes to 1960, where he uses Al’s method of exploiting knowledge of future sporting events to support himself by gambling. While waiting to show up at Dealey Plaza at the appointed hour, he begins to build a life, which he likes a lot better than the one he left behind. But, the past doesn’t want to be changed, so little goes as Jake plans.

The assumption underlying all of this is: if Kennedy had not been assassinated, the world would have been much better. There would not have been a Vietnam War or race riots. JFK’s very presence — especially if he had been re-elected in 1964 — would have ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity.

This notion is almost dogma among a lot of those who came of age in the 1960s, who were children in school when the assassination happened.

For a lot of American Catholics, Kennedy became a near-mythical figured, imbued with almost superhuman qualities of grace, charm, sex appeal and goodness. He came to stand for a lost opportunity, a stillborn Utopia. It didn’t help that his White House was dubbed “Camelot,” apparently by people who don’t remember how many versions of the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable ended in division, betrayal and violence.

Like the ugly end of Camelot, the truth of Kennedy’s life, and his complex, contradictory relationship with the Faith — he seems to have been at least as much of a womanizer as a believer, if not sometimes more — are not nearly so simple. He may have had a beguiling public image, but the private man was no saint. One can speculate how things might have been different if Kennedy had lived, but the plain fact is, no one knows.

It’s similar to a meme that was running around earlier this year, in which people were asked whether, if they could go back in time, they would kill Hitler as an infant. Or, there’s Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle,” based on a Philip K. Dick novel, which posits an America in which we lost World War II, and the nation is split between Nazi Germany and Japan.

“11.22.63” is well-made and meticulous in invoking the America of the 1950s — where men wore suits and hats, women wore skirts and heels, and everything tasted better (like those places today where food is produced locally, in small batches, and pie crust is still made with lard).

But King’s great gift is creating ordinary worlds in which extraordinary things take place. He’s also good at teasing away the façade of things to expose the pathos underneath. The series offers no easy answers as to what would have happened if Kennedy had lived — and it manages not to surrounded JFK himself with golden halos and choirs of angels.

It’s long and slow in building to a climax, which may not satisfy everyone.

But it’s a reminder that those who put their faith in princes — who think that the right man or woman, the right policy or program, the right tweak at the right time in the right place, will bring about Heaven on Earth — are always wrong. Few things have been more deadly, and produced more slaughter and misery on a grand scale, than quests after earthly Utopias.

A lot of younger people don’t think of Kennedy as a more than a mere mortal or just another politician — and that’s a good thing. But too many Catholics still cling to the Kennedy mystique, and to his party (which JFK himself probably wouldn’t recognize today, and which probably wouldn’t see him as one of their ideological own).

Kennedy may have gone on to do a lot of good, or he may have been an unmitigated disaster — or somewhere in between. The one thing he wouldn’t have been was a Savior, because there was, and is, only one of those.

As for family viewing, “11.22.63” has unbleeped profanity (including the f-word) and sexual content (but no nudity).

Image: Courtesy Hulu

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