Time travel has always been one of the most basic staples of science fiction and fantasy - being the sort of idea that can never truly be overused, because there are so many different ways to use it. Here, for example, we have a time travel tale with clearly defined rules, and a clearly defined goal - yet, it is also one which doesn't feel at all compelled to justify itself.
Rather than dig deep into the science (or, possibly, magic) behind it all, 11.22.63 is a series which clearly prefers to simply brush all of that aside. There is no explanation for the 'time portal' that exists in the storage closet of the run-down little diner owned, and operated, by Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) - and, there is not likely to ever be one. As the audience, we are welcome to, either, accept that fact, and enjoy the story that is being told, or to reject it and move on to something else.
While the existence of this 'time portal' is unexplained, though, the rules by which it can be used are very clear. Each trip through the portal takes the time traveller to a particular point in the past - the same moment in 1960. Also, whenever a time traveller returns from the past, no matter how long they have been gone, only two minutes will have passed in the present. And, finally, while the past can be changed, any return trip through the portal will reset any changes that have been made. It feel a little contrived for something so unexplained to have such clearly defined rules - but, once again, that is simply something that the audience is free to either accept, or reject.
Jake Epping (James Franco) is the one chosen to take up Al's mission. An English teacher, and failed writer, who is currently in the process of a tense divorce, Jake's only real qualifications are that he is the only person that Al is prepared to trust. With Al's last attempt (a two year effort which, amusingly, took place in the time it took for Jake to sign his divorce papers) ending in failure and a cancer diagnosis, he is clearly desperate to see that his efforts wont be in vain.
Naturally, Jake is dubious about the existence of time travel (particular when it seems to require a trip through a storage closet) - but, in an amusing subversion of the sort of interaction you might expect, Al simply sends Jake on a trip to the past before even bothering trying to explain. But, even though he is convinced that time travel actually is possible, Jake is still naturally reluctant to make the years-long commitment required to be present to prevent JFK's assassination on November 22nd, 1963. But, of course, that all changes with the (admittedly rather predictable) development of Al Templeton tragically passing away after a particularly heated argument.
Entirely committed to picking up where Al left off, now, Jake travels back to 1960, in possession of the results of Al's own years of research, as he works to uncover the sequence of events that lead to that assassination. Of course, it's not all conspiracy theories and investigations for Jake - as, there is also the fact that the past doesn't necessarily want to be changed.
Honestly, the idea that Time, itself, would push back against efforts to change the past may be the element of this series that I find the most fascinating - and, the ways in which we see that happening throughout this first episode manage to be both impressive, and kind of frightening. Jake's first effort to push things too far, for example, concerns little more than a phone-call to the father that he never really knew - yet, it still results in an innocent woman's tragic death. Then, there's the presence of the mysterious man who seems to know that Jake doesn't belong - and, who seems capable of showing up in the most unexpected places. The mysteries and conspiracies centred around Lee Harvey Oswald (which will, obviously, be explored in detail over the course of the series) haven't quite managed to hook me, yet - though, this more supernatural mystery certainly has.
This first episode does a pretty great job of setting the scene overall, though. It clearly establishes Jake as a fundamentally decent person, who is naturally drawn to the idea of doing something noble and worthwhile with his life (even if he is understandably reluctant to commit to something like this, at first) - and, James Franco does a very impressive job of bringing him to life. It, also, clearly establishes the extreme sense of weariness and desperation that Al Templeton would feel after trying, and failing, for so long. Sure, the reasoning behind why saving JFK is the most worthy goal is kept rather vague - but, it still works well enough, within the context of the series. There is clear evidence of deeply personal tragedy in Al's past (especially where it comes his experiences in the Vietnam War) that he is hoping he might be able to prevent, if he were to succeed. It's a deeply personal quest for Al (which, later, becomes just as personal for Jake) - and, so, the broader context of whether changing to past would, or even could, lead to a better future (while it is acknowledged) doesn't actually matter, at this point. What does matter is that both men believe that it would.
Being an adaptation of a novel by Stephen King which, I have to admit, I have never read, I honestly have no idea how things are likely to develop from this point, onward - though, I am definitely interested in finding out. For now, though, it would be fair to say that the more 'supernatural' element of Time's increasingly overt efforts to spot Jake are more interesting to me than the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK's assassination (which, I feel, are well-covered ground, both in fiction and in the real world) - but, in time, hopefully that will change.