When producers or actors new to television claim they’ve just made “a 10-hour movie,” it speaks to the weird inferiority complex TV somehow still has two decades after prestige game-changers such as The Sopranos, The Wire, et. al. But it’s also often a sadly literal comment, suggesting that film people look at a season of TV as “movies, but longer,” producing some shapeless sack of seemingly endless plot rather than figuring out the differences between the two mediums and how to take advantage of the ways that one is unlike the other.
Among the nicer things I can say about TNT’s new Snowpiercer series is that, while it’s based on a film — Bong Joon Ho’s 2013 sci-fi thriller starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton — it does not play like A 10-Hour Movie. Each episode has a clear structure and some kind of specific objective for the main characters, even as a larger story plays out across the entire season.
But in almost every other facet, the new Snowpiercer illustrates the ways that stories used well in one medium(*) don’t easily translate to another.
(*) Technically, the idea originated as a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, which I have not read.
As in the movie, the action takes place entirely on the eponymous supertrain(*), 1001 cars long and carrying the last remnants of humanity on a never-ending circuit of the globe in the wake of an environmental calamity that froze the entire planet. Snowpiercer is, as many characters put it, “a fortress to class.” The closer you are to the front, the sweeter your life is — there’s even an underwater car of sorts stocked with fish so the One Percenters in first class can enjoy fresh sushi — while things get rougher the farther back you move. The train’s rear car is a sub-human prison for several hundred “tailies,” stowaways who forced their way onboard at departure to avoid freezing to death with everyone else. (The train’s many employees live modest but comfortable existences in third class; there’s also a slightly ritzier second class area that’s mostly ignored and underexplained.)
The train’s two extremes are represented by Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), the polished head of hospitality who — on behalf of Snowpiercer’s mysterious creator, Mr. Wilford — tends to the needs of the entire train, but especially to the rich swells who bought tickets before the world ended; and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs from Hamilton), the calculating, self-righteous leader of the tailies, who’s forever plotting a revolution to bring equality to what little is left of civilization.
The film, with Swinton and Evans playing (very) rough analogues to Melanie and Andre right as the tailies’ revolution begins, runs a touch over two hours and takes place over a period nearly as compressed. It’s just enough time for some remarkable action sequences, and to get only brief stops in various cars on the walk from the tail to the engine. The train works as a metaphor for contemporary class struggle, but there’s no opportunity to lean back and think about how any of this actually functions.
As a TV show meant to run at least two seasons, though, Snowpiercer has far, far too much time on its hands — time enough even to turn this dystopian nightmare into… a cop show.
You see, before Andre can kick off his revolution, Melanie asks him to investigate a serial killer operating on board the train who has been cutting off men’s genitals and keeping them as trophies. Nothing in the previous sentence was made up by me. This is what happens on Snowpiercer.
There’s a weird tradition on TV, especially over the last decade, of taking characters or stories that seem fundamentally unsuited to an ongoing TV series and shoehorning them into crime procedurals, like Sleepy Hollow, Lucifer, or even the short-lived Houdini & Doyle. Sometimes, this works, but often it creates the illusion that the creative team either has no interest in what the story was originally about, or no idea how to make that story work over the long haul.
That’s not exactly what Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson — who took over Snowpiercer after original adapter Josh Friedman was fired — is doing here. Rather, opening things with a murder mystery is more in the vein of what Preacher and American Gods have done in recent years: lingering on the earliest phase of a story for as long as possible to better explore the world. (And/or to help amortize costs for, say, building an enormous sci-fi train set.) As Layton and new partner Bess Till (Mickey Sumner) search for the killer — with head brakeman Roche (Mike O’Malley) standing in for the gruff police captain who’s always one rant away from taking our hero’s badge — we get to explore large swaths of the train, from the rich snobs who funded it to the many poor people who help it stay moving years after the world ended. It’s an expository device, rather than the point of the series in and of itself, and the murder plot is largely resolved in the season’s fourth and fifth episodes.
But there are a lot of problems with this approach. The first is that the show is still spending the opening half of its debut season pretending to be something it’s not, and not doing that thing particularly well. It’s like Manson or various WarnerMedia executives were uncomfortable with some of the film’s most baroque elements, and felt that the audience would be more accepting of, say… severed penis talk? (Hey, nobody protested Criminal Minds.) The series transforms itself significantly in the season’s back half, and a lot of wild things happen right on top of one another (including some pretty fun action sequences, albeit nothing remotely as great as the movie’s axe fights). But asking viewers to slog through a slow, mediocre fake police show to get to what you’re really doing isn’t reasonable in Peak TV. (Even the slightly less busy version of it created by the COVID-19 pandemic.)
More importantly, though, examining how the train operates and what life would be like under such unusual conditions proves a question better considered than answered. The more Layton and Till explore the cars and meet different people, the less sense any of it makes. Going in, you already have to shrug off obvious issues like how a train circumnavigates the whole planet. (Even if the oceans are completely frozen, building reliable tracks across them at a time when billions are dying of extreme cold seems improbable at best, and what little we see of Snowpiercer’s route — which includes passing through both Chicago and the icy remains of the Amazon rainforest — is gibberish.) But the investigation and its collateral damage keeps raising new questions that are more distracting, like how Melanie and her colleague Ruth (Alison Wright, a.k.a. Poor Martha from The Americans) keep making the five-mile trek from first class to the tail with ease; or how, after years of utter squalor and lack of sunlight or proper nutrition, Layton and a female tailie both look so fit and healthy when they get the chance to have sex in a third-class car.
Even more than the physical details, it’s the emotional reality of Snowpiercer that unravels as the show keeps tugging at it. The train has been running for nearly seven years at the start of the series, yet most people act indistinguishably from how they would have behaved in the real world. When some of the wealthy passengers ask Melanie for details about the murder, she tells them it’s “privileged information,” like they’re all acting out an old episode of Law & Order: SVU. A couple of characters seem mentally ill, or at least eccentric, but for the most part, the passengers and crew are almost disturbingly normal, in a way that Manson either doesn’t notice or care to explore, just so long as the jury-rigged plot can keep moving. The movie used the train as a surreal, horrific allegory; the TV show wants it to feel real, and it never does.
Nowhere is that transformation more apparent than in the shift from Swinton to Connelly. Connelly (in her first regular TV role since Fox’s short-lived The $treet, way back in 2000-01) is actually by far the strongest part of the show — utterly cool and confident in a role that requires her, like Melanie, to do many different jobs in the middle of this runaway trip. Late in the season, she basically becomes John McClane in a skirt-suit for a few scenes, and Connelly sells it just as strongly as she does everything else Manson and company (including James Hawes, who succeeded original director Scott Derrickson after Derrickson clashed with the showrunner) ask of her. But one of those things they ask of her is to seem totally normal — to ground the absurd setting in recognizable emotion. Connelly does, in fact, turn Melanie into a person, no matter how convoluted her backstory and true agenda becomes. But through no fault of her own, the basic humanity Connelly gets across only undermines the show and its themes. Her unflappable, very contemporary nature takes something that should seem fantastic and instead renders it all mundane, like we’re watching a series set at a particularly cutthroat marketing firm. Swinton’s performance in the movie’s comparable role was not understated, by any means. But the cartoonishness of it actually made the world of Snowpiercer seem more plausible, because only utter ghouls like this could keep such a monstrous train running year after year through the frozen wastelands. (Initially, it seems like the show is using Wright to convey some of that Swinton-esque weirdness while Connelly is allowed to carry more of the plot, but soon Ruth is having her motivations explained, too.)
That push towards normality is also a sop to the realities of television. Strangeness is a very hard thing to maintain week after week, season after season, and the few shows that have been able to do it (Twin Peaks, Hannibal, Legion) wound up as niche products. Between the premise and the tone, Snowpiercer apparently needed big changes to make the transition from the cinema, and the behind-the-scenes turmoil — in addition to the exits of Friedman and Derrickson, the show moved back and forth between TNT and TBS during its five long, bumpy years of development — suggest all the effort was far more trouble than it was worth. By the later episodes, I was a bit engaged by all the loud, dumb things happening in the story, but in the way that happens if you watch any competently-made show long enough. (It’s serialized TV as Stockholm Syndrome.) Maybe Friedman, or someone else, could have found a way to stay true to what was interesting about the movie while letting Snowpiercer work for television. Or maybe this idea was never meant to follow Buffy or Friday Night Lights from the big screen to this smaller one.
Snowpiercer premieres May 17th on TNT. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.