When they made Snowpiercer into a TNT show, they really made Snowpiercer into a TNT show.
The adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s much-praised 2013 film, finally debuting Sunday after a years-long development process, has the same general setup of the film version, and populates its cast with likable and engaging performers.
But the show is oddly inert, getting off to a bad start with a plodding and boring first episode, which for some reason sets up the story as a police procedural. The first several episodes – I’ve watched the first four of the ten – are dominated by a procedural plot that’s never especially interesting.
Overall, it’s very much in line with the ethos of TNT- that is, halfheartedly prestigious, but not quite up to the level of HBO or even Netflix. This is a show that should have produced for premium cable, not basic.
The show, like the film, is based on Le Transperceneige, a French graphic novel series from the early 1980s. As in the movie, the show is set in the not-especially-distant future, as an attempt to reverse climate change has backfired and caused the Earth to freeze over.
Therefore, humanity’s couple hundred survivors are packed on to a train, which endlessly circles the globe, like a dystopian Noah’s Ark. The train itself is organized with a rigid class system, with the rich at the front living in opulent luxury, while the poor in the back both live in abject filth and are endlessly exploited by those upfronts.
Bong’s movie was a piece of masterful storytelling, brilliantly establishing this world, and also building up surprises that pay off down the line. Alison Pill’s demented music class routine might have been my favorite movie scene of that year, and I still wince every time I think of Chris Evans’ third act monologue about babies.
The show is… not much of that. For one thing, this isn’t a story that lends itself to be stretched out over ten hours. And while the show doesn’t look bad visually, exactly, the shot compositions aren’t nearly on the level that Bong brought to the movie.
Much of the strength of the show is in the cast, led by Daveed Diggs, who shined in Hamilton on Broadway and knocked it out of the park in his starring role in Blindspotting two years ago. Jennifer Connolly, mostly absent from screens the last few years, returns as an authority figure while playing it much more understated than Tilda Stinton’s character in the film. Mike O’Malley, sporting a beard, plays a cop-type role.
Mickey Sumner, the daughter of Sting, plays the memorable part of a security officer, while Alison Wright (Martha from The Americans) also plays a prominent role, while most of the rest of the cast is filled out by lesser-known Canadian actors (the show was shot in British Columbia.)
But these actors, talented as they are, aren’t given especially strong material. Yes, there’s much of the same social satire and depiction of savage inequality that’s familiar from the movie. But the show’s opening hours are dominated by a murder mystery plot, investigated by Diggs’ ex-detective-turned-steerage revolutionary, which is never particularly interesting at any point. Even the killer cutting off the penises of victims doesn’t make much of an impression.
The Snowpiercer TV show has been in limbo for several years, with a change in showrunners, a reshot pilot, and a plan, later abandoned, to switch the show to TBS. Ultimately, the show went ahead and even got a second-season renewal before the debut of the first one. In the middle of all that, another Bong Joon-ho film, Parasite, won nearly universal acclaim as well as four Oscars. Bong, despite an executive producer credit, doesn’t appear to have anything to do day-to-day with the show.
The old and new showrunners, Josh Friedman and Orphan Black creator Graeme Manson, are credited as co-writers of the pilot, while Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson, who originally directed the pilot, later refused to participate in reshoots. This might have something to do with why the opening episodes feel so disjointed, compared with the singular vision Bong brought to the original movie.
Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen reimagining last year, on HBO, was another show that followed up on both a famous graphic novel and a previous movie, and showed how to bring such a title into the present day. But Watchmen, unlike Snowpiercer, had something new and interesting to say, which expanded on the source material.