TV adaptation runs on tedious tracks
When Bong Joon-Ho took the mainstream by storm on Oscar night in March of this year, it reinforced great interest in adapting his works for television. Not a bad idea, and anyone who’s followed his work over the last couple decades or so knows it’s well-deserved recognition for Director Bong.
A rocky production aimed at adapting Bong’s 2013 odd sci-fi action film Snowpiercer might seem like a result of this, but in fact it dates back five years. After a number of showrunners and back-and-forth between networks, it landed on TNT with a thud. I had totally forgotten this was even coming, and I kind of wish it had stayed that way.
Snowpiercer, the film, may not be a Bong original (which he adapted from French graphic novel Le Transperceneige), but he certainly put his fingerprints all over the story of a perpetually moving bullet train housing the remains of humanity while doubling as a microcosm of class division. If you’ve seen Parasite recently, you know exactly how firmly this is in Bong’s wheelhouse.
Snowpiercer for TV sets up the exact same initial launching point as Snowpiercer the film, with a carefully planned revolt about to boil over from the tail of the train where the less fortunate passengers live. It even goes the extra mile to set up the backstory of a world that overcorrected in the face of global warming, ice-aging the whole damn planet. The premiere exposits this and how low-income citizens managed to board the train through a neat lo-fi anime explainer that seamlessly transitions into live action. From here, comically early on in its first episode, the show derails from its promising and demonstrably achievable premise.
Before bloody revolution can pop off, the plot veers off into a murder mystery. Chris Evans surrogate Layton (Daveed Diggs), the secret leader of the revolution, gets conscripted by Tilda Swinton surrogate Melanie (poor Jennifer Connelly), the “voice of the train” and representative of the powers that be to solve the case. Apparently, Layton was a homicide detective in his past life. To go from bizarre, grimy sci-fi almost immediately into crime procedural within the first 15 minutes of a new series is so TNT.
The series appears to be laying the tracks (sorry) for a slow burn revolution story that finds its intrigue and world-building by way of Layton’s detective access. This could’ve been interesting, but the premiere makes the fatal error of tipping its whole hand early on by taking Layton on a tour of the lavish front of the train, its excess on full display. Lost here is the opportunity to reveal this slowly and devilishly after the viewer becomes increasingly familiar with the plight of the people at the back of the train. You know, the way the film did it to great effect.
Also missing here is the overt weirdness that anchored the film. Instead of Tilda Swinton’s dentures, we get Jennifer Connelly channeling every tech CMO you’ve ever seen. There’s no fish blood axes or crazy, pregnant Alison Pill indoctrinating children. Despite the best efforts of Diggs, Connelly, and great character actors Steven Ogg (The Walking Dead), Susan Park (Fresh Off the Boat), and Mark Margolis (Breaking Bad), there’s no real character here.
The objectively best thing you can do if you’re thinking about dedicating 10 hours of your life to watching the showpiercer is to watch the two-hour filmpiercer instead, even if you’ve already seen the film. I revisited it the same day as the TV premiere and I only regret one out of three hours of that day’s piercer content.