'Snowpiercer' on TNT is a bumpy ride, but its tried-and-true format may keep fans happy

It’s not Bong Joon Ho’s “Snowpiercer,” not by a long shot. But as TNT’s “Snowpiercer,” the show will likely carry on just fine.
Image: "Snowpiercer" on TNT.
"Snowpiercer" on TNT.TNT
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By Ani Bundel

It may feel like years have passed since Bong Joon Ho’s historic win for “Parasite” in February. But the timing couldn’t have been better for the Turner cable network, which debuts the long-awaited TV series “Snowpiercer” on Sunday, based on the Korean director’s other significant big screen hit. (The initial film debuted in 2014, the TV adaptation was greenlit in 2015.) The long process to bring the series to the small screen is sadly apparent in the final product. But lovers of the story shouldn’t give up on it just yet.

The long process to bring the series to the small screen is sadly apparent in the final product. But lovers of the story shouldn’t give up on it just yet.

“Snowpiercer” the movie was inspired by the 1982 French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige.” It’s the story of a man-made ice age which destroys most life on Earth, save for those who make it on board a giant circumnavigational train. The train functions as a sort of perpetual motion Noah’s Arc keeping those on board warm and alive, though trapped in a hierarchical class system determined via their ticket status the day they boarded. The TNT adaptation, with Bong Joon-ho as one of the executive producers, has tried to return to these graphic novel roots.

The script, from what everyone understood, included the same characters as the film, with Daveed Diggs in the role Chris Evans played in the movie and Jennifer Connelly replacing Tilda Swinton. But then things went off the rails. Writer Josh Friedman’s name disappeared as did Scott Derrickson, who was originally hired to shoot the pilot. Derrickson took to Twitter and openly denounced the project’s new direction, while Friedman attacked new showrunner Graeme Manson. The pilot was completely reshot, and delays piled up. The show was first expected to arrive in 2018, then was announced for summer of 2019 (on the more comedy-focused TBS), before returning to TNT with a premiere scheduled for sometime in 2020.

Clearly, the series that debuts tonight has undergone some serious changes. Connelly still plays the same general role Swinton did, as the “voice of the train,” though now as Melanie Cavill instead of Mistress Mason. And Diggs is playing Andre Layton, one of the people who forced their way aboard the train at the last minute, despite not having a ticket, and who is forced to live in abject poverty at the back of the train. Moreover, the show is set in 2021, only a few years after the train’s departure in 2014; the first movie was set in 2031, making the TNT series technically a prequel. But with no signs of younger versions of the movie’s lead characters, the TV version feels more like a reimagining than a reboot.

There’s also a reason this battered and bruised first season is airing on TNT, one of the longest running basic cable staples still churning out broadly drawn dramas. Whatever dreams TNT may have had of putting out a high-minded prestige drama are gone.

Not that the early episodes aren’t leaning in this direction. The animated opening sequence, which then morphs into live-action, is as harrowing as anything in “Game of Thrones” or “Battlestar Galactica.” And the first few scenes suggest revolution is in the air, as those confined to the tail of the train make plans to hijack the next class of cars. But within the first episode the show takes a sudden and wild plot swing away from the promised parable of class systems and privilege.

Layton, you see, is a former homicide detective, and despite his unticketed “tailie” status, he also happens to be the only person aboard qualified to investigate a rather brutal murder. What transpires next is the oddest mashup; call it “Futuristic Law & Order on The Orient Express.” The first few episodes make a valiant effort to intertwine what was a story about oppression and rebellion with this procedural drama, but it’s clear immediately which show executives wanted to make. And before long, the series has bowed to the inevitable.

The cast makes a valiant effort to negotiate these hairpin curves. Diggs as Layton has to do the majority of the heavy lifting, roaring from half-starved leader of the insurrection to Sam Spade and back, sometimes within the same scene. It’s an impressive effort, though the Emmys probably won’t see it that way. The rest of the cast also steps up to keep things moving, especially Connelly, who forges an unexpected alliance with Layton. Mickey Sumner is also strong as Brakeman Bess Till, Layton’s junior partner in detective work — because all good detective shows are required to have one.

“Snowpiercer’s” ten episodes are a bit of a bumpy ride. But detective procedurals, especially ones with secrets tend to work, whether they are set in London, New York City, or on an endlessly moving train. And with a second season already greenlit, this format creates a good setup for future installments. It’s not Bong Joon Ho’s “Snowpiercer,” not by a long shot. But as TNT’s “Snowpiercer,” the show will carry on just fine.