TNT's Snowpiercer Fails to Overcome Its Troubled Past

Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly can't save this years-in-the-making adaptation.
  • Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly in Snowpiercer. (TNT)
    Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly in Snowpiercer. (TNT)

    In 2013, director and co-writer Bong Joon Ho released his feature film adaptation of Le Transperceneige, a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. In the film — which differs from the book in some particulars but shares its basic plot and concepts — humanity has overcorrected for global warming, causing a catastrophic global freeze. For the survivors who could afford it, Wilford Industries built a 1001-car train that perpetually circumnavigates the planet. However, desperate not to freeze to death, a small group of people who couldn't afford tickets also stormed the train, their barest physical needs supplied in inhumane, unsanitary conditions in its last few cars. Curtis (Chris Evans) is among the "freeloaders" who launches an uprising against the train's oppressive order, making his way to the front and, along the way, seeing firsthand the luxury wealthy passengers heedlessly enjoy. As a metaphor for income inequality, it wasn't subtle, but it was effective. Now this story has been adapted again, as a series for TNT... and honestly, I'm not sure why.

    For one thing, I'm not sure why everyone attached to it didn't tap out during its long and troubled development process. Originally optioned in 2015, Snowpiercer was to have been Josh Friedman's baby, but in 2018, just after it was picked up to series, the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles creator was replaced by Orphan Black's Graeme Manson. Scott Derrickson, who directed the original pilot, then refused to return for reshoots out of loyalty to Friedman and his vision; James Hawes replaced him, and is now credited as the sole director of the pilot, as well as an executive producer on the series. The show also bounced from TNT to its sister network TBS and then back to TNT (although in an apparent vote of confidence — or is it desperation — this Sunday's TNT premiere will be rebroadcast two hours later on TBS). In short, Snowpiercer's path to the small screen has been a tortured one.

    So what do you need to know about the series that the remaining personnel fought so hard to get onto your screen? For starters, it's a prequel: whereas the Snowpiercer film was set 27 years after the global freeze, the survivors we meet in the pilot have been on the train seven years. The refugees living in the tail — "Tailies," as they style themselves — are still subject to brutal punishment from Ruth (Alison Wright), second-in-command in the hospitality department, and enforcer of limb amputations; as in the film, this is effectuated by sticking the selected limb out a port into the savage weather, then shattering it once it's frozen solid. Determined to overturn the ruling class, Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) plots an uprising... which has to be put on hold when he's named in a removal order: it seems a third-class passenger has been murdered, and since Layton used to be a homicide detective, the train's Head of Hospitality, Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), wants him to solve the case.

    Arguably there's no more urgent a subject with more potential for exploration than wealth inequality. Why take a story that is about that very thing — a story that literalizes the stratification of class, and dramatizes the lie of class mobility — and turn it into a procedural? Layton's story is redolent with clichés of the genre. He's pulled out of retirement and grumpy about it. He has no respect for the suits bossing him around. But then it turns out he has a personal connection to the case, through a woman he once cared about. Also, the longer he spends out of the tail, the more information he can collect about the train's geography — useful to the rebel Tailies in future attempted uprisings.

    The show picks up political ideas but never holds them for long. For instance, in one episode, the train's third-class passengers — who have obtained passage in exchange for performing maintenance and support work of various kinds — order a strike; Melanie tries to quell it by threatening to choose ten of them at random and exchanging them for Tailies, whom she claims will be eager to take their places in exchange for more humane living conditions. I was interested to find out if she was right — if the revolutionaries we'd been watching actually would cross the line, or if they'd act in solidarity with striking workers. Then there's a mechanical issue with the train; the labor unrest is forgotten and we never find out what might make Tailies scab. When the murder case is tried, interference occurs that a disillusioned viewer might find familiar from current events in the U.S., but it makes no strategic sense in the short term and is incongruent with relevant characters' actions in the very next episode. One of the first things we see in Melanie's cabin is that she's remotely playing four different games of chess; Snowpiercer's writers evince no such ability to think that many moves ahead.

    Snowpiercer's directors also don't seem to have rehearsed their actors together to decide on a tone for their performances. Wright, as Ruth, is the only one who comes close to the dark humor of the film; as we see her standing on a step stool in her fur coat and hear her accent as she addresses the fractious Tailies, it's clear she's trying to evoke Tilda Swinton's Minister Mason from the film. But as Roche, Mike O'Malley is basically playing the post-apocalyptic version of Burt Hummel, his character from Glee; Oz (Sam Otto) seems to have wandered in from a Guy Ritchie movie; nightcar impresario Miss Audrey (Lena Hall) is bringing Lady Heather vibes (that one's for the old-school C.S.I.-heads). I don't know what Daveed Diggs is doing as Layton and maybe neither does he; as always, he seems deeply uncomfortable and awkward onscreen, perhaps because the camera can't capture what he brings to the Broadway stage.

    Immersing the viewer in the train environment for so much longer than we spent during the film means some effort has been made to make it feel lived-in, including some local slang: you travel "uptrain"; they dance and drink at the "nightcar"; gossip is "track talk." However, with the action slowed to the pace of a TV series — the first season is ten episodes long — the viewer can't help pondering some logistics that never came up during the movie. Take Roche. He's presented as one of the kinder brakemen in the train's security force, rescuing Layton from a beating by one of his more hotheaded reports early in their acquaintance. On more than one occasion, we see him eating his lunch out of a classic metal lunchbox, connoting his unpretentious working-class status. Except we also see cabins in both second and third class, and no evidence of kitchens or even mini-fridges. Where is he keeping his sandwich fixings? Or: what to make of the visitor to the third-class mess hall who pays for his beer with what a server tells him are "first-class booze tokens"? As far as everyone knows, all that remains of human civilization, including the human beings themselves, is on this train. What possible value could there be in any kind of cash anymore?

    Snowpiercer, the film, takes the sometimes abstract concepts of inequality and resource management — matters that, despite our unwillingness to engage with them on a global scale, are more pressing now than they were when the film came out seven years ago — and visualizes them. Along with its impoverished protagonists, we journey through everything they are being denied, charging toward the plutocrat who has designed the slanted system, because justice demands his ouster and justice can't wait. Snowpiercer, the TV series, has no such drive: if there's ever going to be a revolution, it's going to have to wait until a season finale; until then it has time to dawdle with second and third-class passengers, busting out the Tailie torture porn when the plot needs a little zing. Based on the evidence of the first six episodes, it's an adaptation that badly misapprehends the point of its source material; it doesn't even have the decency to be an interesting failure.

    Snowpiercer premieres on TNT Sunday May 17 at 9:00 PM ET. New episodes will air Sunday nights weekly through June.

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    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: Snowpiercer, TNT, Daveed Diggs, Jennifer Connelly