TNT's Snowpiercer is not an entirely bad show -- but it’s not great, either

  • "Given its themes and backdrop of global emergency, Snowpiercer should be 2020’s 'quintessential show for these uncertain times,' but it isn’t, not quite, especially in its shaky first few episodes," says Jen Chaney of the long-gestating TV series adaptation of Bong Joon Ho's 2013 film, starring Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly. "Really what it does is start out meh, then become more compelling from the midway point onward, which averages out to a final assessment of halfway decent," adds Chaney. "Considering the history behind its several years in development, during which it has switched showrunners (Graeme Manson of Orphan Black took over following Josh Friedman’s departure), pilot directors, and networks (first it was set for TNT, then TBS, then back at TNT again), that’s not such a bad outcome. Those who haven’t seen the film, or who are able to shove it out of their minds more effectively than I was, may even find Snowpiercer better than decent."


    • Snowpiercer is so relentlessly unlike Bong Joon Ho's film: "Look, reboots happen, but should one reboot a masterpiece?" says Kimberly Ricci. "It’s a dilemma and a valid question on whether this series can justify its own existence after fighting to do so for many years. This Snowpiercer, while striving to be different, doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to be. At first, the series adopts a Law and Order-esque, procedural framing that later evaporates into campiness that doesn’t quite reach the level of the movie’s schlocky thrills. It does tackle power structures and questions why humans choose what leaders to worship, but the show doesn’t go broadly philosophical like the movie. And things get kinda saucy when people fall into train-sex mode with former lovers and new ones. It’s kinky and strange! And soap-operatic. At least it’s not dull."
    • Snowpiercer is too on the nose when it comes to our current pandemic: "We are now coming up on two full months of quarantine here in the States, and though we are not exactly survivors aboard a 1,001-car high speed train careening around a frozen planet, it’s hard for dialogue like this not to resonate," says Joyce Chen. "Or for scenes depicting horrendous displays of classism to not gnaw at our collective conscience as we watch our ugly realities play out on a TV screen." Chen adds: "What happens when there is less to learn from the allegory than from reality itself? When simile becomes metaphor? It’s not that the society we live in is like the fictional world of Snowpiercer; it’s that the society we live in is Snowpiercer. The premise for the series is that in the not-too-distant future, climate change has taken a turn for the worse, and scientists attempting to counteract the damage humanity has enacted upon our planet accidentally freeze the world instead."
    • Snowpiercer is a mess, but it's not awful: "The version of Snowpiercer that is set to arrive on TNT is a mess, full of half-developed characters, illogical plot choices and incompletely realized social satire," says Daniel Fienberg. "But it's not awful. Thanks to solid production values, maybe a half-dozen amusingly pitched performances and several moments of giddy lunacy, Snowpiercer settles into a watchable rhythm."
    • Snowpiercer is just fine, but it's far removed from the original movie: "Season 1 is as about as far removed from Bong’s cinematic vision as you can get, without reaching the 'so bad it’s good' level of TV that inspires mouth-agape hate-watching," says Ben Travers. "The show is fine. It’s just fine. In an all-too-obvious twist, it’s exactly the kind of science-fiction drama that TNT has been making for roughly a decade — bound to satisfy former fans of Falling Skies or The Last Ship, even if it doesn’t quite fit the network’s more recent prestige model built with Claws, The Alienist, and Animal Kingdom."
    • Snowpiercer’s metaphors are so obvious that it’s neither exhilarating nor insightful to see contemporary ills reflected in this so-so show: "The Snowpiercer movie was hardly great — funky and nervy, but also kinda silly and derivative of other dystopian thrillers — but it’s far superior to the new series, which at least has the good sense to go its own way in terms of approaching the material," says Tim Grierson. "The idea of an underclass uprising is still part of this Snowpiercer, but the TV show has a much more ambitious scope, because how else are you gonna fill 10 hours of programming? What’s missing is Bong’s gonzo temperament, his belief that we should take this story seriously but still relish its B-movie ludicrousness. By comparison, TNT’s version is very earnest, awed by the gravity of the Very Important Messages it’s delivering about our troubled times. Tellingly, the show only gets good when the symbolism takes a backseat to pulpy plot twists and action scenes."
    • Snowpiercer is a classic example of how movies don't always translate as TV series: "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," says Alan Sepinwall, adding: "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."
    • Snowpiercer is intriguing, but it's missing Bong Joon Ho's brilliance: "Bong’s fast-paced, tightly focused Snowpiercer cast Chris Evans as a revolutionary fighting his way forward from the tail. Helmed by Graeme Manson (Orphan Black), TNT’s adaptation is slower and, unfortunately, somewhat convoluted," says Judy Berman, adding: "It isn’t just the cast that overwhelms. On top of the investigation, the love triangle and the nascent uprising, this Snowpiercer (which counts Bong as an executive producer) crams in leadership crises, corruption and mechanical woes, plus ample drama among secondary characters. The story comes together midway through the 10-episode season, raising provocative political questions. (In the event of a revolution, would second class ally itself with the rich or the poor?) But with so much appealing TV out there, some are bound to disembark early."
    • Snowpiercer feels like an apocalyptic Law & Order spinoff set on a train: "The idea the series ends up tackling—'Oh, what if rich people were evil?'—isn’t as revolutionary as it would have you think, nor is how it goes out of its way to humanize its white, female characters despite how objectively monstrous they are towards other people," says Charles Pulliam-Moore. "In addition to being impoverished beyond belief, the Tailies are made out to be inhumanly noble, which makes for all right television, but it doesn’t track with what existential subjugation actually makes people act like towards one another. For those reasons, Snowpiercer is more than suspect on its face. In this way, Snowpiercer feels strangely like an episode of Law and Order: SVU that would make Dick Wolf choke on his drink of choice, but that’s not to say that there’s nothing to enjoy about the show. To be quite clear: Snowpiercer is more often than not that specific kind of nonsense fun that, despite its high drama, lulls you into a comfortable haze. Every time Layton gathers his oratory powers to deliver a speech of conviction to either his fellow Tailies or the people up-train that he ends up having to interact with, it all feels a bit more than contrived because of the way the show brings its players together as if it were the most extra-a** game of Clue you’d ever witnessed."
    • Snowpiercer is more heavy-handed with its allusions to real-world class struggles than the film version: "All that’s missing is a direct call-out of the one percent," says Karen Han. "The character dynamics are similarly clumsy, with one character’s knack for strategy and general smarts established by a focus on a chess poster in her room, and clothing items branded with the logos for M.I.T. and Yale. A rebellious teenager, meanwhile, seems to have her wardrobe pulled fully from Hot Topic. There’s nothing as inventive or memorably grotesque as the movie’s Tilda Swinton character Minister Mason, with her terrible teeth and Coke-bottle glasses. Even the world of the show is a little dull: the dominant color onscreen is beige, making the distinctions between classes and sections of the train less pronounced. Unconvincing CGI exacerbates the problem; though the scenes set inside the train don’t give cause for second thought, any shot that depicts the train speeding along its tracks or features a window makes suspension of disbelief near-impossible."
    • Snowpiercer is a dumb, campy and fun take on Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece: "The Snowpiercer show is campy, reductive, and super easy to watch," says Meghan O'Keefe. "TNT’s Snowpiercer takes the basic set up of Bong Joon Ho’s film — along with some of the more striking visual flourishes — and turns the delightfully strange action thriller into a tried and true murder mystery."
    • Snowpiercer looks like yet another Canadian-based cable show: "What comes as a slight surprise is that something as singular as Bong’s film would be turned into something as familiar as TNT’s Snowpiercer: a standard basic-cable science-fiction thriller, with the look, atmosphere, staging and much of the Canada-based supporting cast you’ve already seen in any number of shows on TNT, Syfy and the CW (basic cable’s cousin)," says Mike Hale. "Or maybe it’s not a surprise, given that the Snowpiercer showrunner, Graeme Manson, was a creator of one of those series, BBC America’s Orphan Black. As different as it is, though, this Snowpiercer is weighed down by the freight of the film’s premise (which originated in a French graphic novel series, Le Transperceneige). The train as a microcosm for a striated society — with its rigid procession of 'classes,' luxurious front to prisonlike back — is a particularly on-the-nose metaphor, and the longer you spend with it, the more reductive and limiting it gets."
    • To its credit, Snowpiercer the show isn’t an attempt to be Snowpiercer the movie: "What follows is a soapy, ambitious sci-fi season that takes big swings and follows through, engaging with not just class struggle but also leadership, loyalty, compromise, and coalition," says Sonia Saraiya. "Its emphasis on the lives of the last humans on earth reminded me of Battlestar Galactica, though structurally and thematically, it’s more like The Expanse. The sophistication and finesse of the original Snowpiercer film gives way to a more commonplace interpretation of the story, yes—but it’s one with more embellishment and complexity, too. Style has been rather ruthlessly sacrificed to substance. I liked it. It doesn’t stay with you the way that Bong’s Snowpiercer did, but where the film was so eager to tear through the train to root out the truth, the show savors the details of life onboard, dissecting personal compromises and minor rebellions."
    • What is new here is the relative dullness of characters’ dialogue and backstories: "It’s somewhat grounding that even in the midst of chaos, cataclysm and global reorganization around a bizarre means of conveyance, folks will still speak mainly in cliché; it’s also true enough to life," says Daniel D'Addario. "Indeed, in our world, people have not grown notably more articulate since the pandemic began — quite the opposite, in fact. It also feels like a show that’s working to create counterpoint between a backdrop that’s so far out on a limb of oddity that its action needs to be extra prosaic for balance. The result is watchable, but not much more."
    • Daveed Diggs on Snowpiercer's relevance to our modern times: “I think good genre work tends to wear its politics on its sleeve and then further complicates things as the story goes on,” Diggs said before the coronavirus shutdown. “I think good speculative fiction allows us to look at our own contemporary choices in a different or more focused way, to shed some sort of light on what we’re going through. When you look at the real genre greats, they’re pieces that say very explicitly what the message is as it relates to today. It’s important that those be the first lines.”
    • Diggs compares the show he signed up for three years ago vs. the show that premieres Sunday
    • Recounting Snowpiercer's long and bumpy road to the TV screen
    • When Graeme Manson took over as showrunner, he said he wanted to make it what he called “existential sci-fi": Manson wanted “to address social realities in what’s actually quite an absurd premise.” For instance, he wanted the show's commentary to be pointedly aimed at a present-day audience. The inhabitants of Snowpiercer are “so close to the end of the world and riddled with the guilt of losing the planet through their own actions,” he said. “It’s our current guilt, too, at what we’re doing to the earth and what we’re doing to each other.”
    • Manson on the film vs. the show: “One of the things that I love so much about the film is, when you were charging up the train with the Tailie rebels, you’d never knew what was going to be on the next door. It’s just a series of doors into these strange rooms and strange encounters,” says Manson. “We really wanted to have that television show too, and I think that gives it a big cinematic feel. When we run five seasons, you can still open doors on surprising new cars.”

    TOPICS: Snowpiercer, TNT, Daveed Diggs, Graeme Manson, Jennifer Connelly

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