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.
The long-gestating television adaptation of the 2013 film from director Bong Joon Ho, in turn based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, is grounded in the same conceptual universe as its source material. In the wake of massive climate change on Earth, and an attempt to mitigate it that resulted in a massive freeze, the only way to survive is to board the Snowpiercer, a 1,001-car train that runs nonstop and organizes its riders by class.
At the very bottom of the hierarchy, and in the grimy, gloomy back of the train, are the Tailies, the non-ticket-holders who managed to sneak onboard and reside below the lowest rung on the socioeconomic ladder. They are provided with minimal food, no medical care in the event of illness, and sleeping quarters that would make some prisons look luxurious. At the very front in first class are the wealthy ticket-holders, who are treated to nice, private suites, multi-course meals in a dining room, and even their own bowling alley that no one seems to ever use. It’s all one big metaphor for the class divide, zooming along a track at high speed.
Even though Bong is an executive producer of the TNT series, which debuts Sunday, its resemblance to his film mostly begins and ends with that general narrative framework. The movie was a focused account of the tail passengers’ attempt at revolution, one that landed like an outside-the-mainstream takedown of mainstream society. The TV version is larger in scope, messier in execution, and bathed in a basic cable aesthetic that couldn’t be more mainstream. Even its grit has a bit of gloss on it.
Still, Snowpiercer is not an entirely bad show. It’s not great, either. 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. 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. At the very least, all these claustrophobic passengers and train employees, some of whom haven’t seen the sun in months or years, face a predicament that is relatable, even if the series doesn’t fully tap into the zeitgeist as strongly as it could have. ““Do you remember fresh air?” asks Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), the head of hospitality for Wilford Industries, which owns and operates Snowpiercer. “Do you remember going for walks?” Girl, no, not without a mask.
Daveed Diggs assumes an alternate version of the role occupied by Chris Evans in the movie as the de facto leader of the Tailies, a guy named Andre Layton who also was a cop pre–climate disaster. That’s why Melanie, at the behest of her boss Mr. Wilford, plucks him from the caboose and asks him to investigate a murder that may be connected to a previous slaying on the train. In both cases, a man was killed, and, just to make it extra-gross, his limbs and penis were removed. Apparently Andre, who would be viewed as persona non grata to everyone in the middle or front of the Snowpiercer, is the only person in all 1,001 cars capable of playing detective. You know that Portlandia sketch where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein constantly “put a bird on it”? It seems like every genre of TV these days has decided to “put a crime procedural on it.” Even a sociopolitical, sci-fi action series like Snowpiercer can’t resist the temptation.
The solving of the homicides, as well as the uncovering of mysteries about the train and the figurative baggage its many passengers have brought onto it, dominates the first half of the ten-episode season, which leans so hard into establishing the seriousness of its intentions, it’s amazing the whole Snowpiercer doesn’t flip onto its side. Even Diggs, a commanding actor, looks a little at sea at first. The dialogue doesn’t do much to help him or any of the actors. “There he is: the train detective!” Alison Wright (Martha from The Americans), who plays Melanie’s right-hand woman, Ruth, is forced to shout at one point. Later in the same episode, Zarah (Sheila Vand), Andre’s ex, warns with extreme concern, “He’s head janitor. Watch yourself with him.”
The latter half of the season shifts more toward the planning of a revolution that informed the movie, but with additional obstacles — betrayals, train malfunctions, the reveal of a major secret — thrown in for additional suspense. While there are still some flaws in those episodes, things move along at a more rapid clip, pushing Snowpiercer closer to the TV equivalent of a solid page-turner.
Finding out what happens next is the primary motivation to keep watching Snowpiercer, while truly investing in the characters takes a bit of a backseat. An exception is Melanie, the professional mouthpiece for the elusive Mr. Wilford, who is portrayed initially by a steely eyed Connelly giving off a frigid air to match the weather outside the train. But the more we learn about her, the easier it is to detect warmth and courage beneath her impeccably groomed exterior, battling for space with her desire for control and power. When Melanie flips on the PA microphone to assure all aboard the Snowpiercer that everything is just fine, she is acting as a spinner of positive PR. But she’s also doing the hardest thing there is to do in the middle of a life-threatening crisis: hold it together even when it’s clear that society is already in pieces.
*A version of this article appears in the May 25, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!