Snowpiercer premiere: Too uninspired for a train pun

Snowpiercer- Ep 101 8/28/18 ph: Justina Mintz SPS1_101_082818_0553.DNG 410105
Snowpiercer- Ep 101 8/28/18 ph: Justina Mintz SPS1_101_082818_0553.DNG 410105 /

After years in development hell, Snowpiercer has finally come to small screens, but you’ll soon wish it had stayed in the frozen wasteland.

I had my share of doubts about Snowpiercer as a TV series. Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian film about classism always seemed like a self-contained tale, so I didn’t see how it could be expanded into multiple episodes. Also, since the whole point was to dissolve such societal structures and begin anew, making the show a prequel seemed thematically counterproductive.

Nevertheless, TNT has now given us a series that’s essentially a remake of its cinematic counterpart. It has Oscar-winning talent heading the cast, creators Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and later Graeme Manson (Orphan Black) at the helm, and a whole new collection of characters. Does this small-screen update maintain the power of its big-screen brother?

The short answer: no.

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Taking place in the future, the series presents a world ravaged by an endless winter due to a global warming countermeasure gone wrong. The survivors are crowded into a perpetually moving train called “Snowpiercer.” Upper-class citizens live luxuriously in the front while the lower classes survive in squalor toward the back. At the head of the train lives its mysterious creator, Mr. Wilford. Everything, from living conditions to resource allocation, is conducted according to his design.

After a baffling murder befalls one of the third-class passengers, Wilford’s righthand executive, Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), needs the crime solved quietly to preserve the order. In response, she seeks the aid of Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), one of the Tailies who used to be a homicide detective. He sees an opportunity to improve the lives of his friends and family, but he also faces suspicion from both ends of the train.

The question is raised: whose side will he eventually take in the growing rebellion?

Just another crime drama

Sometimes, it sucks to be right. Making this post-apocalyptic tale into a cop show is an insulting waste of potential. It’s like taking something extraordinary and stripping away what makes it special in order to adhere to the standard. Such a decision boggles the mind until you learn the series’s troubled history.

Apparently, Friedman was pushed out by the network for creative differences. In his own words, he was not “compliant” with TNT. This caused several members of the cast and crew to leave the show and decline the extensive reshoots. Some, like director Scott Derrickson, outwardly praised Friedman’s original pilot and lamented the radically different vision for the show once Manson took over. I have to assume that TNT wanted something accessible to the masses. Given the abundance of long-running police procedurals on TV, it’s not surprising that such a formula has been applied to Snowpiercer.

Snowpiercer- Ep 101 8/28/18 ph: Justina Mintz SPS1_101_082818_0451.DNG 410105
Snowpiercer- Ep 101 8/28/18 ph: Justina Mintz SPS1_101_082818_0451.DNG 410105 /

That being said, it doesn’t make the process any smoother. The first act of the episode is rushed beyond belief, bombarding us with a chaotic prologue and a solid wall of clunky exposition. We’re given no time to grow accustomed to this setting or these characters.

It’s as if the creators are trying to get the essential establishment out of the way as soon as possible so they can start Layton on the path to detective. Sadly, even this doesn’t feel organic. It’s hard to buy the upper classes’ contrived reasons for bringing him into the fold. If anything, it seems like more of an unnecessary risk than they would logically take.

Hints of inspiration

On the upside, the script does introduce a handful of new and intriguing ideas into the Snowpiercer lore. Examples include offering apprenticeships and jobs to certain members of the lower class, a convenient transport cart underneath the train to provide swift navigation for employees, a rule against breeding for people at the tail end, and the Third Class kids forming their own “chain” faction for sex and recreation. These concepts fit neatly into the setting and might make for some interesting storylines down the road.

Jennifer Connelly, Lena Hall in Snowpiercer season 1. Image courtesy Justina Mintz / TNT
Jennifer Connelly, Lena Hall in Snowpiercer season 1. Image courtesy Justina Mintz / TNT /

Adding to their credibility are the impressive production values on display. Many of the sets and CGI shots manage to look as good or even better than the film. It all looks beautifully constructed and convincingly lived-in, smoothly placing you into the Snowpiercer setting. It’s a shame that the presentation of these concepts is bland, lacking Bong Joon-ho’s tense style, but the ideas in themselves are sound enough to garner some curiosity.

That makes no sense!

Unfortunately, the writers also miss the mark in several areas, undermining the social themes and making you wonder if they’ve ever seen the film they’re supposedly expanding on. For instance, the poor people in the movie came off as disgruntled, desperate commoners who’ve been beaten into submission. In contrast, the poor people in this show come off as an angry mob ready to snap at any moment. The creators obviously did this to accelerate the revolt subplot during this premiere episode so that they could focus on the detective story, but doing so raises crippling questions about how these violent occupants were ever controlled in the first place.

Daveed Diggs, Mickey Sumner in Snowpiercer season 1. Image courtesy Justina Mintz / TNT
Daveed Diggs, Mickey Sumner in Snowpiercer season 1. Image courtesy Justina Mintz / TNT /

This logical flaw is amplified when you notice that the upper-class soldiers don’t carry guns. Granted, the guns in the film didn’t have any bullets, but the poor passengers didn’t know that. As a result, the weapons functioned well as an intimidation tactic. Here, though, the jackboots simply arm themselves with nightsticks, leading you to further question why the whole societal structure hasn’t come crashing with such flimsy enforcement.

We’re stuck with these people?

These world-breaking issues wouldn’t stick out so much if we had some substantive characters to latch onto, but the script also falls short in this area. Diggs and Connelly largely carry the show on their shoulders not only due to their nuanced and affecting performances but also because their characters are the only ones with any hints of interest.

The same cannot be said for the other passengers. Frankly, I don’t care about any of these people. Most of the actors do what they can with their roles, but so many of them are fighting for screen time that they have no chance to muster up any definition or audience interest. Add to this the fact that the inconsistent and sometimes cartoonish dialogue often makes you unsure of what personalities certain passengers are supposed to have.

Sure, most of the movie’s characters were fairly basic, but they were also distinctive and relatable. You knew just enough about them and their personal struggles to keep you invested as they made their way through the train. Here, however, we have no such investment, and that’s the last thing you want to say when you’re about to spend nine more episodes with these guys.

Final verdict

Suffice it to say, the future is not looking up for Snowpiercer. While this new series definitely looks the part and boasts a few inspired additions of its own, it’s crippled by a poorly drawn world, a boring batch of passengers, and a misguided format that diminishes the thematic power of the material.

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What did you think of the premiere of Snowpiercer? Are you interested to see where the season goes? How do you think the original vision would have compared?

Snowpiercer airs Sundays at 9 pm on TNT.