Ronald Reagan once said that the only thing that could bring the people of this planet together is an alien invasion. Well, he was probably right. An unseen threat to humanity, like, say, a deadly virus, surely hasn’t been enough. In the world of TNT’s new series, Snowpiercer, the world having frozen over due to a global climate crisis didn’t do it, either. The long-awaited series arrives at a time when its core premise, a battle between castes as all of humanity teeters on edge, hits a little too close to home. And perhaps that’s just one reason for another, the more reliably entertaining idea has been layered on top of it: the crime procedural.
It’s interesting that Snowpiercer is the first adaptation of a Bong Joon-ho movie to hit he small screen. Of his extensive filmography, including his Best Picture-winning Parasite (which already has an HBO series on the way), it seems like the least likely for the serial treatment. But there’s a certain Battlestar Galactica grunginess to the dystopian thriller, set in a future where the last remnants of the human population exist on a train 1,001 cars long, forever circling an uninhabitable, frozen planet Earth. But man’s excess that causes the climate disaster doesn’t simply end, it has instead been transferred to the moving vehicle. The rich live in the lap of luxury closer to the front of the train, while the back, or the “tailies”, exist in squalor. An awesome animated intro (which you can see here) reveals them to be stowaways who forced their way on board. Other sections of the train remain a mystery, mostly. But if you’re planning a full series about people stuck on a train, it’s okay to leave that stuff up in the air. We do see a train full of underwater creatures so the rich can still have their sushi. Another train car resembles a brothel, and an underworld crime ring has taken root.
Joon-ho’s movie was based on the French graphic novels Le Transperceneige, and this version of Snowpiercer is no remake. It exists in the same continuity, only eight years prior, as if showrunner Graeme Manson (Orphan Black) is eyeballing an eight-season run. Not much has changed, though. Daveed Diggs plays Andre Layton, a “tailie”, and he’s roughly the equivalent to Chris Evans’ freedom fighter from the movie. Layton is a rugged figured, stoic and an obvious hero. He cares for his son Miles (Jaylin Fletcher) and lover Josie (Katie McGuinness), while fighting the injustice faced by the tail section. It’s a fight he knows can’t be won without some bloodshed, although some are more eager for it than others.
The other significant role goes to Jennifer Connelly as Melanie Cavill, the “voice of the train” and right-hand-woman to Mr. Wilford, the enigmatic (and unseen) genius who designed the Snowpiercer train and lords over it with an iron fist. She, as a member of Hospitality, is more reserved. However, even she has to be forceful every now and then. Layton’s impromptu rebellion is quashed when he is dragged from the tail, given a rare treat of grilled cheese and tomato soup (the main food the tailies eat are insect protein bars, which I had at Comic-Con and are gross), and asked to complete a task. As the last remaining homicide detective on Earth, they want him to quietly solve the murder and dismemberment of a Wilford employee. Layton sees this as a chance to explore the priority section of the train , find out crucial details, and bring them back to the tail to aid in the resistance.
All of this, along with a gruesome battle between the tailies and Wilford’s jackbooted soldiers, occurs in the pilot episode “First, the Weather Changed.” The debut features tons of world-building, which you might think difficult in such limited confines, but turns out to be surprisingly rich. Conflict isn’t just relegated to the wealthy vs. the poor, but within each layer of the social structure. Connelly excels as the multi-faceted Melanie, who cares about her job as someone who helps “keep the world alive”, but can be cruel at the drop of a hat. Diggs is exactly the kind of charismatic, soulful presence a show like this will need as its centerpiece.
But the performances and the deep characterization are also what make the simplicity of its murder mystery plot so disappointing. It’s become common practice to take any popular fictional character and shoehorn them into another CSI-type cop show, solving crimes as a way of whittling through the episodes, leaving the major storylines to flicker in the background. The problem with doing that for Snowpiercer is it minimizes everything the original story, the movie, and the graphic novels, are all about. There’s still a compelling series here, but it’s going to take moving the social commentary out of Coach and into First Class.