Like the perpetual motion machine at its center, TNT’s “Snowpiercer” lacks its own personality, programmed to keep moving by fueling itself on the creativity of other properties. Sure, there’s the graphic novel by Jacques Lob & Jean-Marc Rochette, and the Bong Joon-ho film starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. But this show also echoes other hits of the prestige TV drama era. It’s got the dystopian structure of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the sci-fi sheen of HBO’s “Westworld.” And none of these comparisons do “Snowpiercer” any favors. It’s a show that’s so overtly plot-heavy that it has no time for little things like character and setting. It just keeps pushing forward, completely unwilling to give you people to care about in this vision of the future, hoping that you’ll just go along for the ride. There are occasional flights of surreal fancy that entertain, but even those become a detriment when the show gets back to its overwritten narrative that takes itself so seriously and begs you to do the same. Who knew a show about a futuristic train that never stops moving would be so dull?
This “Snowpiercer” starts with a familiar prologue (and it even begins animated in a style that reminded me of the graphic novel, and I wished the producers would have returned to that for more than just the intro). The world was nearly destroyed by global warming and so the species decided to do something to cool it down, resulting in a drastic error in the other direction. Now, the planet is covered in snow and ice, and all that’s left of humanity travels the globe on a worldwide track. There are over 1,000 cars on the train called Snowpiercer, and it’s structured like society, divided into three classes. We spend almost no time in the tail, but it looks similar to Bong’s film, including the meager rations and lack of hygiene. At the other end of the train, the wealthy who could afford tickets live in endless splendor.
Our protagonist at the tail is Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), who is planning a revolution in much the same way Evans was in the film, even timing how long the door remains open when the guards enter his section in the opening of the series. His counter is Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), who serves as a sort of concierge for the VIPs at the front of the train and as the liaison for Wilford, the designer and engineer of this society-changing machine. She has a partner-in-crime named Ruth Wardell (Alison Wright, who gives the show’s best performance), cut from a similar mold to the Swinton character from the film.
The TNT version deviates relatively early with the introduction of a murder mystery (add a dose of “Blade Runner” to the list of inspirations). A man has been brutally dispatched, his arms, legs, and penis cut off. And it turns out that Layton was a Chicago cop before the end of the world. So Melanie and her team, including officers played by Mickey Sumner and Mike O’Malley, bring Layton out of the tail and ask him to assist in the investigation. He takes the job, knowing that it really allows him to see more of Snowpiercer than he ever possibly could otherwise. Sure, he’ll solve the crime, but he’ll also sketch the blueprint for the revolution while he does so.
Bluntly, “Snowpiercer” lacks the depth of the shows that so clearly inspired it and the two source materials. The social commentary is shockingly thin. The train is society, where justice works differently for the rich than it does for the poor, and resources aren’t fairly allocated. That’s really about it. A show version of “Snowpiercer” should include way more dissection of class, race, inequity, anything other than the aggressive plotting here that allows for absolutely nothing of substance beyond the concept. Even the twists of the narrative don’t feel like they’re really saying anything. Again, it’s a perpetual motion machine, moving forward and not stopping to ask why.
And the plotting isn’t even that exciting. There’s a nice twist after episode four when something that I expected to be dragged out all season is resolved and the show sparks a bit when Wright is given a subplot around episode seven, but it’s a show depressingly thin on actual surprises until the finale. Why is a show about a futuristic train so dour and straightforward? And the flat tone drags down talented actors. Diggs can’t figure his character out, and Connelly doesn’t even have one. They’re just devices, coal for the TV train. Bland plotting and characters could only be saved by heavy atmosphere, but this falters there too. I know the budget may not be that high, but it’s a show that promises a train of 1,100 cars and then really uses the same ones over and over again. Bong’s film is filled with such striking set pieces like the shoot-out through the windows or the sauna that you’d think they could just copy one of those even.
“Snowpiercer” has already been renewed for a second season. I’ll probably keep going. The season ends in a creative way that actually sets up a potentially more engaging and original follow-up. And I’ve been on this train for what feels like forever already so I’m committed. But I don’t blame you if you want to get off at the next stop.
Whole season screened for review.