‘Kindred’ review: What the TV show loses from the Octavia Butler classic

Sixteen years after her untimely death, Octavia Butler is having a moment. As one of the first black women to write science fiction, Butler has long been praised and studied, but of late she has become more visible. Her 1993 novel “The Parable of the Sower” jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list in 2020, and in the spirit of “Get Me One of Those” Hollywood, several of her works have been further developed. . The first of these to appear is “Kindred,” whose eight-episode first season premieres in its entirety Tuesday on Hulu.

Published in 1979 and set by turns in the bicentennial year and in the early to mid-19th century, the novel is not science fiction per se; although it involves time travel, it is inexplicable in metaphysical terms. (Butler described it as a “grim fantasy.”) Developed by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the series, relocated from 1976 to the present (2016 is the year mentioned before the pandemic), adopts Butler’s main mechanism and the main characters and incidents from him. , with some modifications. It’s still a story about a 21st century black woman who finds herself on a plantation in the 19th century.

But to turn a fairly compact book into a series—not a limited series, but one that will require at least a second season to encompass its events—it’s been built with additional characters, events, and subplots that feel elaborate. provide drama and sensation and make your heroine more active and conventionally heroic. (With the result that it’s also less contemplative.) So while “Kindred” works quite well as a fair historical melodrama, much of what makes the novel interesting—its psychological insights, its reflection—is dissipated or darkens by the extent and length of the adaptation. hustle (If you’re interested in the series and haven’t read the book, you’d better watch first and read later.) Whatever its merits, it strays too far from the original text to qualify as a successful translation.

What he inarguably has going for him is a solid central performance from Mallori Johnson, at the start of what should be a long and fruitful career. Johnson plays Dana, who, when the series begins, has moved to Los Angeles in hopes of writing for television. (Butler’s original Dana is an aspiring author of novels and short stories.) Jacobs-Jenkins has given her an uncle (Charles Parnell), an ex-cop, and an aunt (Eisa Davis), a nurse, who will be involved in Dana’s life. -Expanded contemporary adventures. Less profitably, she also has an annoying and nosy neighbor, played by Brooke Bloom, a satire of white liberal concern.

After a difficult dinner with her relatives, Dana agrees to let Kevin (Micah Stock), her waiter, who is white, take her home, giving us a chance to see not only that he’s a decent guy, but also that he knows his soulful music. (He is also a musician, or was).

Dana coincidentally runs into Kevin again on a dating app, and after sleeping together and watching an episode of “Dynasty” in their still-unfurnished new home (the clip has a thematic resonance with things to come) Dana suddenly disappears from Los Angels of the 21st century. her to find herself in what she will eventually learn is a 19th century plantation in Maryland. She discovers a baby face down in a crib, she turns him on his back. Then, upon encountering her own mother, Olivia (Sheria Irving), whom she thought was long dead, Dana freaks out and returns to her own time. It was a dream? She thinks so at first. But it happens again; she saves the same boy, now older, from drowning and, finding himself at the point of a gun, she disappears again in her own time.

Micah Stock as Kevin and Mallori Johnson as Dana in “Kindred.”

(Tina Rowden/FX)

The boy is Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan), the son of slave-owning plantation owner Tom Weylin (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife Margaret (Gayle Rankin), and it may be clear to you before Dana that she’s retiring. in time whenever Rufus’ life is in danger and he returns to the present when he believes she herself will die. Although he may be in the past for days or months, he has never been gone from his own world for more than seconds, minutes, or hours. As in the novel, Dana and Rufus turn out to be historically entwined, and the forces that animate this strange relationship safeguard his and his existence. It’s the science fiction trope of protecting the present by regulating the past and basic to the novel’s theme that any life is the product of a complicated chain of events, that our happy circumstances can be built on someone else’s pain: a good metaphor for slavery. in the deal

It turns out that whatever is touching Dana when she slips through time makes the trip with her, and so, at one point, Kevin finds himself in the pre-war past as well. In the book, Dana and Kevin are married and know each other well; here they are beginning a romance under strange and stressful conditions in a world that treats them as differently as one could imagine. “If you can somehow ignore the fact that all this is happening in a scary, horrible place, it’s like a retreat,” Kevin will say from the start, and Dana seems to agree. Later, she will be less optimistic. (“You’re not seeing what I see every day.” “I know.” “You?”)

It’s hard, not to say insane, even depraved, to form a “nuanced” view of slavery in this more (if not fully) enlightened age—although there are those who try—and as in the novel, “Kindred” doesn’t skimp. the atrocities of humans who treat other humans as property. But Butler’s novel is also an investigation of character in context and “how easily people can be trained to accept slavery,” as Dana observes, written, Butler told interviewer Randall Kenan, “as a reaction to some of the things that happened during the ’60s, when people were embarrassed or more angry with their parents for not having improved things faster “. And the series, which invests in the type of drama that is believed necessary to promote a TV show through one season and the next, doesn’t capture this more subtle aspect.

It doesn’t help that white southerners come across as caricatures, speaking in theatrical dialogue, with their villainous aspects on full scale; they are too easy to dismiss. (In fact, few of the black characters, including Austin Smith as Luke, the slave in charge; Sophina Brown as Sarah, who runs the kitchen; Lindsey Blackwell as her mute daughter, Carrie; and Christopher Farrar as Rufus’s playmate , Nigel, are highly developed.) Tom is a jerk and schemer, quick to violence, who has become something of a homophobe for good measure (he is interested in any kind of “girly” behavior in men), and though he believes it is by giving his slaves “safety, protection”, he treats them as disposable when it suits him. Margaret is high-strung, bordering on hysterical, and territorial when it comes to her son, who seems to prefer Dana’s company.

Time is literally of the essence in the novel, whose chronology of the 19th century unfolds over two decades. Rufus is the key to this cosmic mystery, which turns not only on Dana to keep him alive, but also on her hopes of making him a better man than his father, one who might even free his slaves. But since we see him this season only as a child, and Kaplan portrays the character without actually inhabiting him, the question of change, or lack thereof, will be left for next season. This may work for the business plan, but it hurts the story and the viewer.

‘Family members’

Where: hulu

When: Any moment

Classification: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17 with notices of violence, sex and foul language)

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