Based on Octavia E. Butler’s acclaimed 1979 novel, FX’s Kindred is a time-traveling series that uses a science-fiction angle to explore themes of racism, slavery, and continued prejudice in our world today. The novel, still taught in schools, continues to resonate—which is why this is seemingly the perfect opportunity to adapt the text for the screen. Showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Watchmen) has made subtle changes to Butler’s text in an attempt to update it for modern audiences; notably, the TV series has changed the tone of Kindred from an intriguing historical mystery, instead heightening the horror aspects, among many other wrinkles.
Dana (Mallori Johnson) is a young Black woman who has recently made a significant life change: moving from New York to Los Angeles in the hopes of becoming a TV scriptwriter. She hasn’t even settled into her home though when she starts experiencing a weird phenomenon where she’s transported to a nineteenth-century plantation. Shortly after, Dana will discover she’s intricately linked with this plantation, although she cannot stop the phenomenon from happening. Discovering why and how this is happening to Dana is where the story’s grand mystery lies.
Zola filmmaker Janicza Bravo directed the pilot, and it immediately pulls the audience into Dana’s dilemma; it’s also one of the strongest episodes of the first season. It starts off with marked intensity: we know immediately that Dana has experienced some kind of trauma, because that bathtub she eases into back in the present day turns red due to the violence that has occurred in the distant past. Adding to Dana’s troubles is a sudden knock on her door from the police. There’s no way Dana can explain what happened to her. And even if she did, as a single Black woman alone in her home, they wouldn’t believe her anyway.
For viewers, Dana is a blank slate, and her history is ill-defined. Given the nature of the show’s mystery, that was likely a conscious point made by the showrunners, but it also makes it hard to connect with her character. Two days before the horrifying scene that opened the episode, Dana is catching up with her only remaining family, her aunt and uncle, for dinner. But even then, her family makes it painfully clear that they don’t know what has been going on with Dana, either.
It’s during the family dinner that Dana gets involved with Kevin (Micah Stock), a young white man who works at the restaurant. One of the bigger changes to Butler’s text comes here: the novel introduced Dana and Kevin as a mixed-race marriage, but was able to obscure Kevin’s race initially to create intrigue; a television show doesn’t get that luxury. Instead, the show focuses on making Dana and Kevin’s relationship less tied-down for the modern age: after he drives her home, they match on an online dating app, they go on a date to buy amenities for her new home, and they fall into a quick romance. This new relationship also gets Kevin involved with Dana’s time travel troubles, bringing him into the past with her.
Even though science-fiction time travel elements exist in this show, its focus is on the cruelty of plantation life and how Dana can’t escape racism no matter which timeline she visits. Her unfortunate time on the plantation is similar to other stories set in the period: she gets called racial slurs, she has to perform as the dutiful slave, and she still has to fear for her well-being—despite having the ability to travel back to the present day. The mixed-race romance gives Dana a little more leeway on this plantation that she’s found herself on, as she is seen as Kevin’s slave. But that shouldn’t be confused with freedom. Dana is still treated poorly due to her skin color, and the masters of the house, Thomas (Ryan Kwanten) and Margaret Weylin (Gayle Rankin), never let her forget it. The Weylin’s child, Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan), also has some kind of connection with Dana, and discovering his influence on her plight makes for some of the more intriguing moments in the show. In the eight episodes watched for review, it’s clear that Kindred is in the process of building all of this intrigue out, which will continue into another season. But so far, the show spends too much time on the plantation itself instead of cultivating a more thoughtful mystery.
Still, Johnson’s performance is the standout, even if we don’t know much about her characters’ past. She’s a very expressive actor, capable of reaching the extreme heights of emotion that the script demands of her. It’s her ensemble cast—including Kevin, the Weylins, and especially Dana’s snoopy neighbors in the modern age—that doesn’t do her or the show any favors. If Kindred wanted the audience to truly feel as though Dana is alone, they’ve done a formidable job, because there’s no one else in this cast worth spending any amount of time with.
Another big problem with this adaptation of Kindred is that the tone is all over the place. The show has been made into something like a thriller, but that doesn’t work well with the historical mystery that made the novel unique. Dana is in a catastrophically scary situation, so the writers have filled many of her scenes with fear and confusion. Then, when the show switches to Kevin’s perspective, we can interpret it as a fish-out-of-water comedy. His conversations with the Weylin family are supposed to be awkward, due to his radically different beliefs, but it leans too far into goofy territory sometimes. Other changes, like changing Dana and Kevin’s marital status and placing the show in 2016, don’t do much to help the plot out, either.
As Butler’s most famous work, you’d think that Kindred would be primed for an adaptation. But perhaps all of these challenges might be the reason why it wasn’t made into a series until now. It’s a shame that this one is a failure, as Kindred never manages to improve after its intriguing pilot, one that promised a compelling mystery and plenty of tense moments. Instead, the focus is on ancillary characters that are not only obnoxious but lifeless as well, and spends the bulk of the story down on the plantation. Ultimately, this is a mystery that I won’t be returning to find out the answers to.
FX’s Kindred premieres Tuesday, December 13th on Hulu.
Max Covill is a freelance writer for Paste Magazine. For more anime, movie, and television news and reviews you can follow him, @mhcovill.
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