TNT’s ‘Snowpiercer’ Translates a Bold Futuristic Vision Into a Standard Murder Mystery 

It is said that television has surpassed the movies in recent years. While this may be true, certain TV shows are based off of films that made a mark not too long ago. TNT’s “Snowpiercer” is the latest glossy serial that hopes to attract an audience from the cult origins of its title. It is, in part, based on a graphic novel from the ‘80s, but its true fountain of inspiration is the 2014 film version by Bong Joon-ho. Set in a frozen future where what’s left of humanity rides around a giant train, the series faithfully borrows Bong’s production design but leaves behind the revolutionary fire.

Fans of the graphic novel and movie know the premise well. In a not too distant future the world has been turned into an icy wasteland after a failed experiment to combat climate change blanketed the Earth in endless snow. A massive 1001-car train, the Snowpiercer, built by the enigmatic mogul Wilford houses what’s left of humankind as it crisscrosses the world. At the tail end live the dirty peasants, essentially last minute stragglers who jumped onboard, and from there it just keeps going up until First Class where the oligarchs lounge about. In charge of “hospitality” is Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), who keeps a close eye on all. When a mutilated body is found in a higher class car, Melanie seeks the help of a tail passenger, Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), who when the world was normal was a detective. Now he spends his time plotting revolution with the other tail people. Layton agrees to help and in return is offered ascension to Third Class. As the clues mount Layton begins to suspect the killer is from among the elite, which of course ruffles feathers. Meanwhile in the tail, his comrades are planning an uprising to storm their way up to the front of the train.

It might be unfair to judge “Snowpiercer” the show so heavily under the shadow of the movie. Both are nearly completely different creatures aside from their shared set design. The series lacks the maddened frenzy of the film and its sense of satire and dark humor. What made Bong’s version so visceral was how it was about one single goal, namely the tail-end rebels fighting their way inch by bloody inch to the front of the train. It was essentially a work of revolutionary art. This TNT production takes on the form of a very archaic, hard to follow sci-fi noir. It also functions and cinematographically looks like regular TV. We are not getting a typical Peak TV show trying to deliver 10 hours of cinema, “Snowpiercer” is a mystery yarn made for the small screen. This is both its gift and curse.

Instead of going for a season of bloody revolt, the first half of season one is a detective mystery with Layton walking through the various upper class cars, sniffing out suspects.  The main showrunner is Graeme Manson, a co-creator on “Orphan Black.” Bong is actually listed as a producer as well, but that could mean anything since there is not a single trace of his touch in any episode. Manson’s approach seems to be to use the detective angle to then introduce us to Snowpiercer’s various corners. Layton is saddled with Bess Till (Mickey Sumner) as his partner/chaperone with a brakeman named Roche (Mike O’Malley) as the doubtful jerk always getting on Layton’s back with class prejudice. The murder mystery itself is both simplistic and confusing. A body is found without limbs or a penis, and Layton quickly deduces it was someone in the upper class cars. Of course we must wonder why the powers that be can’t find a trained detective within the higher up cars, but there you have it. As Layton wanders through the fancier sections of Snowpiercer the show is the most entertaining with the way it imagines a “night car,” which is basically the train’s red light district or lavish indoor aquariums (first featured in the movie) and an elegant dining car where the bourgeois make fun of the plebs. The condemned are not executed but induced into comas before being stored in large cabinets. One doctor has a particular obsession with a sleeping girl. Layton naturally finds his ex working in the night car, and during a meditation session involving walls evoking waves they must of feel the compulsion for dangerous sex with Bess waiting outside the door.

What is missing is the stark look of Bong’s movie and its sense that this story could be very possible. We don’t get a real idea of the squalor and disease that must surely run rampant in the train’s oppressed tail section. Layton looks incredibly healthy, although his dialogue doesn’t reveal much of a keen mind or a brooding, haunted noir character. Daveed Diggs is overall an efficient actor, with roles in “Hamilton” and Showtime’s upcoming “The Good Lord Bird,” but as directed and written here he is not cut out for playing a driven revolutionary or hard boiled investigator. The best performance is by Jennifer Connelly, who as Cavill gives off a calm authoritarian tone with kindness hidden underneath. She looks the part in her blue uniform as well acting as the representative for Mr. Wilford, who in the movie was played by Ed Harris but here remains a distant, invisible presence. Yet nothing in the show comes close to Tilda Swinton’s Mason in the Bong film, all mad and evil, holding up a shoe to make a point about the underclass needing to know their place in society.

Once Layton cracks the murder case the show shifts more towards the angle of revolution as some of the detective’s comrades initiate a plan to infiltrate the upper cars and wreck a bit of havoc. But “Snowpiercer” wants to be a sci-fi thriller and multicharacter mystery all at once. There are many names to keep track of, including Bess and her partner Jinju (Susan Park), Cavill and her love affair with Bennett (Iddo Goldberg) who spends most of the season in the conductor’s chair looking at the passing icescapes, then issuing warnings when an avalanche here and there rumbles towards the train. We are not even made aware until they have a sudden tryst near the steering wheel in episode five. 

Clunky and a bit off the rails, “Snowpiercer” on an episode by episode basis is not a complete bore however. It can be entertaining when you put aside the murder mystery and bask in the futuristic imaginings about classes divided by train cars. When Layton cracks the case the culprit is not a surprise, but it is fun to see how the case is then used to comment on class divisions as the rich can’t believe one of their own would be a killer. A demented rich girl also provides the season’s one poetic flourish by swooning to Brian Hyland’s “Sealed With a Kiss.” The producers could never guess how fitting for the season the lyrics would be (“Yes it’s gonna be a cold, lonely summer”).

“Snowpiercer” might work best as a late night insomniac watch. It is not great television but has a great actor in Connelly and you can stop paying attention to the plot and ponder the future it envisions. But before tuning in check out the Bong Joon-ho movie to get a taste of the fiery spirit hiding beneath its premise.

Snowpiercer” season one premieres May 17 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.