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Review: TV Series 'Snowpiercer'


"Hamilton" star Daveed Diggs plays a cop in a dystopian near future in TNT's new series, which is based on Bong Joon-ho's film "Snowpiercer." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the series, debuting tonight, struggles to expand the discussion on class warfare started by the film.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The genius of "Snowpiercer" - both the 2013 film and the new TV show - is the simplicity of its setup. All of what's left of mankind is stuck inside an endlessly running supertrain 1,001 cars long. It circumnavigates a world stuck in a permanent ice age, divided by wealth into rigid classes. And in case you might forget this setup, TNT's version of "Snowpiercer" constantly reminds you, like in this conversation between Daveed Diggs' character, Andre Layton, and the woman who runs the place, played by Jennifer Connelly.


JENIFFER CONNELLY: (As Melanie Cavill) What do you see when you look at this train?

DAVEED DIGGS: (As Andre Layton) I see a fortress to class.

CONNELLY: (As Melanie Cavill) Well, I see 3,000 sole surviving, alive and kicking. And it's not thanks to chance. It is thanks to order, meticulously maintained by Mr. Wilford.

DEGGANS: Mr. Wilford is the industrialist who created the train to save the world's rich folks. Now Wilford is worshipped almost like a god after seven years of continuous travel. Andre Layton was among several hundred poor people who forced their way onto the train, and now they're derided as tailies (ph) and confined to the train's slum-like rear cars, which lack food or much heat. But Layton used to be a police officer, so the train's guards, called brakeman, hand him soup, a grilled cheese sandwich and a problem.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We've had a murder.

DIGGS: (As Andre Layton, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Also goes for Wilford's security.

DIGGS: (As Andre Layton) I guess Mr. Wilford didn't think rich people would murder each other (laughter).

DEGGANS: Yeah. So one of the issues with TNT's "Snowpiercer" is that its subtext is about as subtle as - well, a freight train. The wealthy and powerful insist the train's current system is a careful balance that must be maintained. The tailies insist that the train's riches be used to lift them out of poverty. And the workers living in second and third class like the idea of change but worry anything new might be worse for them.

Unfortunately, the TV show doesn't trust viewers' intelligence. It adds an inconsequential murder investigation that wasn't in the movie, and characters keep telling us about the politics of it all. Consider this exchange between a brakeman and Layton about the person who got killed.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Sean Wise (ph) kept tabs on the black market. He was trying to find the source of a new drug wreaking havoc in third, Chronole (ph).

DIGGS: (As Andre Layton) Chronole's not new. It's been in the tail for two revolutions. Oh, you're not getting a cut? Authoritarian states usually control their own drug trade.

CONNELLY: (As Melanie Cavill) Snowpiercer's an ark. It's not an authoritarian state.

DIGGS: (As Andre Layton) OK.

DEGGANS: What works here is the way "Snowpiercer" the series expands on the science-fiction fueled dystopia of the film. We see the idle rich, whose biggest complaint centers on sauna etiquette, lording over a train where the poor scramble for protein bars that look like gelatin dipped in motor oil. Eventually, in a turn from the film's cynicism, the show suggests democratic rule might be a better option.

In the age of coronavirus lockdown, this series sometimes feels like the opposite of what we're experiencing in real life. On "Snowpiercer," people are crammed on top of each other. Space and solitude are the greatest luxuries. So TNT's series produces an odd mix of envy and angst. Viewers may feel nostalgia for the days when we could all gather without fear in any kind of train and a pang of disappointment that the TV series doesn't do more with the themes inspired by its excellent source material.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.