February 28, 2024 4:42 am

Awkward, Misguided Kindred Lets Down Its Source Material
Awkward, Misguided Kindred Lets Down Its Source Material

Awkward, Misguided Kindred Lets Down Its Source Material

A Black woman lays prone on the floor of an empty home. Her back is bloodied; her clothes are torn. She desperately yells for “Kevin” to no avail. She soon gathers herself and combs the home for supplies: A new shirt, a knife, a gun located in the fridge, her phone. The camera is distant, the jagged editing as methodical as her foraging. After she soaks in the tub, with a clock prominently placed at its foot, she hears her front door. It’s the cops. And they want in. This cryptic preamble aims to instill mystery and intrigue into the viewer. And yet, every creative decision moves with a creaky, mechanical precision. It’s a glaring weakness that will haunt the FX miniseries “Kindred,” more than the generic plotting could hope to accomplish. 

Following the teasing opening, the writer and showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins takes viewers back to two days ago. We learn the identity of the distraught woman at the center of the drama. Her name is Dana (Mallori Johnson). She’s recently moved to Los Angeles to break into television writing after selling her grandmother’s New York City townhome. Though she apparently lost her mother and father years ago to a car accident, Dana does have family in her aunt, a nurse, and her uncle Alan (Charles Parnell), a retired police officer. They are concerned about Dana. She seems impulsive and unwell, like her mother. Her white boyfriend, Kevin (Micah Stock), is similarly worried. He often catches her screaming as she sleepwalks. See, Dana dreams about living during slavery. And it appears to all be a terrible nightmare, a figment of her imagination, until she transports herself and Kevin back to Antebellum America. How can she return home? Why can she time travel? And for what purpose? 

Though adapted from Octavia Butler’s groundbreaking, supernatural novel of the same name, “Kindred” is a pale imitation of the author’s thought-provoking interrogation of slavery’s historical role in instigating contemporary systematic inequality. In this series, Butler’s clear-eyed themes are watered down; her inventive vision of time travel is reduced to an unimaginative parlor trick; and her inspired world building isn’t honored. “Kindred” isn’t a bold reimagining of 1970s racial politics (the decade of novel’s publication) through a present-day lens. Rather, it’s a top-down over-simplification of the radical source material.          

I hate to compare every project centering enslaved Black folks to Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” mostly because I sound like a broken record, but the series really is the gold standard for these kinds of stories. Every project that has followed in its wake contends with the vast creative shadow Jenkins left. While Butler’s work was published over 40-years old, in itself upholding the mantle of these narratives, you can’t help but notice how far short the televised version of Butler’s novel—a work as rich and dense as Colson Whitehead’s narrative—falls short of Jenkins’ miniseries. Unlike Jenkins’ work, Jacob-Jenkins has made “Kindred” more palatable for a streaming audience who are probably unaware of the source material, yet desire to see a narrative concerned with the kind of surface-level examinations common to so many present-day slavery-themed period pieces. 

“Kindred” is filled with moments where the craft fails to match the story, opting for visually bland design choices at every turn. The plantation, the clothes, the period detail lack a lived-in quality. When Dana and Kevin arrive at the plantation of the drunkard slave owner Thomas Weylin (Ryan Kwanten), for instance, we learn that since the death of his wife and his remarriage to Margaret (Gayle Rankin), that the grounds and home has, in some respects, fallen into disrepair. And yet, nothing in the set dressing tells us that. Even when relatives of the Weylins visit, and they chide Tom and Margaret on selling off the finer items, it doesn’t immediately hit amid the seeming opulence.

That same generic aesthetic carries over to the shooting of the series: Inert compositions that reveal nothing about the characters, odd decisions with regards to coverage, blunt editing that disrupts rather than casts a supernatural spell. You’re never quite sure what visual tone this series wants to set or the rhythm we should feel. Instead, the supposed arresting tension that should command our attention is merely a bundle of teases that carry very little meaningful weight.   

Over the course of eight episodes, we learn that Thomas’ young, sickly son, Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan) is somehow connected to Dana’s time traveling abilities. We also meet some of the enslaved folks who populate the plantations: A Black overseer and bitter childhood friend of Thomas named Luke (Austin Smith), an enslaved woman (Amethyst Davis) who Thomas pines for, and a free woman, the local healer who many call a witch (Sheria Irving) and might have a special connection with Dana. These characters dance on the periphery of importance. They are imperative only because the series tells us they are. And yet, even as mismatched puzzle pieces, none of them conjure a genuine curiosity for the viewer. 

That shortcoming wouldn’t break the series if the toothless, ungainly dialogue and the unimaginative nature of Kevin and Dana as characters weren’t also uninteresting. Despite Stock’s best efforts, Kevin doesn’t acquire a personality beyond being a discomforted white guy. He never inspires any sort of mystery or any of the tragic hues supposedly lurking beneath his exterior. The same can be said of Dana as Johnson drowns in the feckless writing. Dana isn’t a fascinating enigma. Nor is she a fully sketched person with a discernible personality. She says nothing particularly interesting, and apart from time traveling, does nothing especially remarkable. Yes, Dana longs for her mother. But what else does she pine for? What are her other character traits? Why is she attracted to Kevin? It’s all too ill-defined to be indelible, too superficial to pull you down toward its intended depth. 

Why adapt a work as rich and as unflinching as Butler’s “Kindred” without developing the racial, political and cultural topics that makes the source material so profound? Worse yet, why not consider what a story like “Kindred” means in 2022? Especially since a brief mention in the series tells us that these events are taking place in 2016. If the showrunners have these questions in mind, it’s never made apparent. The allegorical function of Butler’s words are rendered moot in their incapable hands. By the time episode eight rolls around, teasing a second season, one can scarcely imagine returning to such an elementary, drama-less consideration of a masterwork. This version of “Kindred” is without a past, a present, or even a future.

Whole season screened for review. All episodes available now on Hulu.

A Black woman lays prone on the floor of an empty home. Her back is bloodied; her clothes are torn. She desperately yells for “Kevin” to no avail. She soon gathers herself and combs the home for supplies: A new shirt, a knife, a gun located in the fridge, her phone. The camera is distant, the jagged editing as methodical as her foraging. After she soaks in the tub, with a clock prominently placed at its foot, she hears her front door. It’s the cops. And they want in. This cryptic preamble aims to instill mystery and intrigue into the viewer. And yet, every creative decision moves with a creaky, mechanical precision. It’s a glaring weakness that will haunt the FX miniseries “Kindred,” more than the generic plotting could hope to accomplish.  Following the teasing opening, the writer and showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins takes viewers back to two days ago. We learn the identity of the distraught woman at the center of the drama. Her name is Dana (Mallori Johnson). She’s recently moved to Los Angeles to break into television writing after selling her grandmother’s New York City townhome. Though she apparently lost her mother and father years ago to a car accident, Dana does have family in her aunt, a nurse, and her uncle Alan (Charles Parnell), a retired police officer. They are concerned about Dana. She seems impulsive and unwell, like her mother. Her white boyfriend, Kevin (Micah Stock), is similarly worried. He often catches her screaming as she sleepwalks. See, Dana dreams about living during slavery. And it appears to all be a terrible nightmare, a figment of her imagination, until she transports herself and Kevin back to Antebellum America. How can she return home? Why can she time travel? And for what purpose?  Though adapted from Octavia Butler’s groundbreaking, supernatural novel of the same name, “Kindred” is a pale imitation of the author’s thought-provoking interrogation of slavery’s historical role in instigating contemporary systematic inequality. In this series, Butler’s clear-eyed themes are watered down; her inventive vision of time travel is reduced to an unimaginative parlor trick; and her inspired world building isn’t honored. “Kindred” isn’t a bold reimagining of 1970s racial politics (the decade of novel’s publication) through a present-day lens. Rather, it’s a top-down over-simplification of the radical source material.           I hate to compare every project centering enslaved Black folks to Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” mostly because I sound like a broken record, but the series really is the gold standard for these kinds of stories. Every project that has followed in its wake contends with the vast creative shadow Jenkins left. While Butler’s work was published over 40-years old, in itself upholding the mantle of these narratives, you can’t help but notice how far short the televised version of Butler’s novel—a work as rich and dense as Colson Whitehead’s narrative—falls short of Jenkins’ miniseries. Unlike Jenkins’ work, Jacob-Jenkins has made “Kindred” more palatable for a streaming audience who are probably unaware of the source material, yet desire to see a narrative concerned with the kind of surface-level examinations common to so many present-day slavery-themed period pieces.  “Kindred” is filled with moments where the craft fails to match the story, opting for visually bland design choices at every turn. The plantation, the clothes, the period detail lack a lived-in quality. When Dana and Kevin arrive at the plantation of the drunkard slave owner Thomas Weylin (Ryan Kwanten), for instance, we learn that since the death of his wife and his remarriage to Margaret (Gayle Rankin), that the grounds and home has, in some respects, fallen into disrepair. And yet, nothing in the set dressing tells us that. Even when relatives of the Weylins visit, and they chide Tom and Margaret on selling off the finer items, it doesn’t immediately hit amid the seeming opulence. That same generic aesthetic carries over to the shooting of the series: Inert compositions that reveal nothing about the characters, odd decisions with regards to coverage, blunt editing that disrupts rather than casts a supernatural spell. You’re never quite sure what visual tone this series wants to set or the rhythm we should feel. Instead, the supposed arresting tension that should command our attention is merely a bundle of teases that carry very little meaningful weight.    Over the course of eight episodes, we learn that Thomas’ young, sickly son, Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan) is somehow connected to Dana’s time traveling abilities. We also meet some of the enslaved folks who populate the plantations: A Black overseer and bitter childhood friend of Thomas named Luke (Austin Smith), an enslaved woman (Amethyst Davis) who Thomas pines for, and a free woman, the local healer who many call a witch (Sheria Irving) and might have a special connection with Dana. These characters dance on the periphery of importance. They are imperative only because the series tells us they are. And yet, even as mismatched puzzle pieces, none of them conjure a genuine curiosity for the viewer.  That shortcoming wouldn’t break the series if the toothless, ungainly dialogue and the unimaginative nature of Kevin and Dana as characters weren’t also uninteresting. Despite Stock’s best efforts, Kevin doesn’t acquire a personality beyond being a discomforted white guy. He never inspires any sort of mystery or any of the tragic hues supposedly lurking beneath his exterior. The same can be said of Dana as Johnson drowns in the feckless writing. Dana isn’t a fascinating enigma. Nor is she a fully sketched person with a discernible personality. She says nothing particularly interesting, and apart from time traveling, does nothing especially remarkable. Yes, Dana longs for her mother. But what else does she pine for? What are her other character traits? Why is she attracted to Kevin? It’s all too ill-defined to be indelible, too superficial to pull you down toward its intended depth.  Why adapt a work as rich and as unflinching as Butler’s “Kindred” without developing the racial, political and cultural topics that makes the source material so profound? Worse yet, why not consider what a story like “Kindred” means in 2022? Especially since a brief mention in the series tells us that these events are taking place in 2016. If the showrunners have these questions in mind, it’s never made apparent. The allegorical function of Butler’s words are rendered moot in their incapable hands. By the time episode eight rolls around, teasing a second season, one can scarcely imagine returning to such an elementary, drama-less consideration of a masterwork. This version of “Kindred” is without a past, a present, or even a future. Whole season screened for review. All episodes available now on Hulu. Read More