Graeme Manson spilled his pulpy detective neo-noir into Bong Joon-ho, Jacques Lob, and Jean-Marc Rochette’s dystopian science fiction: After years in development and then a few more wading around in the aether, bouncing between networks like a shuttlecock between rackets, “Snowpiercer” finally comes to air on TNT, bringing to television Bong’s 2013 film adaptation of 1982’s graphic novel “Le Transperceneige.” All “Snowpiercer” needs now is to be made into a stage play.
Why adapt “Snowpiercer,” of all Bong’s movies, into TV? “Parasite,” his Oscar-winning 2019 masterpiece, is already on en route to HBO as a limited series, which makes sense given that picture’s enormous global, cross-cultural success. But “Snowpiercer” met with a comparatively polarized reception in the United States in 2014, when The Weinstein Company released the movie a year after premiering in South Korea, and Bong’s vision of the comic is by nature hostile to serialized storytelling; focused as it is on a revolution fought one train car at a time, driven as it is by ratcheting plot momentum, TV reads like a mismatch for the narrative. How can Manson and his writing-directing team establish, much less maintain, the sense of propulsion that makes Bong’s movie function from one episode to the next?
Their answer to the fundamental question at the heart of “Snowpiercer ’20” is to layer a murder mystery atop a tale of class warfare in the end times; the question of whether or not that works is another matter entirely. To an extent, yes, but only because watching Daveed Diggs team with Mickey Sumner to find the culprit behind a bizarre, grisly killing is a surprise delight; to another extent, no, because the more that “Snowpiercer” gets away from said class warfare, the more incongruous the murder mystery grows in context.
“Snowpiercer” shares the same setup as the movie and the graphic novel: It’s the future, Earth is too hot to handle, and well-meaning scientists try to stanch climate change’s effects by launching weather missiles into the atmosphere, which spectacularly backfires and ushers in a new, unintended Ice Age. Naturally, rich people save their own asses via the Snowpiercer, a colossal train 1001 cars long that runs on a perpetual-motion engine, an engineering marvel designed by the enigmatic genius Mr. Wilford. The have-nots, of course, take umbrage at being left out in the cold, so they force their way aboard through gunfire and hatchet strikes as the train departs; the series picks up 7 years after the fact, with the uninvited passengers residing in squalor in Snowpiercer’s tail-end while all the law-abiding ticketed passengers—primarily snotty elitist assholes with too much money and way too much power—sit pretty toward the front, enjoying luxuries and indulgences from the old world: Privacy, comfy beds, education, entertainment, coffee and wine and meals that don’t come in gelatinous brick form.
Diggs plays Andre Layton, the world’s last homicide detective, a man who hangs onto his dignity with all he’s got, for the sake of his own soul as well as his foster train son, Miles (Jaylin Fletcher). Layton’s quiet, thoughtful, well-spoken in the way a detective really ought to be, but he’s burly, too, adorned by dreadlocks that cradle his face like a frame around a photograph. He’s a riveting figure and one of the de facto leaders of the “tailies,” but the role he plays in taking the train from the ruling class changes when he’s dragged up to third by Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connolly), the Voice of the Train and Wilford’s right-hand woman: She needs Layton to find out, quickly and without raising alarms, who de-limbed and unmanned Sean Wise, a Wilford employee.
The pilot episode, “First, the Weather Changed,” has Layton balk at the job, because he’s a tailie: He’s loyal to his people, or at least aware they’ll turn on him if they think for one second that he’s a traitor. But “Snowpiercer,” to its credit, has a shrew understanding of the role compromise plays in politics. Layton knows that he can do more for the cause as the tailies’ man on the inside, so he pressures Cavill into accepting his terms for helping, which includes a few mercies for the tailies, and takes the case with Bess Till (Sumner), a brakeman, a member of Snowpierer’s security force, as his handler-cum-partner. Prior to the apocalypse, Bess aspired to make detective herself. Layton’s her ticket to realizing that unfulfilled ambition. They work well together, an odd couple comprising two tough as nails types, as do Diggs and Sumner; they fall into an easy mentor-mentee rhythm in no time, finding a prickly chemistry in their characters’ symmetrical divide.
Till has power over Layton aboard Snowpiercer, but in the old days, Layton was exactly the kind of person she wanted to be; echoing the opening monologue in episode 3, “Access is Power,” theirs is a relationship about trading up. Everyone in “Snowpiercer” has something someone else wants, and the plot operates on that idea, with Layton and others bargaining with what they have to get their hands on what they want. Slowing the drama in “Snowpiercer” reveals a few unique pleasures in the “Snowpiercer” adaptation canon, largely found in the politicking and in the casting; Diggs, Sumner, and Connelly are joined by the likes of Alison Wright, stepping into a version of Tilda Swinton’s role from the Bong film, Sheila Vand, playing Layton’s pre-apocalypse wife Zarah, the great Steven Ogg as tailie revolutionary leader Pike, and Shaun Toub as Terence, the Snowpiercer’s thoroughly charming underground kingpin, because somehow, the train has its own mob culture.
And this is where “Snowpiercer” loses its way. Even in a show about class divisions and desperate times, the concepts of black markets and criminal underworlds both feel like a bridge too far, especially given that the overarching tail end-front end conflict relaxes under the influence of the detective angle. The more additions Manson and co. make to “Snowpiercer”s architecture and world-building, the more ungainly that world becomes: It’s not that new characters and new storylines don’t add to “Snowpiercer” as a concept, but that they don’t fit in the train, which is a shame.
There’s a compulsively watchable (if ultimately uninventive) gumshoe show baked into TNT’s interpretation of the material, but the extras—even at their most glamorous, vivid, and licentious—overwhelm the best that “Snowpiercer” has to offer. [C+]