Adapting Octavia Butler's classic 1979 novel Kindred is a daunting task, made all the more daunting by being the first to bring Butler's work to the screen, big or small. Butler was a groundbreaking science fiction writer whose work explores themes of Black identity, history, and power relationships. Her readership has expanded and her reputation has only grown since her death in 2006 at the age of 58. But while a handful of Butler books are in various stages of development, including Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, FX's Kindred is the first to make it to the finish line.
The series, premiering Dec. 13 on Hulu, both expands the world of the novel and stays true to its central concerns, specifically the way American history has papered over the reality of slavery while romanticizing the pre-Civil War South and the ways in which slavery's legacy remains never far from the surface of the present. Acclaimed playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins serves as showrunner, and his Kindred remains admirably true to the spirit of Butler's work. But, based on this eight-episode first season, the series struggles to translate that respectful approach into a consistently compelling ongoing series. After a promising start, Kindred never establishes any sense of momentum or urgency, in spite of a vivid, ugly depiction of plantation life and the best efforts of a strong cast.
But the start is promising. After an ominous bit of scene setting, the pilot (directed by Janicza Bravo) begins in 2016, following Dana (Mallori Johnson), an aspiring TV writer newly arrived in Los Angeles who spends her evenings outlining old episodes of Dynasty to learn the craft. But Dana's arrival comes as a surprise to her aunt Denise (Eisa Davis) — her only surviving relative — and Denise's husband, Alan (Charles Parnell), who are surprised, and less than thrilled, that she's moved there with the money from selling her grandmother's New York home. The only upside to the awkward dinner in which she tells them of the move: Dana meets Kevin (Micah Stock), an awkward but endearing musician/waiter whom she begins dating (after at first keeping him at arm's length).
It's a relationship that will face some challenges from the start, both unsurprising and otherwise. On the unsurprising front: some nosy neighbors who, though they won't say it (or maybe even admit it to themselves), aren't sure about having a Black neighbor, maybe especially one with a white boyfriend. Less expected: Dana begins blacking out, disappearing, and traveling through time, returning again and again to a plantation in 1815 Maryland, seemingly drawn there whenever Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan), the son of plantation owner Thomas Weylin (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife Margaret (Gayle Rankin), is in a state of danger and distress. Further complicating matters is another unexpected discovery: Olivia (Sheria Irving), the mother Dana previously believed died in a car accident when Dana was 2, is there as well.
Dana, later joined by Kevin, continues to jump back and forth in time, but the series mostly settles into its plantation setting, where the couple struggles to come up with a cover story for their identities (and their odd manner of clothing) and with how best to proceed. Deducing that Rufus is part of her family tree, Dana feels she has to keep him alive but struggles with what to do beyond this. He seems destined to inherit his father's monstrous racism, but perhaps, she reckons, her influence can temper that.
Meanwhile, Kevin both fears for his life and discovers his white privilege extends to the past, despite posing as a penniless traveling musician. Some of the series' best moments come when Kevin finds himself face-to-face with the dehumanizing abuses of slavery, which shock him even more than they do Dana. "You're not seeing what I see everyday," she tells her boyfriend. "I know that," he replies, only to receive a fully warranted "Do you?" in return. Any echoes of the contrast between the day-to-day 21st century realities experienced by white people and those experienced by everyone else are surely not coincidental.
Stout and Johnson develop playful chemistry as their relationship becomes a kind of refuge from the horrors of slavery, but Kindred often gets bogged down in a narrative that only inches forward in each episode. It also never quite cracks the catch-22 that comes with depicting slave owners. Humanizing Thomas and Margaret too much risks inviting sympathy for the devil. Depicting them as irredeemably awful risks making them stock villains. Kindred mostly chooses the second route, especially with Thomas, which makes the character seem appropriately threatening but also a bit flat and familiar.
Kindred's first season is thematically rich but narratively sluggish. Yet, like the soap operas Dana adores, it ends on a cliffhanger that makes it hard not to wonder what happens next, and there's enough promise in these episodes to hope the story doesn't end here.
Premieres: All episodes premiere Tuesday, Dec. 13 on Hulu
Who's in it: Mallori Johnson, Micah Stock, Ryan Kwanten
Who's behind it: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins serves as showrunner, working form the novel by Octavia Butler
For fans of: Butler, stories of time travel, science fiction with social themes
How many episodes we watched: Eight of eight