snow piercer debuted Sunday night on TNT, and Deadline reports that more than 3 million viewers tuned in, making it the cable network’s best broadcast since the adaptation of the alienist in 2018. Whether those viewers will stick around for all 10 episodes of this first season remains to be seen. This is one of those slow-burn shows that take a while to build, which could test the viewers’ patience. But that patience is rewarded when everything kicks into high gear for the last few episodes, ending with a final cliffhanger twist.
(Slight spoilers below, but no major revelations.)
snow piercer is essentially a reboot of the critically acclaimed 2013 film from Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), developed into a full series. Bong’s film itself was an adaptation of a 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, about remnants of humanity trying to survive an ice age in a train of 1001 cars. The train is controlled by a reclusive transport magnate named Mr. Wilford, who has segregated passengers by class and has a nefarious plan to ensure life on the train remains sustainable.
The film starred Chris Evans as revolutionary leader Curtis, with Tilda Swinton as second-in-command Secretary Mason. Bong shot much of it on a specially constructed set: a train mounted on a giant gyroscopic gimbal, to better mimic the movements of a real train. snow piercer earned critical raves and went on to gross $86 million worldwide against a production budget of approximately $40 million.
TNT’s series is set seven years after the climate catastrophe that caused the ice age. Daveed Diggs (Hamilton, Blindspotting) plays Andre Layton, a prisoner at the end of the train who becomes entangled in a revolutionary struggle against the imposed social hierarchy abroad snow piercer† Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) co-stars as first-class passenger Melanie Cavill, who is the voice of the train, responsible for the daily public announcements and the smooth running of the train (both mechanically and socially). The show’s large cast also includes Alison Wright (The Americans, Castle Rock) as Lilah Anderson, who works at the train’s spa, and Mickey Sumner (The Borgiasand daughter of musician Sting) as Inhibitor Bess Till, whose recent move to second grade to be with her romantic partner, is threatened when she begins to question the train’s status quo.
Bong Joon-ho’s film is a juggernaut of near non-stop action as the lowest class passengers riot and make their way to the head of the train, with Curtis leading the way. The TV adaptation necessarily takes a more relaxed approach, given S1’s 10 episodes, which flesh out the details of life aboard the train, along with bits of explanatory backstory. And it introduces a mystery on board: Layton is tapped to investigate a brutal murder that may be the work of a serial killer, such as a dystopian version of Murder on the Orient Express†
I enjoyed how the series devoted time to many of the day-to-day details of life on board snow piercer in all classes, from dealing with energy constraints and unexpected restrictions on food resources to black market bartering and drug trafficking and various interpersonal conflicts between passengers. So-called “Tailies” – the ticketless refugees in the tail of the train – are punished for insubordination by having an arm stuck through a portal in the cold outside until it freezes solid and is shattered. There is also a prison car that has its occupants suspended, although the drug used to maintain that condition has serious side effects.
It’s the cast that makes it in the end snow piercer work, most notably Jennifer Connelly as Melanie, whose sturdy, professional, tightly controlled veneer is gradually removed to reveal a woman haunted by personal loss and the hard decisions she’s had to make to keep the train running for seven years . snow piercer presents one ongoing Trolley problem, where those in charge must regularly consider sacrificing a few – sometimes quite a few – lives to save everyone else. Needless to say, first-class passengers rarely have to make those sacrifices.
Equally compelling is Wright’s wily, manipulative Lilah, who has an unhealthy obsession with the mythical Mr. Wilford and a chilling ruthlessness when it comes to maintaining order. She would love nothing more than to replace Melanie as the voice of the train, and she doesn’t mind exploiting the building turmoil to achieve that goal. Summer brings just the right mix of toughness and fragility for Bess Till. Diggs has a harder job of making Layton likeable; he’s a bit preachy and self-righteous. But his affection for a young boy named Miles (Jaylin Fletcher), and Miles’ foster mother Josie (Katie McGuinness), softens the character considerably.
The show has a few drawbacks. The mandatory voiceovers for each episode can get tedious, and the dialogue is a little corny in places. Plus, the murder mystery subplot isn’t particularly compelling and is mostly an excuse to get Layton out of the tail so he can do a little recon on behalf of the brewing rebellion.
Overall, though, this is a solid, entertaining series that sets the stage for an even stronger second season. TNT has given the go-ahead for a second season before the pilot premiered, hence the cliffhanger finale, though it may be a while before we can get on with the story. Production of S2 began last October, and key photography was nearing completion when production was halted in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
New episodes of snow piercer airs Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.
List image by TNT