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FX’s Kindred series feels like a pale shadow of Octavia Butler’s seminal story

When Octavia Butler’s Kindred — a novel that blends elements of genre and historical fiction to illustrate some of the harshest realities about the antebellum South — was first published in 1979, there were no other books like it. Through fantasy, Butler challenged her readers to understand the US’s history of enslaving Black people as a horrific, foundational part of its identity whose long-lasting impacts continue to reverberate across time and space. FX’s new Kindred clearly wants to do something similar and gets right to the business of trying to accomplish that goal. 

Butler’s book was a novel revelation for its time that gave people a blueprint for how science fiction could be used to navigate the subtle complexities of something like anti-Black racism in America. But all throughout its first season, FX’s Kindred feels trapped in the shadow of its source material and unsure of how to find its way out — two modes that often make the entire series seem like it might have been better off as a feature-length film.

FX’s Kindred, from executive producers Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Courtney Lee-Mitchell, and Darren Aronofsky, tells the story of Dana (Mallori Johnson), a young Black woman starting a new life for herself out in California after selling her inherited Brooklyn brownstone. After months of neither seeing nor hearing from Dana, her Aunt Denise (Eisa Davis), a nurse, and Uncle Alan (Charles Parnell), a retired LAPD cop, are happy to see her as Kindred opens. But Dana’s decision to leave New York City behind and to sell off the family home without consulting anyone else concerns her family, who worry that her impulsiveness might be an early sign of the same mental health issues that plagued Dana’s mother Olivia (Sheria Irving) before her sudden and mysterious death.

The only person in Dana’s new city who seems capable of understanding that she knows her own mind and how to ask for what she wants is a white music-loving waiter named Kevin (Micah Stock), whose awkward charms only barely convince her to go out on a date with him. But Dana and Kevin suddenly become much, much more to one another one fateful night when she spontaneously vanishes from her living room in 2015 and finds herself somehow transported across space and time to a 19th-century plantation in Maryland.

Much like in Butler’s novel, FX’s Kindred spends precious little time trying to explain the exact mechanics of Dana’s time travel and focuses more on how she learns to survive in the past while trying to figure out what pulled her there in the first place. Dana is terrified and disoriented as she comes to in one of Kindred’s early episodes that brilliantly frames her first jump back in time as a kind of haunted dream reminiscent of The Others. But she’s even more alarmed when she’s flung back to the present without explanation, and it quickly becomes clear to her that something beyond her control is responsible for repeatedly sending her back to the 1800s to the home of the slave-owning Weylin family.

As Kindred introduces the Weylins — heavy drinker Thomas (Ryan Kwanten), his nervous wife Margaret (Gayle Rankin), and their accident-prone son Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan) — you can still see the general shape of Butler’s story coming into focus. Often, FX’s Kindred follows the book’s beats. But it also introduces a number of new ideas that each feel like uninspired attempts as updating Kindred’s narrative for a modern-day audience that’s familiar with movies like 12 Years a Slave and series like Lovecraft Country.

Butler wrote Kindred out of a desire to help people living in the present gain a deeper — more visceral — understanding of American anti-Blackness and slavery as interlocking systems of oppression designed to control and, in some cases, destroy people. In both the book and the series, Dana processes the material realities of her situation — enslaved people she meets are regularly raped, whipped, and sold off — with a level-headed coolness that feels almost unrealistic given how awful the things she witnesses are.

In the series, this is especially true of how Dana feels a powerful compulsion to save young Rufus’ life almost as soon as she first meets him. While Butler’s Kindred gave Dana the room to interrogate that feeling within herself, here, her devotion to the boy is simply presented as a bewildering part of who she is, which has an odd way of narratively flattening the reveal that she and he are blood relatives to one another. Despite ostensibly being a show about Dana, it’s often hard to get a sense of what she’s feeling or thinking other than “where’s Rufus?” as Kindred introduces more characters like her nosy neighbors in the present, Carlo (Louis Cancelmi) and Hermione (Brooke Bloom).

Curiously, FX’s Kindred puts a considerable amount of work into fleshing out the lives of its white characters with the kinds of details you’d expect to see from a book adapted into a series meant to run for multiple seasons. When Dana accidentally discovers that she can pull people back in time with her, Kindred becomes just as much a story about Kevin navigating the antebellum South as one about her, which is interesting.

But once the show starts playing around with those kinds of time travel mechanics, it seldom gives Dana herself a chance to contemplate them. This feels like an odd choice given that she’s from a point in the 21st century when those ideas aren’t nearly as out-there as they might have been to a woman from the ‘70s and that Kindred’s debuting at a time when many of the people watching will undoubtedly have already consumed stories inspired by Butler and her books.

Kindred’s scenes revolving around Dana and Kevin, and those focused on how deeply unhappy the Weylin family is at its core, never manage to pop or feel particularly inspired. But the show does start to come alive in fits and starts when it’s focused on Dana and the enslaved workers like Sarah (Sophina Brown), Luke (Austin Smith), and Winnie (Amethyst Davis) that she meets during her trips to the past that grow longer with each visit. One of the few major improvements FX’s Kindred makes upon the original book is the way it pushes Dana to recognize her predicament as an opportunity to help people who might not have ever considered trying to secure freedom for themselves.

But those bright spots are too far and few between to keep Kindred from feeling like a well-intended but late to the game adaptation of Butler’s work that might have benefitted from debuting before Hollywood’s most recent bout of fixation on “prestige” slave narratives.

Kindred also stars Christopher Farrar, Drew Matthews, Elizabeth Stanley, Cherrie McRae, and Britt Douyon. All eight episodes of the show’s first season hit FX on December 13th.

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