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‘Kindred’ is a bold, if uneven, homage to Octavia Butler’s masterpiece

FX on Hulu adaptation stars Mallori Johnson as a 21st-century Black woman who time-travels to a 19th-century plantation.

Mallori Johnson as Dana in FX's “Kindred,” which streams exclusively on Hulu. (Tina Rowden/FX)
6 min

It’s been more than four decades since Octavia E. Butler published “Kindred,” her genre-defying novel about a young Black woman who spontaneously travels through time from 1976 to 1815, where she finds herself on the Maryland plantation that once held her ancestors in bondage. Classic and beloved across generations, “Kindred” has long been ripe for an on-screen adaptation. But for the same reasons, reimagining “Kindred” is a tall and delicate order: Any reinterpretation must be grounded in the themes — generational trauma, survival, power and privilege, among them — that Butler explored so adroitly in her book.

FX on Hulu’s adaptation, developed for television by the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octaroon”), seems to understand this inherent challenge and rises to meet it with a modern retelling that brings the central story closer to our own present day. It’s 2016 when Dana James (Mallori Johnson) is inexplicably pulled back to the antebellum horrors of the 19th century.

The time jump may rankle purists, but it’s hard to imagine that an author as prescient as Butler, who died in 2006, wouldn’t appreciate such an update. Her work, which also includes “Parable of the Sower” and its Nebula Award-winning sequel “Parable of the Talents,” contemplated climate change, wealth inequality and the racial inequities on which America — whether we acknowledge it — was founded. Setting “Kindred” in 1976 as Butler did originally wouldn’t do it justice today.

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“Kindred” takes other detours that don’t pay off as well in the first season, all eight episodes of which are available Tuesday on Hulu. In the novel, Dana is in an interracial marriage with Kevin, a White man who joins his wife on one of her involuntary journeys to Easton, Md. The series, perhaps in a nod to millennial aimlessness, envisions Dana’s relationship with Kevin (Micah Stock) as a one-night stand that turns into something deeper amid the time warp that exists between the hours that pass in Los Angeles and the years that simultaneously unfold on the plantation of Tom Weylin (“True Blood’s” Ryan Kwanten). In the novel, Dana and Kevin were new to Los Angeles, but in the series it’s only Dana who has recently moved — from the Brooklyn brownstone her late grandmother left her to an airy house in an L.A. suburb.

Dana’s updated backstory also includes a more prominent role for the aunt and uncle referenced as her foundation in Butler’s book. In the first episode, directed by Janicza Bravo (“Zola”), Dana stuns her aunt Denise (Eisa Davis) and uncle Allan (Charles Parnell) by announcing her move, which her relatives deem impulsive and concerning. The series establishes a pattern of mental illness in Dana’s matrilineal line that is given a different context in Easton, where — in perhaps the biggest departure from Butler’s novel — Dana discovers that her late mother, Olivia (Sheria Irving), is living as a free woman. The revelation calls into question everything Dana knows about her mother, who was believed to have died alongside Dana’s father in a car accident.

The core impulse behind Dana’s time travel remains true to Butler’s novel: Dana is pulled to Easton whenever Tom’s son Rufus — mischievous and bored under the frantic watch of his insufferable mother Margaret (Gayle Rankin) — fears for his life. After several trips back and forth, Dana realizes that Rufus is her ancestor, rendering her role as his protector integral to her survival.

As Dana quickly discovers, life on the Weylin plantation is filled with pain and suffering, predicated on the false belief that she and other Black people are less than human. Without papers to prove otherwise, Dana is assumed to be an enslaved person and presumed to be Kevin’s property when he accompanies her through time. The series presents the horrors of slavery in unflinching detail: At one point, Tom forces his “stock” to go without food while trying to determine the whereabouts of an enslaved woman who has escaped. In a scene pulled directly from Butler’s novel, Tom whips Dana after he catches her with a book. The beating is so severe that Dana — fearing for her own life — is pulled back to the present, where mere minutes have passed.

The series weaves in a thread aligning the 19th-century patrolmen who gleefully round up runaways with modern-day police forces, a comparison Butler explored much more subtly in her book. The opening scene finds Dana returning to 2016 Los Angeles with the literal scars to prove her unbelievable predicament; moments later, the police arrive at her door for a purported wellness check that feels more like an interrogation. The scene, which plays out fully in the season’s final episode, is an example of the show’s struggle with tone as Dana’s neighbors gather to see what all the commotion is about. Among them are Hermione (Brooke Bloom) and Carlo (Louis Cancelmi), a nosy couple convinced that Dana’s presence is a threat to their quiet neighborhood — but indignant at any suggestion their suspicions may have racial motivations.

Butler infused “Kindred” with dry, observational humor, but Hermione and Carlo seem to exist for the type of camp that is prevalent in FX dramas but feels decidedly out of place here. It doesn’t help that Bloom, whose character embodies the type of next-door Karen who would call the police on a Black neighbor she believes to be in distress, recently appeared on “Atlanta” as a similarly weepy White woman who feels entitled to monitor the Black people in her midst.

Dana’s aunt pointedly notes that the police seem far more concerned about Kevin — who Dana knows to be trapped back in the 19th century — than about her niece, whose back is still bloody from Tom Weylin’s beatings. Denise, previously ready to commit her niece out of concern for her mental state, realizes that Dana is telling the truth about her distressing time travel and begins to help Dana piece together the reason behind it. An incredible development opens the series to further seasons — and the potential to make the show’s biggest swings more successful. One particularly intriguing thread is the complicated relationship between Dana and Olivia, as Dana struggles to understand what she reads as her mother’s complacence to exist in a time when — even as an ostensibly free woman — she has no rights.

“I don’t want to be like you,” Dana tells Olivia in one emotional scene. “I don’t want to get used to this.”

“Yeah, it’s hard to believe that you could,” Olivia says, evoking one central theme of the book Butler categorized as a “grim fantasy.” “All this suffering. But people here choose survival for its own sake. They have to.”

“Kindred” (eight episodes) is available for streaming on Hulu.