The first on-screen adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s work should be cause for celebration. A titan of science fiction and the first writer in the genre to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, Butler conjured up all-too prescient dystopias (see: Parable of the Sower), centuries-spanning sci-fi epics (see: the Patternist series), and brand-new takes on vampire legends (see: Fledgling). Her work has been adapted into graphic novels and an opera, but never into TV or film. That all changes with FX’s Kindred, the first of many Butler adaptations in the works.

Kindred is Butler’s best-known work and an undisputed American classic. Her reinvention of the time travel story brilliantly dissects issues of race, community, and how our history constantly weighs on us. Its TV counterpart, created by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, clearly has a lot of love for the source material. However, the series rarely plumbs the same depths as Butler’s novel. Occasionally, Kindred is an engaging and truly harrowing look at the clash between past and present. However, it often loses momentum and awkwardly navigates wholly new plotlines that undermine the main story.

Kindred is a time travel story like nothing you’ve seen before.

'kindred' review: octavia e. butler's time travel masterpiece gets the tv treatment

Micah Stock and Mallori Johnson in “Kindred.” Credit: Tina Rowden/FX

From the very first shot of Kindred, we know something is gravely wrong. Dana James (Mallori Johnson), a young Black woman, lies face-down on the floor in her house, wide-eyed and in pain. A gun rests in her refrigerator. Lashes bleed along her back. Police are banging at her door.

We flash back to two days prior. The Dana we meet then is worlds apart from the Dana we’re introduced to in the cold open. This Dana has just moved to Los Angeles and hopes to break into TV writing. She loves watching soap operas and argues with her aunt (Eisa Davis) and uncle (Charles Parnell) about her sudden move. As she adjusts to her new home, she befriends and hooks up with local white waiter Kevin (Micah Stock).

Her new normal is upended when she begins involuntarily time traveling. In instances Dana first believes to be nightmares, she is dragged back in time to a slave plantation in Maryland in 1815. She has no clue why this is happening to her, but her journeys appear to be entwined with the fate of young Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan), son of plantation owner Tom Weylin (Ryan Kwanten).

In true keeping with Butler’s heroines, Dana must learn to adapt to frightening circumstances beyond her control. Here, that means assimilating into plantation life until she’s able to travel home. The friction between Dana’s modern independence and the racist 19th-century beliefs that question her personhood make for one of Kindred’s deepest conflicts. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t dig into this conflict as much as the novel does. For example, when Dana accidentally pulls Kevin back in time with her, they’re forced to pose as a master and his slave. In Butler’s work, this becomes a point of major tension between them, following them back to their present married life. In the show, it’s uncomfortable to watch, yet Dana and Kevin never truly reckon with the implications of their power imbalance.

Instead, Kindred seems more interested in trying to explain why Dana can travel as opposed to what happens when she does. Butler’s novel certainly explores this through Dana’s ties to Rufus, but the show adds an entirely new subplot involving Dana’s mother Olivia (Sheria Irving) who has been stuck in the past for over a decade and presumed dead in the present. The addition is intriguing, getting at the generational impact and trauma of Dana and Olivia’s family history. But even then, Kindred doesn’t spend enough time mining the rich material of this mother-daughter relationship. Rather, the showups the time we spend on subplots involving Kevin’s interactions with Tom and Margaret Weylin (Gayle Rankin), as well as neighborly conflicts in the present.

The latter is a particularly confounding choice. Dana’s neighbors Carlo and Hermione (Louis Cancelmi and Brooke Bloom) are the epitome of nosy: When they hear Dana and Kevin’s distressed shouts upon time traveling, they make it their life’s mission to get to the bottom of this. Cue the “Karen” comparisons. What could have been an interesting look into how Dana and Kevin’s disappearances impact the present instead devolves into borderline comedy — something that clashes majorly with the deeply dramatic scenes on the Weylin plantation.

Kindred makes the case for the “standalone novel to miniseries” adaptation.

'kindred' review: octavia e. butler's time travel masterpiece gets the tv treatment

Micah Stock and Mallori Johnson in “Kindred.” Credit: Tina Rowden/FX

As Season 1 of Kindred marches towards its conclusion and you can tell it’s preparing for a Season 2, it’s almost impossible not to think of recent adaptations like Station Elevenor The Underground Railroad. In both cases, the limited series format gives the source material enough time to breathe, but still provides enough structure to keep the series focused. The results are sublime television. Kindred, on the other hand, feels both bloated by new storylines and sparse in terms of the actual content of Butler’s novel. It’s as if the series is waiting until its next installment to truly engage with Butler’s thornier ideas, and you can’t help but wonder what would have happened had the series been granted just one season to tell the story of Kindred.


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  • This hesitancy in the pacing and structure of Kindred is disappointing, because there are some truly great breakthrough moments. Dana’s first journeys back in time are enthralling: Elements of the Weylins’ plantation bleed into the present until we’re fully stuck in the past. Elsewhere, her conversations with her mother and her aunt about her experience provide some of the season’s greatest moments of catharsis and connection. Jacobs-Jenkins also treats the many scenes centering slavery with care and restraint, offering an unflinching historical portrait that is brutal without being exploitative.

    Johnson’s performance as Dana is another high point. Dana is a character who weathers immense distress and trauma, all of which newcomer Johnson shoulders with great emotional maturity. Despite the danger she faces, Dana is also capable, headstrong, and clever. Johnson nails her journey from disbelieving time traveler to pragmatic survivor, giving us a great first onscreen portrayal of one of Butler’s heroines.

    It’s a shame that the rest of Kindred does not fulfill the potential of these elements, because you can tell it has all the makings of something great. Perhaps it will better find its footing in Season 2 — which I’m hoping it gets, because this story deserves to be told in its entirety. Or, perhaps if Kindred had had the tighter restraints of a miniseries, that greatness would have been clearer right from the start.

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