The strangeness of “Snowpiercer,” TNT’s new post-apocalyptic drama, is all in its setting. The series, like its graphic-novel source material as well as the 2013 Bong Joon Ho film adaptation that preceded it, can’t help emphasizing how weird its premise is: That after a failed attempt to reengineer the world’s climate, humans are able to survive a new ice age by boarding a globe-spanning train, operating in a state of perpetual motion.
But once the oddity sinks in and becomes less striking — once we get our train legs, perhaps — the show feels deeply familiar. That’s, first, because the substance of this device is so grindingly familiar. The rich cavort in the train’s more luxurious cars while the poor, who keep the machine running by doing the tasks the upper class wouldn’t touch, live in desolation. It’s a worthy point to put forward, and an obvious one. The train is capitalism — get it?
That’s nothing new for this franchise: Bong’s film of this material had an equally thudding manner of carrying across its point. (He’d later address similar themes more deftly in “Parasite,” whose organizing metaphor, a house rather than a surreal train, allowed a fleeter and more oblique address of these concerns.) What is new here is the relative dullness of characters’ dialogue and backstories. It’s somewhat grounding that even in the midst of chaos, cataclysm and global reorganization around a bizarre means of conveyance, folks will still speak mainly in cliché; it’s also true enough to life. Indeed, in our world, people have not grown notably more articulate since the pandemic began — quite the opposite, in fact. It also feels like a show that’s working to create counterpoint between a backdrop that’s so far out on a limb of oddity that its action needs to be extra prosaic for balance. The result is watchable, but not much more.
Jennifer Connelly plays Melanie, the train’s head of hospitality — its liaison to passengers as well as the voice they hear piped in over the loudspeaker. It should perhaps come as no surprise that Melanie is burdened with secrets, ones that isolate her from her second-in-command, Ruth (Alison Wright of “The Americans”), and that complicate her relationship with Andre (Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton”). He’s a self-styled revolutionary leading the nascent protest movement in the back cars — one that will provide much of the show’s momentum, and its commentary — as well as a valuable asset, given that a murder has just occurred and he is the only homicide detective left on Earth.
It’s this last detail that makes “Snowpiercer” feel too florid to pull off the icy neo-noir thing it’s often trying for; beneath its coating of snow and ice lies a thick patch of corn. Sure, a homicide detective would be a good thing to have in this situation, and there probably wouldn’t be many left, but the “last on Earth” framing, with its self-consciousness and its melodrama, overproves the case the show’s making. We know things are bad: The world has more or less ended. Similarly, the wealthy and decadent denizens of the train live in an extremity (a little like that of the Capitol residents in “The Hunger Games” films) that feels both overstated and a bit beyond what this show, visibly straining against not having a “Hunger Games”-size budget, can realistically achieve.
That kind of gets to the heart of things: “Snowpiercer” has a curiosity about its characters that exceeds its grasp. It places them in arrangements and situations that are genuinely wild, and then elicits bland or unremarkable emotional reactions. A case in point is the way each episode begins: A character from some different corner of the train delivers a monologue. It’s a way to show off how overgrown and rife with potential is the show’s universe, and one that, landing as it often does in fairly simple motivations expressed in plain, functional language, tends to fall flat.
This show’s ambition should perhaps take it in woolier directions; one can feel it straining against its format. (Diggs, who is quite strong, Wright and especially Connelly could certainly handle it.) For a show that organizes itself around a blunt metaphor, here’s another: It’s revealing how little, and rarely, “Snowpiercer” really feels set on a train. One never senses the jostling movement of wheels over tracks: For all the promise of the thrill of a disruption, it’s gliding a bit too easily.