Syfy roars back to relevance with this loopy, goofy, altogether entertaining brain-twister.
I’m not supposed to still be here!
None of us are.
As far as TV shows based on cult films based on short films go, you could do considerably worse than 12 Monkeys. Many people (myself included) figured expanding Terry Gilliam’s gonzo 1995 film into cable TV was an awful, no-good idea — but, to be fair, that wasn’t the original plan. Showrunner Natalie Chaidez (The Sarah Connor Chronicles) had conceived of a series titled Splinter, an unrelated time-travel series, but was persuaded by Syfy to retrofit it into the 12 Monkeys mold. The story, for those who have had the misfortune of not seeing the film, remains the same: a convict named Cole (Bruce Willis in the film, X-Men‘s Aaron Stanford here) is sent back in time to prevent a virus that will wipe out humanity. Chaos ensues.
Of course, Syfy hasn’t exactly had a great track record, either. In their post-Battlestar Galactica years, Syfy (they’ve also re-branded since that time) has become known for schlocky Twitter-bait like Sharknado — less science fiction than cheap, barely scientific nonsense. But the channel wanted to be relevant again, and saw 12 Monkeys, alongside higher-class stablemates like Helix and Ascension, as a path forward. There were a few obstacles: 1) How to adapt the deep strangeness and bleakness of the film; 2) How to stretch the central conflict out over multiple seasons; 3) How to do that in a twisty timey-wimey narrative without creating fatal plot holes.
[Light spoilers follow!]
I’m happy to report that, halfway through its first season, 12 Monkeys is succeeding. The science is well-thought out, and the plot, while not exactly giving the impression it can go on indefinitely, is well-paced. Most of all, it’s just fun. As Cole, Stanford has a beleaguered, Sawyer-from-Lost swagger, ping-ponging (or “splintering”) with grim humor back and forth from 2035, where a few of what remains of humanity struggle to survive, to 2015, where Cole attempts to prevent the viral outbreak. He has the eventual trust and help of Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), a virologist whose knowledge and access are essential to his mission, even if — after Cole, first appearing to her too soon, abandons her for several months — he totally wrecks her life. In the future (or his present), the architect of this scheme is a woman named Jones (Barbara Sukowa), who at first sees Cole as just the latest guinea pig for her failed experimentation until he proves his usefulness.
Fittingly, there are a million ways to tell a time travel story, whether by allowing your characters to rewrite history (Back to the Future), or by Lost‘s “whatever happened, happened,” or by creating alternate timelines (Fringe). At this point in the series, 12 Monkeys has dabbled with all of these options, as we make each new discovery along with the characters. It’s messy (not so messy that you need a flowchart), but it’s also holding to its own internal logic, which is critical. Cole is injected with drugs that make him more impervious to paradoxes, but not from the nosebleeds that follow, or from being rudely yanked out of timelines when the machine calls him back; in the premiere, he scratches Railly’s watch in the past while also holding the same watch from the future, and we see the scratch simultaneously appear on both faces. In the most recent episode, Cole — who is dangerously crossing his own timeline — watches himself take a bullet, and reacts when a wound suddenly appears on his own shoulder. In this way, the time travel seems to work similarly to Looper, a film I loved for all its nuttiness, but that waved away any plot confusion with an almost literal “please just don’t think about it.”
There’s also the feeling of a ticking clock, as Cole’s body slowly deteriorates with each successive trip. By now, he and Railly have identified the origin of the virus and destroyed a lab, but the future remains unchanged (well, sort of–in “The Red Forest,” Railly gets killed, creating an alternate, even-bleaker future, and Cole has to fix that, too). He’s been sent to locations all around the globe — North Korea, Russia, Haiti — in pursuit of the elusive, mysterious “Army of the 12 Monkeys.” The tangled web of governmental conspiracies expands, and the primary villain (Tom Noonan, clearly having a great time as “The Pallid Man”) is now only a small piece of a larger plan. But the story plows ahead confidently, rarely stopping for breath; we still know precious little about the histories and inner lives of the characters, but we buy into their relationships through smaller, humanizing moments. The tandem of Cole and his best friend, Ramsey (an always-welcome Kirk Acevedo) is the show’s strength, and they have a brotherly, frequently witty (as “tough guys” go) repartee.
The performances are largely good (even Emily Hampshire, in a gender-swapped update of the Brad Pitt role from the film, is unnerving), though Schull as Cassandra falls into the “too pretty to be a scientist” trap that plagues (heh) Syfy and its ilk. The effects are solid; the production design is interesting, while not very detailed. The show struggles with action sequences, telegraphing its surprises and using frenetic editing to paper over dodgy choreography and stunt work. Big guest stars, like Zeljko Ivanek and The Wire‘s Robert Wisdom, feel wasted. Some of the story decisions are transparent attempts at wheel-spinning, even if they occasionally lead to some cool moments: “Atari,” which took a detour as a gang of scavengers raided Cole and Jones’s facility, is actually one of the better episodes the show has done, and had no bearing on the actual plot. But, despite the flaws, I’m genuinely attached to these characters, which is everything.
For being something nobody wanted, 12 Monkeys has become something I look forward to on Friday nights: solid, Grade-B entertainment. It’s not a mindless retread of Gilliam’s film — it’s its own thing. Good effort, Syfy. Let’s keep it going.