Syfy’s 12 Monkeys: Series Premiere Review

With a refreshingly understated beginning, 12 Monkeys delivers solid performances and a compelling twist on a classic time travel tale.

I sincerely thought Syfy was wasting its time taking an already classic time-travel movie, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, and making it into a TV show, especially since the movie adheres to the theory that says one can’t change the future.

In fact, one may actually cause the future one intends to prevent. So how can a television series avoid this causal loop from spoiling any potential payoff for the audience? Fortunately, Syfy has masterfully conceived a new twist on the original tale that handily dismisses the concerns of time travel obsessives like me, and the pilot pulls viewers along a compelling new narrative path that promises great things to come.

Science fiction fans love to complain about overly elaborate exposition spoiling a pilot, but they also fixate on unexplained or inconsistent details. Walking that knife edge is a delicate thing for writers, especially with the intricacies inherent in time travel stories, where the characters need to explain the rules the show will be following without getting bogged down in them.

[Related Article: A visit to the set of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys]

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Ironically, the main character in 12 Monkeys, James Cole, played by Bruce Willis in the movie and reprised with brooding aplomb by Aaron Stanford in this show, proves he’s from the future by scratching the face of a watch owned by fellow protagonist, Dr. Cassandra Railly. When the same watch obtained from the future magically receives a duplicate scratch, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a similar technique used in another Bruce Willis time-travel movie, Looper. In any case, this occurrence neatly eliminates the causal loop, proving the future can be changed. The movie-and-series comparison problem disappears, and the new rules are set in place with almost no excessive or overbearing dialogue.

Considering the fact that an episodic show has much more time to develop the investigation than a movie, the pilot certainly hits the ground running. The passage of two years in the blink of an eye, for example, allows Dr. Railly to recruit an NSA colleague of her father to help investigate the identity of the man believed to have caused the viral outbreak that has decimated Cole’s future. The supporting cast, in fact, all deliver casually understated but fundamentally strong performances, giving the show a solid pace that is deeply engaging.

The strength of the show, though, has to be in its expert use of flashbacks, an often overused technique that can destroy a narrative. The explanation for the origins of the time-travel technology is swift; the medical procedure which immunizes Cole to paradoxes and accelerates his healing is dropped in and left alone; and the garbled message from the CDC version of Dr. Railly (who intriguingly has been unmade due to Cole’s appearance in the past) plants the seed for audience interest in the deeper mystery.

Also expertly handled are the time travel special effects. Flickering lights, a subtle glow, and slow motion can be a lot more effective than explosions and flashy lens flare. I have to wonder how often Cole will be able to create paradoxes to paralyze his enemies while his immunity allows him to get clear of its effects. Can’t return to that well too often, I imagine.

Most of all, 12 Monkeys has engaging, likable characters, especially in its leads, Cole and Railly. Amanda Schull plays the doctor’s disbelief and subsequent conspiratorial assistance with quiet assurance, and the aforementioned Aaron Stanford makes viewers forget all about Bruce Willis in the role.

The question now is: will Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines, the female version of the Brad Pitt character in the movie, make us forget Pitt’s Golden Globe-winning performance? I certainly have more confidence than I would have thought possible prior to viewing this promising pilot. Here’s to hoping for more stellar episodes like this one!

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5 out of 5