TV Review: Syfy’s 12 Monkeys 1×01 – “Pilot”


There has been a disconcerting trend as far as new TV series are concerned. Whether it’s that we’ve run out of original ideas, enjoy beating dead horses (monkeys), or think we can improve upon things that were already fine to begin with, is unknown. What is known is that there has been a surge of TV shows based on films. Honestly, a good majority of them are crap and an obvious attempt at profit. There are a very select few that actually expand on the source material and create a universe all their own. Fargo is a perfect example of a great show that came from this process. The final result of Syfy’s newest show, 12 Monkeys, can’t be guessed yet, but if the pilot is any indicator, then the show may be destined to a future of middling returns.

Like the film version of this show, the core plot remains the same. James Cole (Aaron Stanford) travels into the past to stop the spread of a deadly plague that claims the lives of most of the world, but discovers that changing the future with limited knowledge of the past is harder than he originally thought. He goes back and enlists the help of Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), leading expert in pandemics and viral outbreaks. His original mission is to hunt down (and kill) Leland Frost, AKA Leland Goines. He is played by TV’s go-to villain actor, Zeljko Ivanek.

After splintering (jumping through time), Cole goes a couple of years into Railly’s future after he realizes he went too far back. Only seconds have passed for Cole, while Railly is forced to take the long way around. A nervous breakdown later, Railly meets Cole at the set location, and with some help find Leland. I will warn you that time is a fickle mistress that if not properly explained, leads to complete confusion. Leland dies, but there is no change in the outcome of the future. Instead, we find out from Leland that Cole had visited him decades earlier about an organization called the 12 Monkeys. This is obviously Leland’s past, but most likely Cole’s future. Paradoxes abound.

The ideas and concepts in a 1962 French short by Chris Marker called La Jetée were what inspired Terry Gilliam’s film version of Twelve Monkeys. Of course, Gilliam added more than a few of his legendary eccentricities to the production, but he kept the short’s core ideas in place. 12 Monkeys lacks these same eccentricities, but instead strives to stay truer to the dismally dystopian tone of the short it was all originally based on. It’s such a refreshing change from all the other shows creating the TV shows from the films verbatim, but that may also be its downfall. The biggest change from the film version is that it becomes a less frantic, manically energized time-traveling narrative, and instead opts to be a more restrained, controlled, detective procedural. The manic worked for the movie, but it would become tiresome if the TV show adopted the same feel. At the same time, the pilot commits a fatal sin of time traveling: predictability.

Many of the twists and turns you can pretty much guess, except for those where they commit the second fatal sin of time traveling: incoherence. Just because you can jump around in time doesn’t mean you should. If you do, there better be a damn good way of explaining every move that makes sense. 12 Monkeys fails at delivering a clear timeline for those not creating their own chronological timeline with a pad of paper and a pen while watching everything unfold. I have no doubts that it will all make sense eventually, but you can’t judge a pilot on what it has yet to deliver.

Final Thoughts: Despite its many flaws, this slightly above average Syfy show may have a future yet. With surprising deviations from the film, a more controlled take on the story, and impressive overall production values (again, for a Syfy show), 12 Monkeys warrants another chance to fix its past mistakes.

RATING: ★★★★★★(6/10 stars)



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