12 Monkeys opens with a string of rhetorical questions issued in James Cole’s tired, mournful voice over the strains of Otis Redding’s “These Arms Of Mine.” What if your life were destroyed? You’d “do things, horrible things” things to survive, wouldn’t you? “What if you could take it back, all of it? A reset switch. You’d hit it, right? You’d have to.”
It’s not clear to whom these questions are addressed: The viewer? James Cole, speaking to himself from some remove of time or circumstance? Another character as yet unidentified? The show doesn’t know, or even care. They’re just questions. They sound pointed, even profound, and they give 12 Monkeys’ first moments a semblance of emotional heft, as if it’s pondering the moral and existential ambiguity of its protagonist’s task.
But moral ambiguity and emotional heft aren’t the currency of Syfy’s new series, at least not in its pilot episode. 12 Monkeys makes an effort to distinguish itself in plot and tone from the Terry Gilliam film, and eschewing the film’s chaotic timeline and moral complexity is only part of that departure.
Let’s sum up the differences so we can get past them. In Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis’ James Cole is a traumatized, barely functional prisoner conscripted for a time travel errand gathering information about the plague that wiped out civilization. He’s cannon fodder, a cog, a catspaw. In Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, James Cole (Aaron Stanford) isn’t a stumbling, ticcing prisoner sent blithely by bureaucrats to probable self-destruction, but a coolly competent agent who may hold the power to prevent the devastation. He’s destined to take this journey. He’s special, and his training makes him more special still. “Everyone else is bound by time,” his recruiter tells him, “Not you. Not even the paradox can hold you now.”
Changing the character of Kathryn Railly, prominent psychiatrist, to Cassandra Railly, discredited virologist, gives Dr. Railly (Amanda Schull) more potential insight into the future pandemic (and adds a glib symbolism to her name), but it also fundamentally alters the dynamic between the two. Madeleine Stowe’s Dr. Railly regards Cole with professional fascination tinged by fear, distaste, and sympathy, giving powerful weight to both her dawning trust and her self-doubt. It’s a heady mixture of faith and confusion.
There’s little faith and little confusion in the series pilot, and little character to speak of. It’s a time-travel procedural with Cole as the laconic gumshoe stealthily tracking a handful of clues through the past, boasting a faint sneer and a killer right hook. He proves himself to Railly with calm efficiency, performing a trick with two identical watches that persuades her to meet him in the future. Her future.
The script distinguishes between his past and her future with brisk practicality, rarely availing itself of the natural discomfort, dread, or even humor inherent in the idea. (One welcome exception: After using her two impossible watches to spark an explosion, a sort of paradox-bomb that allows them to escape a tight spot, Cole reminds Cassie to keep track of the watch. “It’s going to save our ass again a minute ago.”)
The pilot episode is so focused on laying out its plot strokes and broad character summaries that there’s little room left for personality, for idiosyncrasy, for quirks and caprices. It’s understandable that the series wants to make a clean start instead of freighting itself with its inspiration’s symbols and themes, but it’s more than stripped down. It’s sterile.
As Leland Goines, titan of industry and suspected source of the pandemic, Željko Ivanek injects a few glimmers of humanity into a cookie-cutter bad-guy persona. “What do I do that is so monumental that the laws of physics are broken to send you chasing after me?” is a mouthful of a line, but Ivanek endows it with a quavering doubt that—if only briefly—shakes the magnate’s assurance. His follow-up, a crisp “Nothing personal, Cole, I just… gotta cut you up” made me laugh out loud.
So did the subsequent action sequence, but that was unintended. Bringing together a time-traveling object with its paradoxical twin to create an explosion is a little silly and a little ingenious, a diversion created from sheer untenable coexistence. But the human reaction to the event should be clear and comprehensible. It’s one thing to be told Cole has been enhanced into an unstoppable fighting machine, but another to see him take down a gaggle of security guards who just stand there taking punches, or watch him fireman-carry his limp heroine to safety in a flabby slo-mo sequence while the gunmen stare idly around trying to figure out where to aim their weapons. Presumably, they’re dazed by the phenomenon exploding around them, but if so, the show needs to convey it better.
The whole episode suffers from this kind of lax construction in matters big and small. It’s hard to imagine Cassie’s best strategy for tracking down a mysterious time traveler who’s appointed her to “come find me” at a hotel two years in the future, but sitting at the bar with her back to the entrance and her eyes mostly cast down, getting sloshed on old fashioneds, doesn’t seem ideal. This choice could give some much-needed depth to Cassie’s role—shown her self-medicating a long-nursed trauma, or soothing frayed nerves, or just clinging to respectability. But like almost everything else in 12 Monkeys, Cassie’s wait at the bar is just a rote scene, marking time until the plot gets ticking again.
And the plot does tick, just like Cassie’s crucial watch. It’s a tight story, conveyed with clarity. Sure, it gums up the works with a paradox or two in passing. (Where exactly does the search for The Army Of The 12 Monkeys originate? It’s included in Cassie’s 2043 recording, but she first hears the name in 2015 from Leland Goines, who heard it from Cole in 1985.) But so far, 12 Monkeys isn’t in the business of contemplating paradoxes, ontological or otherwise. Instead, it acknowledges them the way a heist movie acknowledges the gelignite that blows a vault open, as a useful tool to keep the story moving.
- As James Cole, Aaron Stanford looks like the offspring of Sam Rockwell and Charlie Day. (With his scruffy beard, I almost didn’t recognize him as Mad Men’s gleaming, smug Horace Cook, Jr., but his distinctive voice clued me in.) I wish the antic gleam in his eyes were allowed to take over the rest of his face, which is stuck in a permanent sneer of guarded anxiety.
- Cassandra Railly drinks old fashioneds. Because she’s part of the past.
- If physical tokens of paradox function like small bombs, why isn’t Cole rifling every scene in search of them? I’d be loading my pockets with fountain pens and jewelry, hoping to light a metaphorical fuse every time I needed to escape.
- Robert Wisdom deserves better than delivering 70 seconds of exposition.
- Chekhov’s monkey: I assume the isolated spot (“you, me, a cabin, no phones, no email”) Aaron Marker (Noah Bean) mentions in his plans to “make it up” to Cassie will be used as a hideout later in the series.