Syfy is trying to get its mojo back. With a noticeable dearth of quirkier selections on its line-up in the past few months, the network promised a return-to-form of sorts in 2015 (which pretty much means, “Hey you liked Battlestar Galactica, right?!”) They started with Ascension as a holiday mini-series event, which, despite some iffy writing and stiff acting, was twisty, entertaining television for most of its run. Now the network has 12 Monkeys, an adaptation of the Terry Gilliam film from the mid-nineties that not many people saw but everyone who did loved. And honestly, I could see the same fate befalling Syfy’s new effort if the show, beyond its pilot, manages to knock down the dominoes it sets up.
Taking the Bruce Willis role is Aaron Stanford as time-traveler James Cole. He’s from 2043, a future where most of humanity was wiped out by a horrific plague and only a select few survivors immune to the disease live in struggle and starvation. He’s tasked by a group of people behind something called Project Splinter to travel back in time and prevent the plague from ever happening in the first place by killing the man they believe is the disease’s creator.
Cole eventually meets Amanda Schull’s Cassandra Railly, an up-and-coming doctor with a specialty in virology. He kidnaps her, performs some paradox-level shenanigans with her wristwatch, and then vanishes into thin air, giving her a time and place to meet in two years after getting shot in the gut by the cops. Two years later, he stumbles into the hotel they planned to meet at, still bleeding out from the bullet wound. The show’s trippy, if narratively wobbly, tip-toeing of the rules of its time travel are fun to navigate. That is, until you realize that the pilot won’t be giving up any of its goods any time soon.
The premiere puts an uncomfortable, disorienting focus on Cassandra’s viewpoint of things, undoubtedly a narrative trick to shock and confuse the audience along with her. But there are not enough bread crumbs on this trail, not enough of a tantalizing promise at the end to fully pull you into the episode. It drops hints of the titular “Army of the 12 Monkeys,” but even an eleventh hour attempt at surprising us sits as wholly predictable on the shock-meter. It’s one of those, “Well, duh, otherwise the show would be over” moments that’s easy to loathe. The showrunners are most likely waiting for future episodes to put more focus on Cole’s team of scientists sending him back in time, but I can’t help but to think that setting the pilot from his point of view instead of Cassandra’s could have resulted in a bit more coherence overall.