After an exhausting day spent wandering the New York Comic-Con floor last Friday, Syfy offered me sanctuary in the form of comfy theater chairs and a sneak preview of their upcoming television reboot, 12 Monkeys. Based off Terry Gilliam’s popular film (Twelve Monkeys), showrunners Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas are looking to bring a hard science fiction bite to Syfy’s regularly scheduled programming, repurposing a famous genre brand in the process. While I can’t unleash a full review due to the show’s January 16th series debut, I am allowed to give you my initial thoughts on the entire pilot episode without spoiling any of the super-juicy details.
I’m not exactly sure if Gilliam is thrilled about the show’s existence, but the pilot sufficiently establishes a world that hits upon the 1995 classic while tweaking a few major points for a reinvigorated experience. Motives are established, an apocalyptic world is built, and intrigue mounts as the episode progresses – in other words, it does everything a proper pilot should do.
Aaron Stanford steps in as the time-traveling ex-con James Cole, tasked with stopping a catastrophic plague from destroying Earth before it even happens. Amanda Schull plays Cassandra Railly (a riff on Kathryn Railly), the doctor who unknowingly holds key information that Cole requires if his preventative action plan is to be carried out. The name Leland Frost is thrown around by Cole, as he thinks killing this Frost character might stop whatever tragedy is about to unfold, but nothing is ever that easy. As Cole and Railly build their partnership, they uncover a conspiracy that goes far beyond Leland Frost, which leads to the inevitable introduction of a radical group known only as the “12 Monkeys.”
If Stanford and Schull can ensure their established chemistry continues throughout the whole series, then 12 Monkeys is in good hands. All the usual time-travel yucks are incorporated into a trippy story about altering history in order to save millions of lives, and a strong leading duo is formed by the episode’s end. Standford doesn’t exactly possesses the physical imposition of Bruce Willis, the character’s original actor, but his performance still manages an ample intensity that avoids being overshadowed by Willis’ name. We’ll see how the show’s focal relationship plays out as Railly becomes more comfortable with the notion of time-jumping being real, but the pilot does its due diligence to establish watchable heroes that audiences should have no problem rooting for.
While the first episode doesn’t exactly reveal any true glimpses of the 12 Monkeys, we are introduced to Brad Pitt’s counterpart – Emily Hampshire. Yup, the television show goes all gender-bender and turns Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines into Jennifer Goines, which is a move I can wholly stand behind given Hampsire’s casting. While I didn’t actually care for Good Neighbors, it’s Hampshire’s derranged performance that makes the apartment complex thriller remotely watchable, and you can see some of that devilishness in her establishing moments during the pilot episode of 12 Monkeys. I’m most excited to see how Hampshire’s role progresses during the season and how far she pushes her character’s already questionable sanity, as her introduction leaves a long-lasting impression.
Going based solely off the pilot episode, there’s also a suitable balance between action and explanation, avoiding tech-heavy dialogue that might lose more mainstream viewers. Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys remains an ambitious affair even by today’s standards, as are most his films, and SyFy does make the material a bit more accessible. By breaking the story down into episodes, writers have more time to explain plot points in more detail without adhering to a feature film’s length. I’m not saying Gilliam’s material is incomprehensible, not in the least, but SyFy is able to easily guide audiences through grander genre material without losing viewers along the way. The pilot is able to aptly balance time-travel with smaller action sequences that offer momentary releases, but the show’s success will ultimately be dictated by its ability to walk that same tightrope every single episode.
Like a wide-eyed flounder looking for his next fix, SyFy cast out a lure using the 12 Monkeys pilot as bait, and they reeled me in hook, line, and sinker. Am I saying the series is going to be an undeniable success? It’s nearly impossible to predict a show’s longevity based on one simple pilot, but this inaugural episode establishes a coherent story, enjoyable characters and scientific intrigue, all without making me rant about another generic remake gone wrong. Only time will tell if Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas have a master plan to ensure constant success, but starting off on the right foot certainly settles one’s nerves for now.
Be sure to tune in when Syfy’s 12 Monkeys premieres on January 16th, at 9:00 EST!