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REVIEW: 12 Monkeys (Season 1, 2015) January 14, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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12 MONKEYS

SEASON 1 (2015)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

The author of this review often experienced his own tastes and opinions clashing with those of his fellow cinephiles. One of the most extreme examples is Terry Gilliam’s filmography. For me, many of Gilliam’s most beloved or cherished films often look like a grotesque exercise of style over substance. This is one of the reasons why I consider 12 Monkeys to be the best of all Gilliam’s work and one of the best 1990s films in general; in it Gilliam was actually restrained and didn’t allow himself to endulge in unecessary spectacle at the expense of David and Janet Peoples’ script. That script was so good, so intelligent and so coherent that it is rather unsurprising to see it as a basis of a television remake.

The show, produced by Syfy Channel, in broadest terms follows the basic plot of the film. In 2017 cataclysmic pandemic, caused by ever-mutating viral strain, wiped out almost entire humanity, reducing survivors to barbarity in post-apocalyptic wasteland. In few little pockets of civilisation one small group of dedicated scientists managed to build a time machine and in 2043 launched a project with the aim of stopping the plague before it even begins. The mission is given to James Cole (played by Aaron Stanford) who travels back to 2015 and tries to locate the genetically engineered viral strain and stop the people who deliberately released it from their labs. Cole’s main clue is connected to virologist Dr. Cassandra Railly (played by Amanda Schull), who is, at first skeptical towards the claims of an obviously unsophisticated and unpleasantly violent stranger. Her doubts quickly dissipate and she begins helping him, having to deal not only with the often confusing side-effects and paradoxes of time travel, but also with increasingly complex mystery and sinister organisation called Army of Twelve Monkeys.

Inevitable comparisons between acclaimed feature films and television shows usually tend to favour the former. In case of Twelve Monkeys passage of two decades helped the show creators by setting new standards of special effects, production and storytelling. The show might not look like much, especially during first episodes, but the impression steadily improves. The plot takes place during two distinct periods – pre-plague (or “past”) and post-plague (“the present” or “future”) – with latter taking place mostly in interiors and the exteriors being the usual bleak post-apocalyptic settings that could be recreated without much use of special effects or some futuristic props. More problematic comparisons, at least during the first episodes, are between two casts. Aaron Stanford simply doesn’t have the same charisma and stature Bruce Willis had and it takes some time for his non-sympathetic character to develop. Amanda Schull, former ballerina best known for her role in Center Stage, is, on the other hand, looks too beautiful to be taken seriously as major scientist, which is the problem Madeleine Stowe didn’t have in the film version. However, by the end of the season, both those characters develop enough depth and chemistry for both actors to deliver credible and, at times, very powerful story.

While doing so, they are aided by equally powerful cast. Show creators make first major departure by switching the gender of a mentally disturbed character played by Brad Pitt in the film version; instead we get deliciously and, at times, menacingly insane character of literally mad scientist played by very impressive Emily Hampshire. Kirk Acevedo, on the other hand, gives another strong performance as Cole’s best friend and partner who also serves as his moral anchor and whose gradual transformation in the few last episodes of the season represent one of better twists in recent television dramas. The most impressive is, however, Barbara Sukowa, German actress who became famous four decades ago as Fasbbinder’s muse; in the beginning of 12 Monkeys she plays a character of cold, uncaring scientist which is hard to like and only gradually the viewers begin to warm to her while discover some very personal motives for her project. Sukowa is equally impressive while playing decades younger version of herself under heavy make-up, a task required by the script that deals with time travel but that could easily turn the show into unintentional parody.

The biggest asset of the show is, however, the script. It belongs to the “harder” strains of science fiction, or, in other words, takes the concept of time travel as seriously as such concept could be taken. So, time travelers, like protagonist, must act within frustratingly limited parameters of a single timeline; show creators, on the other hand, must pay extra attention to continuity with even the least significant details of each scene being consistent with what was only hinted in the timeline’s past or future. Apart from a single episode that briefly takes a place in an alternate universe, 12 Monkeys doesn’t dare to challenge so-called Grandfather Paradox, even if it means that the protagonists, despite their nominal mission actually can’t stop the apocalypse or prevent their loved ones dying in sometimes quite unpleasant ways (with new and more permissive television standards allowing for explicit violence, as well rather explicit language). Because everything in this show appears to be connected, discovering or anticipating such connections is something that could stimulate the audience and engage viewers’ intellects as well as emotions. 12 Monkeys also fits the concept of science fiction as the genre of ideas, and behind all the drama is eternal philosophical debate between predestination and free will. Rarely, even in today’s Golden Age of Television, we have opportunity to witness such debates in form of television drama. 12 Monkeys used such opportunity well in its first season and we might hope that such opportunity won’t be squandered in the second.

RATING: 7/10

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