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DEVELOPED BY: Travis Fickett, Terry Matalas
FEATURING: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo,, Emily Hampshire, Todd Stashwick,
PLOT: In 2043, the world is decimated by a viral pandemic that occurred in the late 2010’s. Scavenger James Cole (Stanford) is recruited by Katarina Jones (Sukowa), a scientist heading Project Splinter, which can send a person back in time. Cole is sent back to 2015 in the hope that he can prevent the outbreak. He encounters virologist Cassandra “Cassie” Railly (Schull) and enlists her help. They discover that things are not easy, as their attempts to prevent the outbreak are repeatedly foiled by the “Army of The 12 Monkeys” and their leader, “The Witness,” who has a grander plan in mind.
COMMENTS: “The best adaptations of IP aren’t in slavish service to their source material but are inspired by that material to say something new — something personal, something genuine. I’ve come to learn that adapting doesn’t have to be an act of re-creation. Just gratitude. We wanted to take our love of Gilliam’s film and with the advantage of a longer form narrative, more deeply explore what it made us hope and believe about the nature of time.”–series co-creator Terry Matalas.
The “12 Monkeys” series was inspired by the feature film Twelve Monkeys (1995). Generally, no one looks forward to television series based on popular films, although it’s a long established TV subgenre. It’s hard enough making a GOOD film that can hold an audience’s interest; with a television series, one has to repeat that success on a weekly basis, AND maintain quality for several years—if things go well for everyone. Some get lucky & hit gold (“M*A*S*H,” “Friday Night Lights”) while most others crash and burn and end up in the cultural dustbin.
So when it was announced that there would be a series based on Twelve Monkeys on SyFy, the initial reaction wasn’t favorable. After all, the movie was directed by , who puts his distinctive visual style even on what would be considered “work for hire” projects—which Twelve Monkeys technically was (David and Janet Peoples’ based their script on Chris Marker‘s 1932 short La Jetee). With Gilliam having no involvement whatsoever in the new show, it makes perfect sense that most fans would consider it a dubious enterprise.
So, it was a pleasant surprise to watch the first episode in January 2015 and not find it inept and horrible; in fact, it was interesting enough to wonder how long it could sustain itself before collapsing into The Suck. Fortunately, it never did. Over four seasons, “12 Monkeys” kept its promise to its audience to provide quality storytelling. They knew to leave at the top of their game, as opposed to grinding down to mediocrity. It found a loyal and dedicated (if not large) audience. That may change now that the entire series has been released in one package—perfect for binging during a pandemic!
Obviously, watching the show in 2020 is different than watching it during its original broadcast. Several moments are uncomfortably prescient (newspaper headlines from 2019, a character who travels back to 2020, face mask in place)—moments give the show an added grounding in reality that didn’t exist beforehand.
The first season encapsulates the basic premise from the film: James Cole is sent back in time to find the origin of a virus the devastates the future. Throughout the four seasons, there are callbacks and Easter-eggs to the film version—most notably, a guest appearance by Madeline Stowe in Season 2. But as a continuing series, the show needed to establish its own identity from the start, and it does so with one major difference from the film. The show’s emphasis is on attempting to prevent the pandemic from ever happening, in the process discovering the existence of a group (the Army of the 12 Monkeys) whose goal is to bring on the pandemic as a step in a larger end game, which evolves over the next three seasons. Instead of the noose-tightening fatalism from the film—where it’s made clear that there is no changing historical events that have already taken place—the series dangles the possibility of changing the timeline. It runs through many of the tropes of time-travel stories where characters do things intending to change the future, only to find that they actually don’t—that their actions are actually in service of time and timeline. The fatalism doesn’t entirely disappear, but there is there is hope, and the possibility that hope will be rewarded; themes that resonates strongly, especially seen in 2020.
Added pluses for the show include a strong female presence; all of the major and supporting female roles are well-written and performed. The dramatic situations are serious, but the “12 Monkeys” has a sense of humor that’s well utilized—there’s a refreshing amount of cheek in castingas a recurring guest star in Season 3 and 4, and in tweaking one of the oldest clichés in time-travel stories in the Season 4 episode, “Die Glocke.” That episode is easily the weirdest installment of the series, as well as the one that comes closest to jumping the shark; but it works within the show’s established universe and serves as a good palate-cleanser before the series goes into its finale.
The acting is top notch. The leads make the roles their own, not attempting to replicate their film predecessors. Special mention goes to series regulars Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines (gender-swapped from‘s film character), Barbara Sukowa as Katarina Jones, Todd Stashwick as Deacon; recurring roles from Tom Noonan, Alisen Down, Jay Karnes and James Callis; guest stars Zeljko Ivanek and Xander Berkeley; as well as the special turns from Stowe and Lloyd.
All four seasons were individually released on disc, but Mill Creek Entertainment has just gathered all four years together in one convenient package. It includes extras present in those previous releases: deleted scenes for all four seasons; features and webisodes for Seasons 1 and 2; and commentaries on some episodes from Season 2. One notable and welcome addition to the set is subtitles, which weren’t present on the previous sets.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“12 Monkeys takes the good stuff from the movie (an overriding sense of dread, a refusal to dumb things down for the viewer, characters for whom you can root) and builds upon it, creating a driving narrative that only occasionally confuses — in the best way possible — when skipping back and forth in time.”–Kimberly Roots, TV Line (Series premiere)