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TV REVIEW: Syfy’s 12 Monkeys Pilot Is A Lesson In Adaptation

By on January 17, 2015

Pictured: Aaron Stanford as Cole -- Photo by: Alicia Gbur/Syfy

When discussing the future sustainability of our world, as well as the growing natural and synthetic threats against humanity’s long term survival, you’ll often hear the saying, “Our generation messed things up, and now it’s your generation’s job to fix it.”

It’s seems a bit unfair, yes? If we didn’t make the mess, why are we tasked with taking care of it? But the reality is, if we don’t, there won’t be another generation to fix anything because there won’t be another generation.

It’s a concept that Terry Gilliam’s popular cult film 12 Monkeys tackled back in 1995, and since then the movie has become a classic in post-apocalyptic cinema. So when Syfy announced that it would be developing a TV series based on one of the most popular science fiction thrillers of our time, a mixed response was almost a guarantee.

12 Monkeys as a show would have quite a lot to live up to, and not just when it came to a memorable cast of faces (and performances). The film was a near perfect mash-up of mystery, suspense and drama. The grim realism, matched with its rather simple but arresting end of days plot, made it an exciting ride.

A dark and gritty spin on the time traveling trope, 12 Monkeys focuses on one man’s attempt to re-write the past in order to prevent the complete destruction of humanity in the future. The show is not very different. James Cole’s (Aaron Stanford) mission to stop the death of seven billion people is guided by a group of scientists from 2043 who have found a way to break the laws of physics in order to save the world.

Tasked with the take down of Leland Goines (Zeljko Ivanek), the man they believe is responsible for the end of the world as they know it, Cole must go to the past. There he locates “puzzle piece” Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), the woman whose distorted recording gave clues about the virus and its origins. Together Cole and Railly must find a way to stop the virus from being released. While it seems like a simple time traveling task, the adage of “sometimes knowing the future is in fact what creates it” becomes our protagonists’ biggest problem.

But where the film and pilot stops, the series seems to want to go further. It’s a risk to expound on an already well-liked universe and many series crumble under the weight of adaptation. Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, however, has already succeeded in creating a solid and compelling small screen narrative by doing something that seems both simple and impossible. It is both different and similar from its predecessor.

The series’ main concept remains almost completely unaltered from that of the film’s, with main characters nearly retaining their names to a tee. And yet, the pilot manages to draw you in as if the concept was fresher than a freshly laid egg. It also introduces some game-changing rules to the universe, which are both clever and borderline necessary to keep the story going past two weeks.

Pictured: (l-r) Aaron Stanford as Cole, Amanda Schull as Railly -- Photo  by: Alicia Gbur/Syfy

Pictured: (l-r) Aaron Stanford as Cole, Amanda Schull as Railly — Photo by: Alicia Gbur/Syfy

Stanford plays the rough and persistent James Cole, an anti-hero who is not always appealing, but is understandable. We share his sense of urgency and root for his cause, until the major twist when both we and he have to re-evaluate the plan after a chicken or the egg situation arises. Standford manages to bring new life to the character, keeping much of the film’s personality shell while offering a slightly different energy and empathy quite fitting for the character type.

Standford offers a strong performance opposite Amanda Schull’s rather likeable and believable Dr. Railly, an intelligent and assertive woman faced with a reality that’s hard to ingest, but who does so rather quickly and rather well. While Railly comes with the potential for a looming love triangle via a handsome senator, her development throughout the episode lends a confidence that her love interest(s) will take a buckled backseat to her role as world-saver.

We also get a glimpse of a gender-swapped version of the story’s most pivotal character, the child of Goines. In the film this character is known as Jeffrey, but the series has re-imagined the major player as Jennifer (Emily Hampshire), Leland’s unstable daughter who is now the owner of all her father’s work. The role is vital to the major arc, but more importantly, her adaptation is pivotal to the show’s longevity.

Where the writers choose to take the character and what other changes they have in store for the story at large will determine how well their universe expansion is received. If a chunk of your viewers already know the endgame — and like it — how do you continue to rely on the assets of your predecessor while not falling into the copycat hole? By continuing to do exactly what the pilot did: be the same without being the same. How’s that for a paradox?

While it is pretty easy to compare the film and series to death, particularly with this first episode, it is without question the episode’s construction, both visually and narratively, that makes it most appealing. From the cinematography to dialogue, the show is polished in a way most Syfy series are not. It’s a major positive step for the network, but also for the genre as it has always struggled with finding the right balance between visual appeal, myth building and well-written drama.

Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, despite having most of its mythos already built, manages to become its own story while nailing those two other aspects many of its genre siblings fail to. Add to this the fact that the show certainly can and will explore the universe in a way the film couldn’t, and you’ve got a near perfect reason for and delivery of small screen adaptation.

12 Monkeys airs Fridays at 9/8c on Syfy.

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