January 15, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “12 Monkeys”


12 MONKEYS:  Friday 9PM on Syfy – If Nothing Else Is On…

Last year, the writer/producer Noah Hawley miraculously inhabited Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo, creating something that was original and yet satisfyingly true to the vision of two of the most distinctive filmmakers around.

Lightning doesn’t strike that way for Syfy’s 12 MONKEYS.

The 1995 12 Monkeys represents, with The Fisher King, Terry Gilliam’s most accessible filmmaking (and one of his very few financial successes).  Although it’s unmistakably his work, both visually and thematically, he had an intelligent, imaginative and emotionally forceful script by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples as his blueprint, itself audaciously inspired by Chris Marker’s avant-garde short La Jetee, which is almost completely constructed from still photos that are linked into a story by narration.  The TV version, created by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett (mid-level writers on Nikita and Terra Nova) and run as a series by veteran writer/producer Natalie Chaidez (everything from Heroes to The Client List to In Plain Sight To Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), is faithful to its forebears only in the must mundane sense.

The basic plot is the same.  In the year 2043, Earth has been all but extinguished by a plague.  Scientists send Cole (Bruce Willis in the movie, now Aaron Stanford of Nikita) back in time to stop the pandemic before it can begin, by killing the person who set it loose, with the sometimes-reluctant help of scientist Railly (Madeleine Stowe in 1995, now Amanda Schull), a quest which has something to with the mysterious “Army of the 12 Monkeys” and the powerful Goines family.  Along the way, Cole loses his heart to Railly and learns his destiny.

The Syfy team has reduced 12 Monkeys to little more than its time-travel thriller bones.  Both Gilliam’s and Marker’s films are sufussed with a romantic fatalism and, in Gilliam’s case, with his trademark lyrical ugliness.  The two films’ plots are literally closed-end, and much of their impact comes from the door that shuts on Cole and his nameless parallel in Marker’s short during the final moments.  While the Fargo TV series, structured in a miniseries format (future seasons will tell different although related stories), was able to retain a sense of the original’s closure, this 12 Monkeys is intended as a continuing series, so its emphasis is on solving the mystery of the 12 Monkeys, the most gimmicky part of the narrative.

Gilliam is a cackling pessimist with a cartoonist’s soul but a deeply romantic heart, and his 12 Monkeys is both dire and cheerful, while the TV version is merely grim.  Nor can anyone involved on the production side come close to replicating the extraordinary cluttered grandeur of Gilliam’s visual sense.  Pilot director Jeffrey Reiner, a very talented TV helmer whose credits include Friday Night Lights and The Affair, is stronger on moodiness than spectacle, and the production has the bland medium-budget look of many USA/Syfy series.

12 Monkeys the movie was one of those projects where Bruce Willis was engaged enough to really give a performance, and his haunted, desperate convict includes some of the best work of his career.  Stanford’s performance is very minor stuff compared to that.  Much the same is true of Stowe and Schull.  (Brad Pitt’s madman movie character has been transposed into one played by Emily Hampshire, who is only glimpsed at the very end of the pilot.)   There are no interesting new characters introduced in the pilot, and reliable guest star Zeljko Ivanek isn’t around for very long.

12 Monkeys is far from the worst drama Syfy has aired in recent years, and perhaps it will prove to have more control of its material than the recent Ascension, which started well and then went haywire.  This 12 Monkeys, though, tries to draw on our affection for the movie that inspired it, and unfortunately for the TV version, no time-travel is necessary to see how much superior that one was.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."