If you tune into the third season of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys this weekend, and you’re only familiar with Terry Gilliam’s 1995 movie of the same name, you may be a little lost. You remember James Cole, the time traveler who’s ventured back from a post-apocalyptic future; that’s the guy Bruce Willis played, right? But now he’s running around a huge time-traveling fortress, looking for his girlfriend, who happens to be pregnant from their hookup … in a version of 1957 that was later erased. What the hell is going on?
Fear not. That 12 Monkeys has almost nothing to do with Gilliam’s movie by now is an excellent thing for all of us who love time-travel adventures. Season three signals that the TV show is not only tossing out the last vestiges of Gilliam, but also going gloriously, startlingly out of control.
The show as conceived had nothing to do with 12 Monkeys, but Syfy asked creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett to turn their unrelated time-travel pitch into an adaptation of Gilliam’s film. So the first season started out like a faithful cover version, albeit one with some noticeable changes: Brad Pitt’s unhinged Jeffrey Goines became Emily Hampshire’s wonderfully frenetic Jennifer Goines. But as time went by, Matalas and Fickett forged their own path, serving up plot twist after mind-boggling plot twist.
By now, of course, the TV version has a much denser mythology than the film. You can’t stretch two hours and three acts into a dozen hours worth of story without adding more characters—or, even better, more unexpected tributaries and repercussions. The same way the X-Men universe is freer to become weirder and more expansive in Legion than in a tentpole movie, a movie-to-TV adaptation can explore a lot of dark corners. But 12 Monkeys has gone even further, building a twisted family saga about the end of the world, with an impressive ability to keep audiences guessing at its deep mysteries and wondering at the latest gonzo development. The hard part, though, is keeping the characters consistent, recognizable, and utterly sympathetic, while the relationships among them grow richer and more complex.
So, about that paradoxical pregnancy. (Remember, kids: Bring a condom to every alternate timeline you visit.) Last season, viewers learned that the show’s heroes, James Cole (Aaron Stanford) and Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), are destined to be the parents of the Witness, the show’s ultimate villain who will one day bring about the end of the world. As season three begins, Cassie’s pregnant with the Witness, and she’s been captured by the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Most “evil pregnancy” storylines turn out horribly (just ask Cordelia on Angel), but this is the rare example that manages to avoid feeling too manipulative or reductive. And for most of season three, Cole and Railly are chasing their son through time, not sure if they want to kill him or redeem him. (If you do want to jump into 12 Monkeys‘ timestream, you’re going to have to give up all your free time: Syfy decided to show the entire third season this weekend, in a marathon that’s meant to duplicate the experience of binge-watching on Netflix.)
After declaring independence from Gilliam over the course of season one and plunging deeper into the show’s dark mythos in season two, the writers of 12 Monkeys have some newfound swagger. Early on, there’s a musical number (to Nena’s “99 Luftballons”) that’s one of the most thrillingly weird things I’ve seen in ages. Later in the season, there’s a moment where James Cole (Aaron Stanford) is fighting someone, but a second Cole sneaks up behind his opponent and surprises him, just as the first Cole disappears.
In fact, the new season is chock full of “can they DO that?” moments with time travel—and that joyful abandon is ultimately what sets the show apart from Gilliam’s film. The 1995 movie, itself inspired by the haunting 1962 French film La Jetee, approaches time travel with a dutiful fatalism: you can’t change the past, which leaves Cole’s fate set in stone. Syfy’s show flung that notion into the time vortex early on, though, opting instead for a time travel theory much closer to Back to the Future, or Doctor Who. While some things are harder to alter than others, everything’s redeemable; an adept time traveler can rewrite history up the wazoo.
That “anything goes” insouciance doesn’t stop at changing the past. The show revels in indulging every batshit thing the writers can think of with time travel, including a paradox involving a turtle, a clever use of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and some truly poignant moments in which people confront their own pasts. And the Army of the 12 Monkeys has long since evolved from random maniacs to ultra-sophisticated time-travel cult, armed with a map of history that the Time Bandits would have given Napoleon’s gold for.
Most time travel stories try to operate by a strict set of rules in order to prevent gratuitous reset buttons and easy fixes. (Or else they’re comedies, like Bill and Ted, or Hot Tub Time Machine.) But few TV shows have gone as joyfully berserk with a time machine as Monkeys — and that ability to run amok, while still making us care about the characters and the heartbreaking choices they face, is a bit of a miracle. It doesn’t go back in time to erase Gilliam’s existential bleakness, but it does fold that dark tone into a larger, more ambitious project that also offers hope, human connection, and the consolations of philosophy. After all, who wants to sail head-on into the apocalypse without those things?
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