There’s a weird, wonderful beauty to be found in a television show that just completed a four-season run in the era of “too much TV” and only exists thanks to a ’60s French art film. Technically, of course, the Syfy original series “12 Monkeys” is far more indebted to the 1995 film starring Bruce Willis and Madeline Stowe, but every episode includes a mention of the 1962 short “La Jeteé” in the final credits — and more importantly, echoed that basic weirdness in its very existence.
Keeping many of the same character names from the film, the show took the original premise — a man gets sent from the future to stop the spread of a deadly virus, with the help of a modern-day doctor — and warped itself with time loops, alternate universes, and crazy twists that required a conspiracy-board-level of attention to detail to understand, but was a lot of fun to follow.
Like many modern-day sci-fi shows, “12 Monkeys” loved to talk about its mysteries with the use of proper nouns that require capital letters: The Messenger, The Witness, The Primaries. Quickly developing a dense mythology on top of the time-travel antics, the most important part of the viewing experience proved to be keeping track of the years as they went by; while realities were constantly in flux, knowing if it was 1957 or 2043 at least set up some degree of expectation.
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There are a lot of ways to nitpick the show to death, from the nebulous concept of Time as a tangible presence to the fact that despite bopping all around the 20th century, Cole (Aaron Stanford) never felt compelled to get a period-appropriate haircut. But to over-scrutinize the series — or for its hero to trim his outdated ‘do — would be to overlook the enjoyment of the experience itself, and the obvious love that the creators and cast had for their show.
“12 Monkeys” is, unfortunately, the sort of show that can slip through the cracks (even for a dedicated sci-fi fan), but coming to the show now, just before its series finale, proved to be a great experience. There is something pleasurable about bingeing your way through a series that’s guaranteed a beginning, a middle, and a definite end. The ability to consume entire seasons has been possible ever since the advent of TV on DVD, but because of the way the industry works, it’s not all that often a show is constructed in the same fashion as a novel or holds together with that same level of energy.
So when you sit down and do something somewhat mad like watch all 47 episodes of “12 Monkeys” in five days, it has the intensity of a long hazy afternoon with a good book — the sort of storytelling experience that fully absorbs your attention.
The love story between James Cole and Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) was, to be expected, a major emotional undercurrent for the series’ run. But it was also impressive how other character relationships were developed, from Cole’s deep brotherly bond with longtime best friend Ramse (Kirk Acevedo) to the increasingly maternal connection semi-mad scientist Dr. Jones (Barbara Sukowa) had with all of the survivors hiding out with her at the end of the world.
Even supposed bad guys like Deacon (Todd Stashwick) got their moments in the sun, along with the show’s most exciting character: Jennifer. From the beginning, one of the show’s most interesting choices was to gender-swap the character Brad Pitt played in the film, and let Emily Hampshire run amuck. In a classic example of long-running television at its best, Jennifer grew over the course of four seasons from unhinged antagonist to, in many ways, the show’s beating heart, and Jennifer’s manic grin will be one of “12 Monkeys'” lasting legacies.
Viewers start watching a show because of the premise; they keep watching for the characters. Which means, when the end is nigh, the audience has emotional skin in the game. Ultimately, the most exciting thing about reaching the “12 Monkeys” finale was the anticipation over how things might end, not in terms of what might happen plot-wise, but what kind of note the show would go out on. A tragic but noble sacrifice? A cruel twist of fate? Ending a show is never an easy task, after all. Plenty have bowed out in unsatisfying ways.
[Editor’s note: The following portion of the article contains spoilers for the “12 Monkeys” series finale, “The Beginning.”]
So it was kind of amusing that, to quote “Wayne’s World,” the writers went with the “mega-happy ending.” After four seasons of trying to find a way to save the world — first, from the virus which initially caused the downfall of civilization, then from a cult that wants to end the concept of time itself — the final answer becomes inevitable: Cole must be erased from the timeline.
It’s an ending executed with a bittersweet finality, as Cassie still remembers loving Cole but otherwise he no longer exists, with the rest of the world returned to relative normality. However, immediately after a loving montage paying tribute to all of the show’s characters, including many who have been lost for some time, the show goes ahead and drops an extra coda: Dr. Jones figured out a way to let Cole come back to the world
Does it feel slightly convenient? Sure. Is it nice that all of our friends ended up living happily ever after? You bet. “12 Monkeys” is a sweet ride with plenty of moments to reward continued attention. Not many shows would have the balls to set a massive action scene to “I’ve Had The Time of My Life,” or make “Don’t You Forget About Me” one of its enduring theme songs. In many ways, “12 Monkeys” embraced its genre nature on a level that’s under-appreciated these days: a show that just flat-out wants to have a good time.