12 Monkeys: "Splinter" (Season 1, Episode 1)


"What do I do that is so monumental that the laws of physics are broken to send you chasing after me?" That's a mouthful, but it's also a good line. It gives one hope for SyFy's attempt to cash in on "12 Monkeys" which manages a decidedly uneven launch tonight. Or as the Guardians of the Galaxy might say, something good, something bad, a bit of both.

The weak points all stem from going too generic. Love it or hate it, Terry Gilliam's original film is a uniquely atmospheric puzzle box that stays with you after the credits roll. So what feels wrong here? Start with the lead player, James Cole. In the movie, he was portrayed by Bruce Willis, who brought a memorably deranged vulnerability to a damaged man with real physical presence. Here we have Aaron Stafford, who brings... ???

What exactly? He stares blankly way too much, isn't very distinctive, and in the pilot episode actually forms a charisma well that the more promising parts of the show struggle to escape. Sorry Aaron, but I call it as I watched it. Add to that a number of scenes that feel like cookie cutter procedural writing, almost car commercial empty a few times, and you've got a show that could sink without a ripple.

So why might it not? The female lead, Amanda Schull as Dr. Cassandra Railley, has more on the ball. She's not exceptionally dynamic yet, but shows flashes of promise. Interesting side players, too, in Leland Goines and a marvelously mad cliffhanger look from his daughter, Jennifer. Taking "12 Monkeys" out of Gilliam's tragic ode to inevitability also makes one realize it could be interesting enough as an actual mystery. There's even promise of intrigue between the Army of the 12 Monkeys and Coles' masters back in the devastated year of 2043.

Now if we could just reach escape velocity on that charisma well.

The action begins with Dr. Cassandra Railley talking on the phone to her boyfriend, who works for a senator, as she heads to her car. There's a scruffy-looking man inside it who grabs her. Meet James Cole, who wants her to tell him about a man named Leland Frost. Cassandra holds up her end of the scene: she's flustered, scared and panicky, yet still smart enough to cry for help over the open phone line. Tries to establish rapport with her homeless captor, too. Audience empathy rolls into place.

As mentioned above, however, James is a disappointment. He just doesn't convey the edge of a man lost in time sinking under the memories of a holocaust to come. There's no urgency about him. He comes across as someone who should be in one of those droning Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials. After a bath, of course. Even when he realizes he's come too soon, that Cassandra doesn't know who Leland Frost is in 2013, he makes that realization sound like a complaint about constipation.

James does have one good moment. It's more of a nice special effect than anything he does. In trying to convince Cassandra that he really is from the future, Cole pulls out her watch as it was found in 2043. He tells her to keep her eye on it while cutting the crystal of her watch here in 2013. Nice glow worms crawl across future watch as it develops the same scratch.

James gets shot by the police before he can wink out. He tells Cassandra to find him at a hotel in Baltimore on this day in 2015, then vanishes. She's dumbfounded.

Flash forward to 2015. Cassandra is waiting at that hotel, has been for days, with the staff becoming more and more concerned about her behavior. Her career has taken a nosedive in the last two years. As has her love life. But sure enough James shows up freshly shot. Cassandra patches him up, marvels at how fast he heals, and we get the obligatory flash forward to the future as he explains himself. It seems Cassandra was working at the CDC in 2017 when the big plague hit. The future has a fragmentary message from her implicating a man named Leland Frost, who turns out to be Leland Goines for needless reasons. He's CEO of the Markridge Group, some company where he promises scientists will be the next rock stars. So hang in there all you underappreciated PhDs.  

Cassandra uses her ex boyfriend to get into a swank party involving his senator employee. She tries to talk to Leland only to have James screw everything up by trying to kill him. Cass has previously explained to Jim how dumb that approach is. Specifically, how do you know Leland isn't working with lots of other people? How do you know simply killing him will accomplish anything?

James is dumb. What can I say.

Bland and dumb. That's no way to go through life, son.

Leland has Cass and Jim delivered to some facility that looks like left over sets from last year's Helix. I suppose they were cheap. Lots of mumbo jumbo follows from scientists about how James adrenal glands are off the chart, he's a walking grand mal seizure, he's decades ahead of anything they're working on, etc. etc. Makes you think he should be more interesting.

Leland is interesting. He reveals that he recognizes James. He met him in 1987, looking just like this, and the 1987 James asked him about "The Army of the 12 Monkeys." That leads to our memorable line about breaking the laws of physics. Leland has genuine flair. Unfortunately, James just sits there like a dead trout. I could have imagined an interesting conversation at this point, especially since, you know, they need to understand Leland's role in facilitating the 2017 plague.

James is having none of that.

Leland says he'll have to cut James open to see what makes him tick. Nothing personal, of course. James offers to show him a paradox instead. He brings out Cassie's watch from the future and places it directly alongside the same watch from the present. Freaky time stuff happens, which mostly consists of everyone but James slowing down. He carries Cass to safety and kills Leland. Then he doesn't cease to be. The future hasn't changed, which means that releasing the plague in 2017 did involve more people than Leland.

Cass told you that killing Leland without any answers was stupid.

James tells Cassandra to go into hiding and disappears to the future. Back with his taskmasters in 2043, he finds old newspapers from the plague era that evidence monkey graffiti, specifically a screaming monkey face surrounded by 12 little screaming monkey faces. They have to find "The Army of the 12 Monkeys," and our show is officially launched.

Is it a good show? Not exactly. Could it be an interesting one? Maybe. Does it need a new lead actor? I'm dangerously close to saying yes, but let's give Aaron a chance to strut his stuff outside a pilot.

Nice ending, too. Leland's daughter, Jennifer Goines, is frantically drawing something in a psychiatric hospital. Some guy shows up to tell her that her father has left her a great deal of money. Jennifer looks totally insane in an inspired way. As the camera pulls back, it also reveals a picture of a screaming monkey face. Could James have simply helped nail down the timeline he's trying to eradicate?

Yes, he could have. He's dumb, remember.

Oh, and time travel is called "splintering," That explains the episode title.