Syfy’s ‘ 12 Monkeys’ enthralls with engaging pilot

Aaron Stanford and Amanda Schull star in Syfy's 12 Monkeys, airing Fridays at 9 p.m. — Photo courtesy of Alicia Gbur / Syfy
Aaron Stanford and Amanda Schull star in Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, airing Fridays at 9 p.m. — Photo courtesy of Alicia Gbur / Syfy

12 Monkeys, the new Syfy series based on the Terry Gilliam film starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, is one of the strongest new science-fiction series in some time. Mark this one as a potential hit for the network. After the success of Ascension, and the continued success of Defiance, Syfy may be entering a new era of clever, engaging programming.

The show is inspired by the movie, but it doesn’t feel beholden to the source material. Characters and story lines have room to breathe and expand. My guess is that by the end of season one, 12 Monkeys will be its own beast.

Aaron Stanford plays James Cole, a man from the future who witnesses a fatal plague spread across the world. He’s sent by the few remaining survivors back in time to kill the man responsible for the virus. In 2015, which is the past, he connects with Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), a doctor he needs to convince to help him with the mission.

The pilot focuses mostly on James’ convincing of Cassandra; however, we are also given some idea of the conspiracy behind the virus. The mysterious Leland Frost/Leland Goines and army of the 12 Monkeys become plot points, but the story never becomes needlessly confusing. In fact, for a time-travel drama, 12 Monkeys is extremely easy to understand, much more than Continuum.

A few cool realities that were on display in the pilot: “splintering” is when James essentially vanishes from the present/past and heads back to his present/future. Two watches help him not only explain time travel but also control its forces.

Cassandra, or Cassie, quickly becomes the girl who cried wolf. This man vanishes in front of her with promises of meeting again in two years in Philadelphia. Together they need to find Frost/Goines before it’s too late. The major problem: No one believes her.

The acting is enjoyable. Stanford has a brooding sense about his James character; it’s not a showy role, but one steeped in sorrow and pessimism. He’s a man jaded by the future he knows all too well. Schull is also quite good as the main heroine of the series. She’s the one tasked with making the largest leap of faith, and her skepticism seems rooted in reality.

12 Monkeys should be a welcome diversion during these cold winter months. Its pilot is a strong addition to the Syfy lineup, and its actors are well cast and impressive in their ability to engage the audience. Kudos to the creative team for making a thinking-person’s science-fiction series rather than one caught up in special effects.

12 Monkeys is one of the best shows on television; it’s a mysterious time-travel series that keeps the brain cells amped up and always ready for more twists and turns. I’m hooked.

By John Soltes / Publisher /

  • 12 Monkeys airs 9 p.m. Fridays on Syfy. Click here for more information.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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