ENTERTAINMENT
01/16/2015 03:14 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2015

The Problem With The Pretty Good New '12 Monkeys' Series

Syfy

"12 Monkeys" and "Helix" have a lot of things in common, aside from airing the same night on Syfy.

Both feature dangerous viral outbreaks and characters connected to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and both also play around with timelines, though "12 Monkeys" does so far more than the relatively straightforward bio-thriller "Helix."

They're also both part of Syfy's recent efforts to focus more on scripted dramas with harder edges and more intense sci-fi themes. Whatever you want to say about "12 Monkeys" and "Helix," you wouldn't mistake either of them for past Syfy shows like the much lighter "Eureka" or "Warehouse 13."

The network's transition to meatier fare is still a work in progress, however. Syfy's first space-based show in a while, the December miniseries "Ascension," was a disappointing misfire that mostly wasted an interesting premise. Will the upcoming interstellar drama "The Expanse" get the network back into the space-opera business for real? Not having seen the show, which is based on James S.A. Corey's books, I couldn't say, but there's no doubt that intelligent speculative fiction -- especially space opera -- is in short supply on TV these days. If Syfy doesn't lay claim to at least some of that territory, another enterprising media outlet will.

So is a new show based on another adapted property, "12 Monkeys," worth a look? Yes, but with a caveat.

The caveat: I watched seven episode of "12 Monkeys," which means I was interested enough to go beyond the first couple of hours and see how the season progressed, and I've given it a DVR season pass so that I can theoretically watch more. But I keep asking myself, will I actually do so? Will "12 Monkeys" pile up on my DVR until I guiltily delete subsequent installments months from now? It's possible.

Though the show's leads do a good job and it handles various aspects of its busy plot pretty well, there's something a bit mechanical about "12 Monkeys." As if the show is afraid nobody would want that kind of thing, "12 Monkeys" tends to skitter away from character-building moments, but that's one of the core reasons people watch or read classic speculative-fiction tales. Even more so than other genres, science-fiction stories often revolve around moral conundrums and ethical dilemmas, but if the viewer doesn't care about the people wrestling with those difficult choices, it can be hard to stay invested in the tale.

Don't get me wrong, I like a plot that ticks over nicely, and "12 Monkeys" hums along at a reasonable pace; its pilot is pleasingly energetic and efficient. (By the way, I haven't seen the film "12 Monkeys," so I can't tell you how the TV show differs.)

The problem is, "12 Monkeys" tends to prioritize a series of MacGuffins over attempts to deepen its characters and their relationships. Though it has a fine cast, which is enhanced by the presence of reliably good guests stars such as Tom Noonan, Todd Stashwich and Zeljko Ivanek, the story sometimes feels a bit predictable. The CW's "The 100" has managed to create more forward momentum with a similar budget and premise, in part by upending expectations and creating impossible choices and terrible consequences for its characters.

"12 Monkeys" does make some wise choices, including limiting the focus to plague survivor Cole (Aaron Stanford) and disease-fighting doctor Cassandra (Amanda Schull) in the early going -- and yet I wanted to feel more attached to those two than I did by the close of Episode 7. Also, the main gimmick of "12 Monkeys" -- the fact that Cole can go back in time to attempt fix things that went wrong -- has the effect of sanding some edges off the tension. Time travel can be a useful tool for a science-fiction storyteller, but if it's used too often, the stakes can begin to feel a bit malleable; every plot point ends up being a potential do-over. That's not always the case in "12 Monkeys," but there is a lot of time-jumping in "12 Monkeys," and if Cole completes his main mission -- undoing a bio-engineered plague that killed off most of the humanity -- it would appear there would be no reason for the show to exist anymore.

Due to the diligent work of Schull (who was also very good in "Suits"), Stanford and Kirk Acevedo, who do their utmost to give depth and layers to their somewhat underwritten roles, "12 Monkeys" just about works (though a character dealing with mental illness ends up being a scenery chewing distraction). The thing is, being just about good enough isn't necessarily good enough any more. And that's the problem faced not just by "12 Monkeys" or Syfy, but by every network.

The amount of available TV -- genre and otherwise, good and great -- expands daily, via new outlets trying to make an impact with original fare, existing networks with worthy new and returning programs, and a host of fine older or imported shows available via streaming. The bar keeps getting raised, and our DVRs keep getting stuffed to the breaking point. Something's got to give, and shows that don't deeply hook me in the first few hours rarely get a do-over.

I've only seen one episode of the second season of "Helix," but I'm definitely going to watch more. "Helix" does a fine job of creating a creepy vibe in its second-season opener, and though a lot of information from the first season has to be re-established, the drama hits the ground running and quickly builds up an effectively mysterious atmosphere. I was already on board by the time Steven Weber rolled up as a charismatic cult leader, but his excellent performance just cemented my desire to see more of this viral-outbreak drama.

That said, I won't tell a lie: Various time pressures, personal and professional, kept me from finishing the first season of "Helix," and during that show's first season, I felt it also tended to give character development short shrift. Still, of the two Syfy viruses implanted in my brain, "Helix" may have a better chance of taking over.

"12 Monkeys" airs Friday at 9:00 p.m. ET on Syfy; "Helix" airs Friday at 10:00 p.m. ET on Syfy.

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