If you missed it the first time around, there's no better time to catch up on the late-2010s SYFY series 12 Monkeys. Like, literally. With the world effectively on hiatus for the next few weeks due to concerns over the coronavirus, there's a certain comfort in looking back at pandemic stories where things work out in the end. A world where heroes step into the void to save the day. A world where we win.
Sure, 12 Monkeys actually needed a time machine to get ahead of the world-ending pandemic, but it checks the boxes.
The series ran for four seasons on SYFY from 2015-2018 and, thankfully, the entire series has landed on Hulu, with the relatively concise 43-episode run the perfect size for a not-too-long binge session over a slow couple of weeks. The show itself is loosely based on Terry Gilliam's 1995 film about a man sent back in time to stop a pandemic, but diverges wildly (and excellently) in execution.
Though most of the streaming buzz these days is understandably around resurgent blockbusters like Outbreak and Contagion, 12 Monkeys is a deeper cut that certainly deserves some love in the midst of #coronapocalypse. It's a wild time-travel story at its core, but it's all wrapped up in a pandemic thriller that can hang with the best of them. Even the show's cast and creator have noticed the, ahem, parallels of the early parts and flashbacks of their story and the quarantines and swift social distancing plans rolling out in real-life across the country and the world.
So, apart from bringing some fictional pandemic action to life, why should 12 Monkeys make the jump above most everything else on your (almost certainly long at this point) streaming queue while you self-quarantine?
Because in addition to being a timely tale of a pandemic gone rogue, it's also one hell of a good sci-fi story all its own.
Being based on a cult classic sci-fi film, the show had big shoes to fill from the jump. But the creative team, led by showrunner Terry Matalas (who is now helping head up the second season of CBS All Access' Star Trek: Picard), took that challenge head-on. They kept the coolest core elements of the film — time travel, a pandemic, a mystery — and developed a rich mythology filled with a fantastic ensemble to tell that story. It has love, it has intrigue, it has action, it has betrayal — and, of course — it has plenty of sci-fi insanity.
Aaron Stanford stars as the reluctant, time-traveling hero sent back to stop the plague, and he teams up with Amanda Schull's modern-day virologist to try and unravel how the virus begins in the first place. Their relationship drives the narrative, but the supporting cast of Emily Hampshire (an unstable genius connected to the time-travel story), Todd Stashwick (an uneasy ally who leads a group of future survivors), and Kirk Acevedo (another survivor who gets wrapped up in the action) makes this world sing.
On the surface, it's a mission to stop a pandemic and save the future, but as the story unfolds into its later seasons it becomes clear there's so much more at stake. The narrative thrust of a pandemic and time-travel adventure serves as a lens to tell a story about why life matters in the first place. Why time matters in the first place. It asks questions of why we'd fight so hard — literally going to the past to erase the world for a new one — just for more time.
The show might get dense and twisty at times, but it never loses touch with the heart of its story: the people right smack in the middle of it just trying to do what's right. Even when it's hard.
But it's the throughline that really makes 12 Monkeys the kind of under-the-radar sci-fi comfort food we need right now. Our world right now is smack dab in the middle of the story, and arguably still at the beginning of it all. But in 12 Monkeys we don't just get a good story, we get a good journey — and a great ending. From the Easter eggs and nods planted in the first season, all the way to the show's final episode, it's clear the creative team took the greatest of care to make sure every little piece of this story works. There is none of that bitter taste in your mouth once its over like some fans felt with shows like Lost or Game of Thrones.
Every plot point, every scene, every line, and every character in 12 Monkeys has a reason to be there. No filler, just killer. For a show that runs four seasons, it tells one of the tightest stories you'll find in serialized television. Which brings us to this precarious moment in time. As we all sit in our homes, spending time with family, watching the news as the number of Covid-19 cases continues to increase and more and more of daily life is interrupted, there's something truly comforting about seeing a story where all that trauma can come to an end.
It's not easy getting there, and 12 Monkeys' heroes Cole and Cassie go through plenty of pain before the screen finally fades to black. Don't worry, no spoilers here. But there is an ending once all the pain is over. And in 12 Monkeys, it's the kind of ending that can help us all find the peace and humanity we'll need to make it to the end of what we now face ourselves.