Tuesday, January 20, 2015

It's not on my back

 12 Monkeys began its first season on SyFy last Friday. Like many people, my first reaction when I heard the announcement of a TV series was: “Why the hell would they do that? The story’s over and there's not much more to say.” But in the worlds of time travel and Hollywood, there's always something else to say, even if no one cares to hear it. My next thoughts were: “How are they going to duplicate Terry Gilliam’s offbeat style which was one of the real selling points of the film? And how are they going to even come close to the performances of Bruce Willis (one of the best of his career) and Brad Pitt (the one that convinced me he could act and earned him his first serious critical appraisal), which were two more real points in the film’s favor?” The short answer is: They’re not. The long answer is: SyFy, like much of Hollywood, is hoping to attract viewers with a franchise (even though a 20-year-old standalone film only somewhat registers in that classification) and then keep them with solid writing and acting. Did they do so? In my case, not really.

 The first problem is the visuals. Films obviously have much larger budgets than TV series (at least to start they do) and so can create and shape their worlds in vastly superior ways. Gilliam’s film, like many of his other efforts (Brazil, Time Bandits) was gritty, dirty, shadowy. It made you uncertain about what was real and what wasn’t. It left you searching the screen for clues and answers and still fascinated even if you didn't find them. It made the mundane menacing, as it would be to someone traveling through time on what seemed to be a hopeless mission. But even with all that uncertainty, it felt like real people lived there. The technology used for that time travel was the most obvious aspect of that feel. The steampunk brass and protrusions were in full evidence and it was clear that humanity and this technological wizardry were confined to dark and dirty spaces because we could never see the time machine or really ascertain how it functioned, but we knew that it was unstable. It was presented that way with all of the wobbling bits and jarring performance as James Cole plunged into the chronal stream.

The TV show has none of that. In the couple shots we saw of the machine and Cole, it’s spotless. It could have just rolled off of the nearest Star Trek set as a stand-in for one of the Enterprise’s dilithium containment tubes. Furthermore, there’s nothing around the machine to indicate that it’s anything other than a film set. It’s in a largely featureless room, without people and without indication that anyone or anything has ever been there other than Aaron Standford, who plays Cole, and a camera crew. The same problem exists for the rest of the episode. Cassandra Railly’s (Amanda Schull) hotel room is just a spot to shoot a scene, despite her having waited there for who knows how many days and then waited while Cole recovered from his wound. The lengthy interrogation of Cole takes place in what looks like a converted garage. Cole’s first disappearance takes place in the cleanest alley of any American city yet known. The only place that has some degree of visual character is the house where they meet Leland Goines, which simply apes a similar scene in the film as Cole desperately tries to find the progenitor of the world-destroying virus. There’s nothing eye-catching in the episode that leads one to think: “Hey. I wonder if that were a clue to this story or the background of it! I’d like to see that again.”

And TV...
 Likewise, both Standford and Schull, while not bad at their jobs, certainly don’t sell their roles. Willis as Cole was determined and borderline maniacal, but he was also completely confused because he was in an environment that he remembered but had left behind 30+ years ago, past who knows how many drugs and the strain of the time shift. That’s an interesting character and Willis played it to the hilt. Standford acts like he just walked on to the set from downtown Toronto… because he did. He’s completely in control and cagey at all the proper moments. There’s nothing to indicate that he’s any different from any of the NSA agents who hold him prisoner, despite being stupid enough to let his personal aggression threaten the security of the mission he’s supposedly so committed to. Part of the film’s appeal is its uncertainty. We’re pretty sure about Willis’ Cole’s mental state but we’re as lost as he is in trying to solve the big mystery (the virus) or the small one (if he’s actually sane.) There is no doubt in Standford’s Cole. He’s completely linear and, thus, completely uninteresting. Similarly, Schull doesn’t even approach the doubting desperation of Madeline Stowe in the film, who keeps spouting rationalizations even as the impossible occurs right in front of her. Schull goes along with the story because it’s the story, not because her character believes it. And, seriously: Cassandra Railly? Really? Nothing reeks so much of SyFy’s  Sharknado  cheapness than dropping in little sops to Greek myth as some kind of nod to the audience that a) knows the myth or b) remembers the reference to Cassandra from the film or c) somehow doesn’t think that this is their lowbrow attempt to let the audience know that they’re in on the story.

Because, in essence, the first episode played out like we were in on the story, right? It’s a franchise. The only reason we’re watching is because we’ve seen the film. The show doesn’t have to spend any time questioning the reality of what Cole is seeing. We know he’s sane because we’ve already seen this. In that case, why are we watching it again? Oh, I see. It’s to introduce all of the random viewers who haven’t seen a film from 20 years ago but are still somehow SyFy Channel watchers. They must be a crowd of… what? 20? Maybe 25? In that case, boy, did they get screwed because they got the 45-minute National Geographic version of a genuinely interesting story.  They don’t get any of the bad in-episode references like Cassandra, but they do get a canned pilot that doesn’t even set up interesting questions about time travel (the central premise of the show, albeit not the film) other than: “Why is this happening?” I can ask the same question about the weather and get a response that might be more interesting.

Time travel, yo.
 But there’s a key in those last two sentences. The central premise of the show is time travel, which means that what we’re likely looking at is a modern, slightly-darker version of Quantum Leap except without any of the historical trappings that made that show successful. We won’t get to see Scott Bakula try to deal with the rage, frustration, and danger of living through the Watts riots. Instead, we’ll see Standford bulldogging his way toward the final answer: the solution to the virus. But that doesn’t make for good TV. Either we’ll be chasing time travel red herrings every week (“This week: How do James and Cassandra deal with the fact that Goines dropped his key to the bioweapons vault in a building that later burned down?!!”)  or we’ll be stalling as they attempt to keep from solving the virus issue in order to not end the series. It’s like The Fugitive. What happens when he finally finds the one-armed man? Well, it’s either a great movie or the end of your series, so you’d better start stalling and make some wicked subplots to carry you.

And, granted, this could all be a case of pilot episode necessities. You have to lay your groundwork before your story can really roll forward. Fine. But, in the name of that bloody weather, HOOK ME! Give me something, anything, to say: “That was cool and I’m coming back to see what this person does next.” The pristine example of this in modern TV is the first episode of Breaking Bad, where Walter White is driving a runaway RV down a desert road in his tighty whities and a gasmask with two corpses rolling around in the back. Holy shit! I’ve seen it twice and I want to watch that again more than I want to see the next episode of 12 Monkeys. It doesn’t even have to be that explosive.  Again, the selling point to the film was the mystery. You sat and watched because you weren’t quite sure what was going on but it was interesting. This first episode was laid out in a fashion in which you couldn’t miss what was going on, which made it largely uninteresting and certainly not compelling enough to turn on again.

All of that said, I may give the second episode one more shot because I could be wrong (Grantland thinks I’m wrong.) It wasn’t the unmitigated tire fire that was Constantine, but that’s like saying you’d rather watch 12 Monkeys instead of C-SPAN during budget deliberations. Yes, I’ve done that. There may be no greater combination of boredom, abject despair, and astonishment at the idiots appointed as our “representatives.” Now that I think of it, I’ve got this great idea that involves time travel, the US Congress, and nerve gas… Meanwhile, 12 Monkeys is currently just another example of why TV is bad for your eyes.