'12 Monkeys' blends science, action, romantic tension

Mekeisha Madden Toby
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit is shown as both post-apocalyptic and artistic on the new Syfy series "12 Monkeys."

The time-traveling drama's pilot episode, which debuts at 9 p.m. tonight, was shot in Detroit, and one of the city's abandoned factories doubles as the snow-covered ruins of a dilapidated office building in 2043.

In another scene, which takes place in 2013, Diego Rivera's famous auto industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts serve as the backdrop during a character's medical lecture on epidemics.

While Detroit is never mentioned by name, it's fun and oddly reassuring to see the city's distinguishable and familiar locales on the small screen.

Like the series, Detroit has one foot firmly planted in the future and another in the past and it's those literal and metaphorical dichotomies that make the Motor City beautifully flawed and impossible to ignore.

As for "12 Monkeys," science-fiction nerds will enjoy the pace, mythology and mysteries the cinematic offering skillfully weaves.

An updated spinoff of the 20-year-old movie of the same name, the show follows James Cole (the always impressive Aaron Stanford, "Nikita" and "Traveler") a scruffy man from the future sent back in time to eradicate a deadly virus that claims the lives of billions and destroys civilization as we know it. Amanda Schull ("Suits") plays Dr. Cassandra Railly, the one person who can help James complete his mission.

In the first installment, James has to convince Cassandra that he's telling the truth and that she is, indeed, a key figure in stopping a viral plague in its inception. But as actors, Stanford and Schull have to convince TV audiences that they are not dishing out reheated versions of the performances Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe did in the original.

Thankfully, that's not the case and these two actors are quite compelling as a couple of lost souls trying desperately to make things right. Stanford's James prefers violence and the direct approach, while Schull's Cassandra is all about being cerebral and strategic. In that way, James and Cassandra are more like Mulder and Scully from "The X-Files" than the characters from the movie.

Another thing "12 Monkeys" has going for it is the space and time of 13 serialized episodes. For instance, the Army of the 12 Monkeys isn't even mentioned until the second installment. There are also a few twists and updates in the casting.

Syfy is determined to prove that there is more to its programming slate than farcical made-for-TV movies such as "Sharknado" and "Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda." Luckily for the basic-cable network, "12 Monkeys" has just the right amount of science, action and romantic tension to attract male and female viewers and make the series a legitimate ratings contender.

Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic.

'12 Monkeys'


Premieres 9 p.m. Friday