Much ink has been spilled recently exploring the importance of endings on television shows. What is the essence of a good ending? Does it matter as much as the journey?
What about this moment in time has provoked audiences to be so vocal about how a television story ends? Perhaps it can, in part, be attributed to how the medium has evolved over the last two decades. The television landscape has never been more exciting — or daunting. Television rivals, or has arguably surpassed, film in its ability to tell rich and complex stories. As the medium increasingly focuses on a less episodic storytelling, its narrative format allows creators to simultaneously develop an intricate plot and rich character arcs.
However, necessarily, long term storytelling requires a greater audience commitment. In contrast to a two hour film, a viewer spends hours upon hours with the world that television writers create. And so, audiences invest increasing amounts of intellectual and emotional capital in television stories that present themselves as building toward an end. Whether it is cultivated or perceived, an increased focus on the end of a television story is accompanied by two principal risks. First, that a show won’t “stick the landing” with the respect to the questions it has built into the story. Or, second, that the characters in whom the audience has invested will be sacrificed at the altar of plot expediency.
These stakes are compounded as streaming services multiply and so do their progeny of endless content. Why invest in a sprawling mythology, attempt to unravel a complicated mystery or revel in a long term character arc, if the writers perhaps don’t know where it’s going? Or don’t possess the patience to do the story justice in the end? And so, as you sit there on your couch, remote in hand, scouring a seemingly infinite number of options, you are left to ponder the ultimate question: is this worth my time?
Rather than surrender your fate to the fickle TV gods, why not begin a story that has already stuck the landing? Whether you seek a show that answers its own mysteries or a narrative that remains true to lovingly crafted characters, Syfy’s 12 Monkeys is the drama that you have been waiting for.
On June 15, season 4 comes to Hulu and all four seasons of 12 Monkeys will be available via streaming in the U.S. for the first time. Simply put, this is one of television’s great stories (as discussed in greater spoiler free detail here). And perhaps more than any other drama, 12 Monkeys’ endgame will change your expectations for television storytelling forever.
12 Monkeys, loosely based on the Terry Gilliam-directed film of the same name, is about time travellers from a post apocalyptic future attempting to save the world from a plague by journeying to the past. To that end, a hardened scavenger, James Cole (Aaron Stanford), teams up with a brilliant physicist Dr. Katarina Jones (Barbara Sukowa) and an intrepid virologist, Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), to stop a shadowy organization called the Army of the 12 Monkeys from killing seven billion people.
Along the way, they will meet the (maybe) crazy Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire), a conflicted brother-in-arms Ramse (Kirk Acevedo), the roguish Theodore Deacon (Todd Stashwick), and a mysterious woman named Olivia (Alisen Down). These characters will grapple with mind bending moral dilemmas that span decades all as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. And as they face challenge after challenge, the audience will be surprised at every turn. 12 Monkeys has jaw dropping plot developments on par with the most shocking moments from Game of Thrones or Lost. You will never see the twists coming and, yet, you will marvel at how they were built upon such a meticulous foundation.
But, as great as surprises are, once they are revealed they are also easily forgotten. 12 Monkeys is that rare story that you will carry with you long after you know the final twists. Merely describing 12 Monkeys as a drama about time travel is like saying Battlestar Galactica is about androids or Lost is about a plane crash. It is a drama that is, at its core, about life. 12 Monkeys explores the reality that is fundamental to the human experience: we all love, but, we also all die.
So how do we as human beings navigate the chasm between those two truths? Or in the words of the show, how do we grapple with the fact that while it’s “the heart that sustains us,” “it’s [also] the losing that haunts us.” Love and loss are inextricably linked and as much as the characters are trying to change the past, the relationships they gain and lose along the way become as important as saving the world. Indeed, no television drama since The Leftovers has as deftly explored how love and loss shape the human experience as 12 Monkeys.
However, this thoughtful exploration of the human condition never precludes fun — an element that is sorely missing from much of the post apocalyptic television landscape. Characters quote Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Ghostbusters as often as they do Shakespeare and John Dunne. Humor permeates the dialogue even as characters spar over the best course to save the world. As surprising musical cues unfold, you will ask yourself, “are they really doing this?” Yes, they really are. It is the kind of emotional relief that is proving increasingly necessary in our dark television landscape. 12 Monkeys’ deft balance of high stakes and comic relief is a reminder that television doesn’t have to feel like a punishment.
So, exciting plot? Check. Thought provoking themes balanced with humor, pop culture references, and whimsy? Check. But, more than anything else, television is about the characters. They are the fictional people that we spend hours with on their journeys: we see their faces, hear their voices, and feel their triumphs and defeats perhaps more intimately than any other characters that we encounter in fiction.
This story knows exactly where it is going — but also never loses its focus on why you care about the story in the first place. The characters of 12 Monkeys are complex and layered — including five main female characters that will forever alter your expectations for how women should be portrayed on television. All of the characters are consistently written in a way that never loses sight of point of view and how that is shaped by life experience. Then they are brought to life by a talented cast that will move you to tears and laughter in equal measure.
Finally that brings us to the ending— that all important moment in a story when you hold your breath and hope it was all worth it. Whether or not a show “sticks the landing” intellectually or emotionally can color a viewer’s entire experience of the overall story.
Simply put, 12 Monkeys sticks the landing, and then some. This show steadily grows until it culminates in a final fourth season that — if there was any justice in the world for genre television —should’ve been nominated for multiple awards. The two hour series finale is one of the finest ever made: all of your questions will be answered, your mind will be blown, and your heart will experience a complete catharsis. And then you will be compelled to reconsider the entire story again and revel in the clues that were embedded in plain sight as early as season one.
So, what are you waiting for? 12 Monkeys has it all — a mind bending story, a sprawling mythology, thought provoking themes, compelling characters and a narrative that is true to their arcs, a passionate fandom, and an ending that is worth the journey. Fortunately, you don’t need a time machine to go back and discover what you’ve been missing. All you need is Hulu.
See you soon.