The real world may seem increasingly dystopian lately, but that doesn’t seem to have quenched our thirst for dystopian visions. Two current shows—one that reaches into the cinematic past, the other straight into the modern zeitgeist—are leveraging the science fictional furniture of dystopia to powerful, if decidedly different, effect.
Based on the visionary 1995 Terry Gilliam film, Syfy’s 12 Monkeys may seem like a curious property to adapt for episodic TV, but it’s surprisingly good. Certainly the initial premise is topical; the idea that scientists from the future, trying to prevent a global disaster, would target our present . . . well, sounds like plausible timing to me! The initial focus is on James Cole (Aaron Stanton), a test subject from 2044 who is sent back to 2015, his mission to prevent a deadly, global epidemic from starting. But he’ll need help from a temporal local: Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), a renowned virologist whose messages to the future, according to Cole, directly led to his mission. Together, they face off against the Army of the 12 Monkeys, a mysterious underground group that’s conspiring to bring about the end of the world. But how, and why? Together Cole and Cassie need to find out, and stop it.
For anyone familiar with the film, 12 Monkeys the series starts off in fairly expected ways, and suffers a bit from the comparison. Even at his darkest, Terry Gilliam is a playful and striking director, and an infectious visual energy infuses his film; by contrast, the series opens in gritty and bleak fashion, looking initially like a poor man’s remake. Stanton’s gruff rogue act is competent and Schull is credible, but both are one-note in the early going, and in terms of charisma, they’re no match for Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe—a comparison that’s hard not to make if you remember the film fondly. (Similarly but less distractingly, Emily Hampshire struggles to match Brad Pitt’s nutzoid energy as the crucial plot figure Goines, here refreshingly gender-swapped.)
Fortunately these touchstone comparisons matter less and less as the series progresses and, more importantly, deviates from the source material. The actors find their voices, the characters come into their own, and a nice ensemble feel develops. The first hint of potential greatness comes from Kirk Acevedo, who plays Cole’s best friend José Ramse. Initially a minor character, Ramse’s screentime gradually increases; as the characters play God with the universe, he starts to serve as the show’s conscience, if not the key to the show’s later, thematic exploration of causality and fate. Acevedo is light years ahead of the rest of the cast in terms of sheer screen presence, so much so that I spent the first several episodes baffled that he wasn’t the lead. Fortunately, once the show realizes Acevedo’s value, he becomes more central, first in a charming Cole-Ramse bromance, and later as a key figure in its time-bending season arcs.
Science fictionally, oh, it has its imperfections. There’s plenty of handwavey science, and other iffy logistics. (How is it their time machine can send them anywhere on Earth? Where are they getting their supplies in this post-apocalypse world? Who’s manufacturing Dr. Jones’ cigarettes?) Even so, season one is a confident and stylish reimagination of the film, full of clever loopbacks and continuity details.
The series manages to improve even further in season two, however, when it goes in more unexpected and interesting directions. Throwing off the shackles of its source plot, season two embraces the greater possibilities of time travel, transporting its characters to many more eras, from World War II to the Cold War to the grungy fashions of the 1970s. The personas of the characters become more loreworthy, and the ensemble is bolstered by shrewdly cast guest stars like Battlestar Galactica’s Michael Hogan and The Shield’s Jay Karnes. Midway through the season, the show turns a creative corner with a number of stellar setpiece hours, including an inevitable, but superbly executed, riff on Groundhog Day. In a way, 12 Monkeys’ second year reminded me of Fringe in season three, when it transformed from a serviceable skiffy procedural to truly epic SF television. (Is the “Acevedo Factor” a thing?) 12 Monkeys’ change is more modest, but similarly impressive. While I’m nervous about certain developments in the finale, it does set up a potentially intriguing new paradigm for season three. All in all, for such an unlikely serial reboot, 12 Monkeys does well for itself.
Even more rewarding is the stylish, scathing USA series Mr. Robot, a contemporary drama that, among other things, brilliantly examines the science fictional nature of the present. If 12 Monkeys bounces back and forth over a world-altering cataclysm, Mr. Robot is rooted squarely in the cataclysm itself, a dystopia-in-progress that presents a chilling alternate version of now. The sensational Rami Malek stars as Elliot Alderson, a disaffected internet security expert whose bland exterior masks a genius-level hacker. At first, Elliot’s goals are edgy but modest: using his brilliant technical skills to right society’s wrongs, one creepy jerk at a time. But when Elliot crosses paths with a shifty man known only as “Mr. Robot” (Christian Slater), he’s drawn inexorably into a revolutionary hacker group called fsociety. Its goal: take down the world’s largest and most powerful financial conglomerate, E Corp, and create an economic revolution.
Right out of the gates, Mr. Robot is riveting stuff; the pilot is a masterpiece, each shot a carefully composed work of art, and the high quality continues throughout. It’s cyberpunk by way of the 1970s conspiracy thriller, an irresistible blend of day-after-tomorrow technoparanoia and artful, old-school filmmaking. It’s also blisteringly political, with a cynical, misanthropic worldview that’s given unforgettable voice by Malek’s intense performance. The political content is on the in-your-face side, but it’s no less penetrating for it; the rant is shrill but effective, taking aim at the ugly underside of capitalism and the dispiriting subtexts of modern reality. That may sound like miserable subject matter for entertainment, but this highly critical portrait of the status quo is painted largely in order to set its heroes in opposition to it, which is rallying. This is, like many conspiracy thrillers, a David-versus-Goliath story, with a clandestine rabble pitted against a massively powerful corporate monolith. The stakes are world-changing, and you feel it.
Another element in Mr. Robot’s arsenal is a glorious meta streak. Did I mention you’re a character on the show? Malek’s chilling monotone narration, outwardly reminiscent of Michael C. Hall’s murderous mutterings on Dexter, is directed straight at the viewer: you are Elliot’s imaginary friend. If it were less sure-handed, this playful touch of fourth-wall breaking would be a risk to the suspension of disbelief. But the execution is perfect, and in the context of this paranoid scenario, it’s chillingly immersive. The device is deployed sparingly, but never abandoned; a casual, self-aware joke in the pivotal fourth episode, “eps1.3_da3m0ns.mp4,” even critiques TV distortions of hacker culture. I keep waiting for these touches to rip me out of the story, but even in the most extreme case—season two’s disturbingly funny “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes,” which possesses a premise too outrageous to spoil—it works in the show’s favor.
Mr. Robot is so unique, and pushes my serial-viewing buttons so well, that even the devil’s advocate side of my brain struggles to find fault with it. For example, I want to protest the presence of Christian Slater, whose persona is so distinct it can often overwhelm his characters. But here, that heightened persona actually works to both the character’s and the show’s benefit. I also want to challenge the credibility of its supporting female heroes, Elliot’s childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) and fellow fsociety hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin). But while they can’t match Malek for acting chops, they ultimately mesh so thoroughly with the show’s style that I now can’t imagine replacing them. Even the show’s more predictable plot twists are cleverly subverted.
Most strongly, I want to recoil from the show’s proclivity for transgressive shock tactics and toxically masculine worldbuilding. This is the show’s most troubling element, and probably its least defensible. And yet, it does goes a long way to establishing the sky-high stakes of the secret war that’s being fought, and the ruthless formidability of Elliot’s enemies. It depicts, without condoning, male brutality. Meanwhile, it possesses a refreshingly diverse cast. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Mr. Robot’s more sympathetic figures are women, minorities, members of the LGBT community: from Elliot’s kind psychiatrist Krista (Gloria Reuben) to his earnest boss Gideon (Michel Gill), from his drug-dealing neighbor Shayla (Frankie Shaw) to his fellow fsociety hackers Romero (Ron Cephas Jones), Mobley (Azhar Khan), and Trenton (Sunita Mani). Meanwhile, the primary villains are white men in suits, particularly the ambitious and sinister junior executive Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) and, later, the mega-powerful Philip Price (the scene-stealing Michael Cristofer, basically reprising his memorable Rubicon turn as the scheming Truxton Spangler). This is a show that wears its political heart on its sleeve, and let’s face it, it’s the left sleeve. Still, there’s enough rough-edged fare here, particularly in regards to violence and mental health, to justify multiple trigger warnings; I wouldn’t feel right not mentioning that.
Season one is such a compelling and seamless blend of style, substance, and structure that it’s tempting to be more dismissive of the fuzzier, less driven second season. But, while different, I found the second year equally engrossing. Its focus is more internal than external, more psychological than mechanistic. And yes, structural finesse takes a back seat to stylish extravagance, as creator Sam Esmail gains authorial confidence, possibly dangerous levels of it. But cleverly enough, the show’s meta streak plays neatly into interpreting season two: its arc, one can argue (and the show slyly does), is necessarily messier, as the characters struggle to cope with the consequences of their world-shaking actions. Emboldened by critical achievement, Mr. Robot leans further into artistic risk-taking in its second year, often to eye-widening and jaw-dropping effect. It comes at the expense of a more streamlined narrative, perhaps, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay if it makes for a singular TV viewing experience—and Mr. Robot is most certainly that.
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