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Syfy Weaponizes the Binge With Its 12 Monkeys Event

Initiate splinter sequence!

Alexander Zalben

When Syfy announced it would be running the entire third season of its critically acclaimed, but ratings challenged, time travel drama 12 Monkeys over three nights -- Friday, May 19 through Sunday May 21 -- fans were up in arms. Cries of "burning off the season," that Syfy was dumping the cult show filled the Twitter-verse (or at least the part of the Twitter-verse that watches 12 Monkeys, the rest was probably talking politics).

Turns out, those worries were misplaced: the third season of the show isn't just built for avid viewers... By pushing out the 10-episode season in such a short time period, Syfy has essentially weaponized the binge.

Let's do a brief refresher, though. 12 Monkeys is based on the Bruce Willis/Brad Pitt starring movie of the same name, but by Season 3 the TV series is far afield from a relatively simple time travel brain twister. The first season riffed on the plot of the movie: in the far future, billions of people have been killed by a deadly plague, so one man, James Cole (Aaron Stanford), is sent back in time to stop the plague before it starts. Only in doing so, he may cause the very plague he was sent to prevent.

It's a neat conceit, but show creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett used it as a springboard to tell a much more intricate, convoluted story that has grown from a treasure-hunt-of-the-week format in Season 1, as Cole and company worked their way to the center of the conspiracy that caused the plague, to ask big questions about family, love, and the nature of time itself.

If being based on a seemingly done in one movie wasn't a barrier -- the number one question I've gotten as a fan of the show has been, "How is that a show?" -- and time travel itself wasn't a barrier -- other than Timeless, which got a sudden uncancellation, and The CW's DC's Legends of Tomorrow, time travel shows in the modern TV era don't really survive the, er, test of time -- the show itself is, as we used to say in my comic book reviewing days: not new reader friendly.

Since the start of Season 1, Cole has hooked up with a doctor working to stop the plague named Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), his best friend Ramse (Kirk Acevedo), and the scene-stealing former asylum patient Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire) to form a makeshift family attempting to hold back the apocalypse. But along the way their time jumping adventures have revealed the intricate ways they've been connected to each other for decades, and how the Army of the 12 Monkeys (who launched the plague) were not even close to what they thought when they first started. Add in a mysterious uber-villain named The Witness, episodes that often juggle three (or more) time periods simultaneously, and a complicated family tree for at least 50% of the main characters, and you have a show that arguably should be 90% "Previously on 12 Monkeys..."

The third season wholly embraces this. Where Season 2 explored different genres every episode, from an Alien-style adventure to an extended riff on Groundhog Day, Season 3 is all about the characters. Sure, there are enormous action set pieces and new, steampunk-inspired time travel ideas. There are also a few cameos too fun to spoil here, and Easter Eggs that reference Matalas' beloved Back to the Future. But at its base, this is the most intimate season of 12 Monkeys yet.

This slower pace -- relatively speaking, mind you, this show is still a time traveling action spectacular, not My Dinner With Andre -- is only served by the binge broadcast. Watching the characters grow over the course of a few short hours, versus waiting weeks, leads to a richer experience. Matalas and company have taken the time to add subtle nods to past episodes and seasons without overstating their import in nearly every minute of Season 3. By broadcasting four hours on the first night, and three hours on each subsequent night, you won't waste time wracking your brain to remember what happened a few episodes past that caused X character to do Y, because you watched that episode earlier in the night (or just one day prior).

All that could be achieved by making the show available to binge after the premiere, a la how Freeform has been launching their newer shows like Beyond and Famous in Love. What SyFy has done for 12 Monkeys is vastly different. Rather than play both sides -- Like to watch weekly? Great! Like to binge? That's cool too! -- like Freeform, the geeky network is sending out a pure blast of fandom in order to make social waves and attract new viewers to the show.

I want to emphasize again: if you try to start watching 12 Monkeys with Season 3, you will be entirely lost. Sorry. It's true. I've viewed all 10 episodes already, and it's as rich and rewarding as any season of television I've watched all year. But that's only because I've watched the previous two seasons and committed them to memory. This season is the second to last chapter of an epic story, not something that's easy to jump right into.

But the fanbase for the show is passionate, and they want new viewers to find and embrace the show. Not because they think it's going to be a massive success (it's not), but because it's very good and they want to share it. By rolling out the third season in a short period, Syfy has created a massive bomb of fandom that's about to go off on your Twitter feed. Rather than let the audience trickle off over weeks, and later lament that no one is watching their favorite show, instead Syfy has created a 12 Monkeys event that isn't a movie of the week, or a way of burning off the show: it's a way of making sure 12 Monkeys fans have a concentrated amount of time to freak out, connect with other fans, and control the social conversation in order to get things trending in your feed.

Because ultimately, advertising works by impressions. Maybe you heard of 12 Monkeys, and dismissed it because of the movie or the time travel or the fact that there's a million shows on TV and you have no time. But between May 19 and 21, if you have a 12 Monkeys fan as a friend you'll be unable to escape hearing them say "initiate splinter sequence," or screaming when huge twists occur and revelations are revealed.

When all of this happens on a short enough timeline, it starts to take on the feeling of missing out: you're going to want to catch up on 12 Monkeys, if you haven't already watched. So you'll head to Hulu, or Amazon Prime... And maybe not catch up by the time Season 3 finishes airing, but you'll be well prepped for when the final season debuts in 2018.

The good news is that you'll be rewarded by watching a rich, textured, beautifully performed show with some of the most creative executions of time travel fiction in any medium. Stanford and Schull give reliably emotionally anchored performances as the core characters of the cast. Hampshire gets to go broad at the beginning of the season, delivering some of the funniest scenes you'll see outside of a comedy this year. But by season's end, her mentally unstable Jennifer is the heart and soul of the team. Barbara Sukowa's mad scientist Katarina Jones got to spread her wings last year, while this season is mostly a bundle of vengeful anger.

And unfortunately, to say any more is to court massive spoilers. One of the huge joys of any time travel show is seeing who can pop up at any moment (sometimes multiple times in the same scene). So while I'd like to laud [SPOILER] for his standout return, or how the previously announced James Callis (Battlestar Galactica) plays into the season, I'd rather you discover these joys on your own.

12 Monkeys is never going to be the biggest hit in the world. But Syfy has figured out a unique way to broadcast this next season that -- despite conventional wisdom -- serves the fans, and the structure of the show at the same time. Maybe they used time travel to make it happen, maybe not. Just know that whether you're a fan now or not: 12 Monkeys is about to blow up your feed. Or at least your weekend.

The third season of 12 Monkeys airs on Syfy Friday, May 19 at 8/7c (four episodes), followed by three episodes on May 20 and May 21, debuting at 8/7c.