By Darren Franich
June 15, 2018 at 09:15 PM EDT
Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy

I can’t remotely explain what’s going on in the 12 Monkeys‘ fourth season premiere. There’s a castle, a futuristic clockpunk megacity, soldiers wearing plague masks firing explosive arrows, self-immolating Medieval monks. The premiere throws James (Aaron Stanford), Cassie (Amanda Schull) and their surviving squad of attempted world-rescuers into pitched battle against Olivia (Alisen Down) and her Army of the 12 Monkeys. There are swooping gunkata battle scenes, a sacrifice, a betrayal, unexpected twists of time and space. Then the first half-hour ends, and then someone heists a museum.

12 Monkeys began in 2015. Producers Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett loosely adapted the narrative of the (superb) 1995 Terry Gilliam film, itself an extrapolation of the (beyond superb) 1962 Chris Marker short film La Jetée. The series remixed its source material into twisty high adventure, willfully encircling James and Cassie in multiple layers of overlapping chronal intrigue. There’s a moment in the new season when Olivia, the show’s final-act villain, looks at a map of the 12 Monkeys chronology. It looks like someone took the Terminator franchise’s looping canon, then quadrupled it.

I couldn’t always keep up. I fell in and out on 12 Monkeys. The show never had anything like ratings, but Syfy gamely tried to pitch it as a binge-friendly romp. The network aired all 10 episodes of season 3 in one weekend last year. For the final season, they’ve refined the release model a bit: Starting Friday, 12 Monkeys airs three episodes per week until the final night on July 6.

Season 4 gets off and running. In 2018, Jennifer (Emily Hampshire) is stealing something in pandemic-plagued Prague. Say that five times fast. From their perch in the ruined future, Amanda sets off on a quest to kill Olivia, which carries her to a moment in the past — I won’t spoil it, but it requires an impressive use of the Poppy Family’s tune “Which Way You Goin’ Billy.” James’ journey takes him to a different time, where he runs into a mysterious someone who has a mysterious message for him. “Look, I know I should be used to this,” James tell this special someone, “But I’m gonna ask you anyway: How do you know me?”

For a show steeped in apocalyptic dread and regret, 12 Monkeys has a surprisingly light sense of humor. It helps that the cast is so rock solid. As Dr. Jones, Barbara Sukowa is my favorite half-mad TV scientist, a brash know-it-all with a heart that keeps insistently growing. Meanwhile, now fully in charge of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, Olivia comes off like the Demon Empress of All Time, and her ascension to Witness-hood lets Down shine darkly.

12 Monkeys moves so quickly, sometimes beyond sense. One key character flips good-evil sides on a dime. Another character gets out of a jam by, literally, jumping in front of a train and assuming some future someone will come to the rescue. Inevitably, there’s two of everybody. You’d be well served to binge this show from start to finish. But in the spirit of the time-kersmashing narrative, I dove into season 4 with only the barest knowledge of last year, and have had a ball.

And the first few episodes of this final season actually feel like savvily timed counter-programming. At the moment, science fiction’s in a bit of a burp phase on TV. Legion just wrapped a disappointing second seasonWestworld‘s own disappointing second year is two episodes away from hopefully justifying a whole season of Jeffrey Wright pensively finger-twirling an iPad screen. And Syfy’s future belongs to Krypton, a blandly gritty prequel running on the fumiest ideas from the latest Superman movies.

12 Monkeys looks cheaper than two of those series; nothing looks cheaper than Krypton. But its thrills are pulpier, more urgent. I love its hell-for-leather willingness to hurl characters across timelines, transform friends into enemies, pit future selves against past selves. 12 Monkeys is the anti-Westworld, radiating pure-plot propulsion. Nobody ever talks about what they symbolize, and nobody ever spends a whole season slowly riding a horse somewhere.

Although in the fourth episode, the 12 Monkeys gang does take a trip to the Old West. And inside a frontier town’s tavern, there’s a piano man playing unexpected music on the old-time piano. Radiohead? Rolling Stones? Nope: “He’s playing The Munsters!” And a couple scenes later, he’s on to Knight Rider. Consider dropping in for the end of 12 Monkeys: Here’s a world-bending time odyssey with a profound adoration for the ghosts of TV junk past. B+

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