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Monday, December 19, 2011


Occupying a window between "T2" -- which featured the assault on a barely pubescent John -- and the 20-something version in "T3," the pilot finds Sarah Connor ("300's" Lena Headey) vigilantly guarding her teenage son, never knowing when the next portal-popping threat from the future will send them scurrying into retreat.

In fact, John has only just become acquainted with a pretty new classmate, Cameron (Summer Glau), when another Terminator turns up as a substitute teacher, attempting to administer the toughest pop quiz ever. (After toying with excising the scene last summer because of the Virginia Tech shootings, cooler heads prevailed, and it's back mostly intact.)

So the Connors are on the run again, with an FBI agent (Richard T. Jones) in hot pursuit -- introducing an extra "The Fugitive" riff -- along with the mechanical monster. The first of several intriguing plot twists, however, temporarily puts mother and son out of danger -- though for how long remains anybody's guess.
Friedman and Nutter (whose enviable directing record as a pilot launcher continues) recognize that simply scaling down the cat-and-mouse chase sequences for TV won't be enough to sustain a series, so they rely on the movie franchise's time-travel motif to provide new wrinkles that become apparent in episode two -- namely, that emissaries from the future, good and bad, can pop up in this current reality, creating various narrative possibilities, among them another shot at altering humanity's grim destiny.

Even with that, the questionable logic that has allowed the "Terminator" franchise to flourish (such as a guy from the future fathering a child in the past) could easily unravel on an episodic basis. Fortunately, the reworked pilot (shot in New Mexico before production shifted to Los Angeles) exhibits a tighter pace, impressive and abundant action with convincing effects and, frankly, plenty of eye candy between Glau and Headey -- who solidly slips into the Rambette role, complete with the portentous voiceover -- sure to be enjoyed by teenage boys of all ages.
Strategically it all makes perfect sense, provided that Friedman and company can continue meeting the daunting task of oiling the tracks on this thrill ride. "No one is ever safe," Sarah tells her very-important son -- advice that's as true for a sci-fi series facing this many creative hurdles as it is for the world's eventual savior.

I am a fan of time travel fiction, and I am a fan of how greedy studios with complicated rights-holding issues eventually shit the bed, and these two things come together beautifully in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Suffice to say that if you are in need of ironclad time travel logic to drive your science fiction, the Terminator franchise has never been your friend, especially given that it has been passed from creator to creator to creator with little more oversight than a general order to "make something good." Even between films 1 and 2, there are some pretty significant logical gaps; everything post-Cameron, meanwhile, is essentially a working analogue for the many-worlds hypothesis. Even allowing for the fact that Skynet was not destroyed at the end of T2, as Terminator 3 insists, what do we do with a Terminator Salvation that takes place both before, and after, the previous films... to say nothing of a television series that ignores the third and fourth films outright, settling instead for a quantum leap eight years into its narrative future, and a timeline in which an infinite number of Judgment Days still await our heroes at any given time, depending on which way the wind blows?

It is this fibrous complexity to the time travel storyline which, ultimately, is SCC's strength. The timeworks may, in fact, be a step more complex than could be withstood by a Friday-nights-at-10 audience. At various points in the series, we are being directly misled about "which" timeline various characters and events are originating from - and that "which," and its attendant suggestion that there are just a bajillion of these timelines, is a lot for an audience to wrap its mind around. In fact, the series ends with its best time-slip, when John gets warped into the post-Judgment Day future... but a version of the future in which he never became the leader of the resistance. (Or did he? We'll never know. Given SCC's valiant willingness to reinvest the "known" history of the Terminator universe with new interpretations - a notable lack in Terminator Salvation's by-rote adherence to the established mythology - it's possible that the never-produced Season Three would have revealed that John was always meant to take this leap into the future, and that it was only after doing so that he became the leader of the resistance!)

In other words, Sarah Connor Chronicles does two things right:

1) It recognizes that a time travel storyline inherently owes less to established mythology than other mythologies would, and thereby writes itself a license to take the storyline in different directions than what has been canonized previously. This creates an enjoyable string of "elseworlds"-type riffs on what we think we know about Judgment Day, and all that came after, and all that came before. (Best example: the flat-out phenomenal reveal at the end of Season Two, vis-a-vis the motivations of Zeira Corp, John Henry, and Catherine Weaver.)

2) By throwing our assumptions about the continuity of the franchise back at us, over and over again, it legitimately creates a sense of stakes, something Terminators 3 and 4 achieved rarely, if at all.

Should be great, right? Well, not really. However nimble SCC's gymnastics around the elements of the future war and its own contemporary mythology turn out to be, it's still dragged down repeatedly by what can be assumed to be the basic requirements of a weekly network television series. There is a default level of complexity and serialization that SCC is allowed to reach, and go no further. In other words, it always comes back to being just a TV show, a kind if sitcom (without the com), about a loose family of people on the run in unlikely circumstances. And in a lot of ways, the sitcom sucks: with its road-hopping, help-strangers-in-need vibe, The Sarah Connor Chronicles would not be out of place with The Fugitive, The Incredible Hulk or The Littlest Hobo, and that style of TV went out of vogue decades ago. Meanwhile, the back half of its day-to-day mythology are various mysteries about how Skynet will - inexorably, it seems - sprout up in the world, and as mystery plots go, SCC's tend to be sub-Jessica Fletcher.

The biggest problem, though, is the S and C in SCC, i.e. Sarah Connor. Doesn't matter how many term papers have been written about her; Sarah Connor is a shitty choice for a television series protagonist. I don't think Lena Headey is a particularly incapable actress, but the task of turning Sarah into a viable character for weekly drama completely escaped Headey and the series' writers. The Sarah of SCC is neither the hapless waitress of The Terminator nor the batshit-nuts powerhouse of Terminator 2. Instead she's a cold, and in some ways cruel, automaton who faces every new problem with brow furrowed and jaw grimly set. She is, perhaps, the least likeable, least engaging series principal ever. She is given atrocious voiceovers to lead into and out of episodes, quasi-spiritual gobbledegook that could have been deleted wholesale with no detriment to the storytelling, and her spoken dialogue is rarely any better. The core paradox of the character - that she is so desperately trying to save the world and the people around her that she is incapable of expressing feeling for that world or the people around her - might be a dramatic doozie in a different context, but a television show is not that context. On a television show, I'd argue, you need to at least halfway like the people you're spending all this time with. Not so, with this Sarah Connor.
Like Sarah herself, The Sarah Connor Chronicles is unrelentingly melancholic, which might have been another part of its difficulty in finding a lasting audience. I always appreciated the chilly tones of the first two Terminator films, and their palms-up "we're fucked" attitude towards the nuclear war forever beyond the protagonists' headlights. SCC appropriates this aesthetic for better or worse, and the majority of its drama is mined from how the human characters varyingly cope with the overwhelming burden of their weird, pre-cognitive form of survivor's guilt.
As such, Sarah Connor Chronicles stands out because there is legitimately nothing else like it. It's an action/adventure show where there is never even a spritely hint of victory; it's a science-fiction series where almost all the science fiction happens offscreen. And for any deficiencies in its principal character, its supporting cast is interesting enough to carry the load... and sometimes, even, elevate it.

The troubles with Sarah become such a clear ongoing problem for the show that Sarah is frequently sidelined to guest-star status, as the writers move in fits and starts to find the right balance of the characters (before inevitably snapping back to do an entirely Sarah-centric episode, the execrable "Some Must Watch, While Some Must Sleep" being the best example). Much of the weight is shifted to her son John, future leader of the human resistance, who, as played by Thomas Dekker, is as finnicky about that fate as he's been in all other half-dozen portrayals thus far. (Truly, John Connor must be up with Bond and Hamlet in the revolving-actors department.) Dekker has a casual playfulness about him that only occasionally is allowed to peek out from all the doomsaying, but he's a welcome respite from his onscreen mother, and the series makes better and better use of him as it goes along.

As was obvious before the series even hit the airwaves, SCC's largest success is the cloyingly-named Terminator character, Cameron, played by Summer Glau. Glau isn't working on even half the level she was playing at on Firefly (or even her brief Dollhouse stint), but of all the actors to play a Terminator since Arnie, Glau's otherworldly nature hews closest to making us believe that she is, in fact, a machine - albeit, in this case, a machine with serious emotional problems under all the programming. Cameron's bizarrely complex, semi-sexual relationship with John is one of the series' highlights, and the character gets all the best action beats and all the best comedy beats. Really, the show should have been about her instead of Sarah, if the writers weren't willing to share the wealth a bit more. Episodes like "Samson and Delilah," in which Cameron inevitably reverts to her "kill John Connor!" original programming, and "Allison from Palmdale," in which Cameron's buried human memories surface, linger on the mind's eye long after the series has ended - and the fate of Cameron, particularly, is the largest emotional dangling-point left by the series finale.

Other Terminators on the series hit with less success, be they Garrett Dillahunt's repurposed T-888, Cromartie (and later, much more engagingly, the pseudo-Skynet A.I. program, John Henry), or Shirley "Garbage" Manson's icy T-1001. I like Dillahunt as an actor, but feel he was a bit stymied by the material here; Manson, too, may have been befuddled in trying to work out whether she was, ultimately, playing a good guy or a bad guy. (Remember, bad guys never think they're bad guys - even Terminators.) The T-1001 also suffers some rather painful believability setbacks via the fact that, even twenty years later, a television budget apparently isn't up to the task of creating a liquid-metal monster as compelling as the one built by ILM in 1991 for Terminator 2. While Glau's prosthetic appliances recall classic Stan Winston effects, the T-1001 unfortunately brings up bad memories of Soaron from Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.

The series' largest surprise is the welcome badassery of Brian Austin Green as Kyle Reese's brother, back from the future on ambiguous motives. I never, as a teenager, would have thought the phrases "Brian Austin Green" and "badassery" could be linked by a workable sentence structure, but there you have it. (Not for nothing, I guess, does this guy go home to Megan Fox.) Green has some great scenes with Dekker, particularly in "What He Beheld" and "Goodbye To All That," but the character is sidelined and ultimately laid low by one of the running storylines of the second season, the arrival of Derek's future-times girlfriend, Jesse.

On paper, the Jesse/Riley/Derek/John subplot is terrific. It contains one of the series' great reveals - the fact that Riley is not a normal teenaged girl at all - and gives us some of the best post-Judgment Day content in the series, in the "Today is the Day" two-parter. (Odd that both Terminator Salvation and The Sarah Connor Chronicles arrived at the idea of that submarine, completely independently of one another. SCC's obvious influence is Y: The Last Man, though, so I'll give it the advantage in any match-ups.) John's final confrontation with Jesse, and Cameron's final confrontation with Jesse, and Derek's final confrontation with Jesse (boy, there are a lot of "final confrontations" in "Today is the Day, Part 2"), are wall-to-wall power.

So what's the trouble? Simple: Jesse. I think she may actually be the most unappealing character in the history of television. Not an exaggeration: the actual whole history of television. Played by Stephanie Jacobsen, Jesse is a maddening, mean-spirited, illogical, contrived bitch - which can work out fine, provided we aren't supposed to believe that any of our characters (particularly in this case, Derek and Riley) would have fond feelings for her at all. She's terribly written, terribly performed, terribly conceived and terribly delivered. She is terrible, terrible, terrible, and she is flatly unbelievable as either a romantic interest or a soldier. (To whit: Summer Glau and Stephanie Jacobsen must, in reality, be the same size and weight, i.e. tiny. So how is it that I can believe that Glau could pick up a grown man and throw him across a room, while not being able to fathom the notion that Jacobsen could hold her own on the bridge of a submarine? Well that's an easy one: it's called acting.) The Jesse runner drags on forever, and the strength of its conclusion (and, truly, it concludes wonderfully) scarcely make up for the amount of time she spends pissing us off.

A lot of fans may have been disappointed when Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was canceled by FOX, especially since the second season finale was such a cliffhanger. I was dying to know what would happen next, but we probably never will.

Despite that, Syfy has announced that it has acquired the rights to all 31 TSCC episodes and plans to air them on the network. The series will premiere on Syfy on Thursday, April 7, with two episodes beginning at 9:00 p.m. Terminator 3 will air as a lead-in to the premiere on April 7. The show will then air during its regular time-slot on Thursdays from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. With four hours airing every night, fans who missed the show should be able to watch the entire series within a few months.

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