As much as I hate to admit it, I have a problem: I’m addicted to television. So, on that note, I hope this post will provide a place for people to talk about what’s happening on the idiot box. (A term I resent, actually, as television is home to some great storytelling that matches anything found in acclaimed books or award-winning films.)
Fall is upon us, which means it’s also time for a new season of returning favorites (Dexter, my love, I missed you; Heroes, not so much) and debut series (Fringe, True Blood). Last fall saw a number of new shows premiere, few of which were either good or long-lived. So many of my favorite shows get the axe, I’m afraid to try new ones. I’ve been hurt in the past. When Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles premiered last fall on Fox—the worst offender for killing that which I love—I made a promise to only watch it if I knew the show was actually getting renewed for another season. To my great surprise, Sarah Connor and her brooding brood lived to fight more killer robots. And the first season is available now on DVD. It was time for me to give this show a chance. And, due to the writers’ strike, only nine episodes were made, meaning there’s still time to catch up if you want to see the second season’s premiere.
I’m a big fan of the first two Terminator movies and Sarah Connor in particular. She’s right up there with Lt. Ellen Ripley when it comes to cinema’s toughest heroines. The Fox series begins in 1999, after the events of Terminator 2, with Sarah (Brit-import Lena Headey) and her teenage son John (Thomas Dekker), the fated savior of humanity after Judgment Day, still on the run from their many enemies both human and non. A new model of Terminator (the willowy Summer Glau) has been sent from the future to protect them in the coming fight against Skynet’s military defense system. Insert lots of CGI explosions, car crashes, and people getting flung through walls for a really fun action show. They don’t skimp on big-screen cinematography, either. The first three episodes are a little clunky with exposition and the voiceovers make me roll my eyes only slightly less than the ones on Heroes, but the show finds a clever voice in “Heavy Metal” and introduces new storylines and new characters that had me saying “Okay, just one more episode, then I’ll get up from the couch.” Also smart was some handy time travel that makes the series capable of existing entirely separate from the awful Terminator 3 film.
My favorite thing about The Sarah Connor Chronicles is the cast. Lena Headey infuses Sarah with a vulnerability that makes her desire to provide a normal life for her son constantly at odds with her mission to prevent apocalypse. Another standout is Richard T. Jones as James Ellison, an FBI agent who wants to believe…in terminators. The greatest additions to the cast came with guest stars Brian Austin Greene (David Silver from 90210, all grown up!) and Garret Dillahunt. Greene plays Derek Reese, brother of Kyle and therefore John Connor’s uncle, sent back in time to help John’s mission. He has a palpable chemistry with Lena Headey that I hope gets toyed with more in the next season, and a deep mistrust of Cameron that adds great tension to the family dynamics. Then there’s Garret Dillahunt as the evil terminator Cromartie. Dillahunt just has the face of a murderer, poor guy. He played two different psychopaths on HBO’s Deadwood and here he brings a chilling, blank-faced stare to his homicidal mission to destroy anyone standing between him and John Connor. His wicked shootout with the FBI, set to the tune of “The Man Comes Around” was the highlight of an already-entertaining season finale for me. Any show that uses Johnny Cash as a soundtrack for ass-whipping gets some bonus points in my book. The reprise of the song in the episode’s last minutes was also inspired—as a sinister new figure in the Skynet conspiracy made his first appearance walking away from a bomb explosion that left the fate of Cameron up in the air. (Insert bad “She’ll be back” line here. There’s no way this show would return without her.) Summer Glau, such a standout in Firefly and Serenity, portrays a damaged girl of a different sort as the killing machine Cameron. Because of her propensity towards playing weird, her performance is strangely flat to me, but there are little moments where Glau gives her cyborg a spark of humanity that is equal parts touching and terrifying. I suspect after the events of the finale, Cameron will have a lot of new personality quirks for Glau to play around with.
In short, The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a lot better than I thought it would be. It strikes a good balance between the philosophical musings on destiny and mindless popcorn entertainment. It’s not quite as good as genre heavy-hitters like Battlestar Galactica or Lost, but the potential is there. Well-written, moving moments are there. I’m hoping the show will continue to settle into its voice in the coming season. io9’s had a bunch of interesting articles about this that I only browse casually because I’m not into big spoilers, but go here to check some out. Summer Glau will have a chance to show more range as a terminator with a malfunctioning brain, John will step into to his heroic fate even more, and Sarah Connor will continue to fight with every shred of her humanity against the machines that would kill the only thing that makes her life worth living. Good stuff. Add to that Shirley Manson of Garbage as a corporate nutcase most likely connected to Skynet’s coming awakening and, for me, I don’t need a resistance fighter from the future to tell me where I’ll be Monday nights.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles returns with new episodes Monday, September 8th at 8 P.M. EST on Fox.