Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Season in Review: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Sorry for disappearing yet again, it's Crunch Time at the university and there just aren't enough hours in the day...

Here's a preface I'm sure you've all heard before: I liked the first Terminator movie, loved the second, hated the third. It's probably not too much of a stretch to attribute to "Rise of the Machines" the same kind of franchise-killing status as, say, "The Dream Child" for "A Nightmare on Elm Street" - the point of no return, when the pie's been jumped and the shark's been eaten.

Taking into account the relatively weak TV season we've had, in which even the strongest shows faltered (why, yes, Tim Kring, your spider-sense is tingling), it was hard to be optimistic about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. There were just so many potential land-mines: the recasting of iconic characters (by which I mean Arnie and Linda Hamilton - I doubt anyone shed a tear for Edward Furlong), the problematic expansion of the premise (time travel and the Terminators themselves, by sheer necessity, become a lot more common than might perhaps be advisable), the very practical question of how far a series can stray from the original story as established by the films before it loses itself, and a certain degree of demystification, in which we're given unambiguous access to things that had previously been left to our imagination.

Fortunately, it all seems to have turned out rather well.

Mind you, I have doubts about how far this show can run on its own steam - it is, after all, operating on a yes/no premise (can the heroes stop Skynet before Judgement Day?), and you only have to look at "X-Files" to see how that trap is sprung: "Do aliens exist? Yes No Yes No Maybe." (For a more modern version of this problem, see "Lost".)

But the first season of "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" has acquitted itself well, mostly by balancing its exploration of the pre-existing premise with new directions (ie: Sarkissian and the Turk). The show takes liberties with the formula without discarding said formula, and that's not an easy balance to achieve. So, props for that.

What I liked most about the show is the way it mythologizes its parent films, not just by referencing continuity but by actively using it. Kyle Reese becomes this huge, legendary figure post-mortem, but then we meet his older brother Derek and our perspective changes. The pilot picks up immediately after the second movie and then jumps into the future, invalidating the third movie in a very satisfying fashion. Sarah's dramatic escape from the mental hospital leads to Dr. Silverman deifying her. And so it goes.

I have to admit, though, there were some storylines that just didn't work for me. I'm thinking specifically of the whole high school thing with John and Cameron pretending to be normal kids - it just didn't feel like it was going anywhere interesting, though the abbreviated nature of the season could've had something to do with that.

The casting's a bit uneven, with strong performances offset by some unfortunate acting decisions. Summer Glau is brilliant as Cameron, John's pet Terminator, and she's all the more impressive if you remember that it's a complete reversal from her last role, where - as River Tam on "Firefly" - she was a manic, erratic ball of energy. Cameron's the exact opposite: static, modulated, calculating, so that the viewers never forget what she is.

As for the others, I could just about buy Lena Headley as an action heroine, but she lacks the intensity Linda Hamilton brought to the character. And Thomas Dekker... to be honest, I think I liked him better when he was cheerful and rebellious in "Heroes" - the John Connor Non-Stop Pity Party Emo Parade isn't working for me, though he earns major points for really pulling off that "reunion" with Kyle in the finale.

Overall, I liked it: at once familiar and fresh, with plenty of violence (a surprising amount of it, actually) and some clever twists on pre-established continuity. I'd strongly recommend watching the first two films before checking it out, though - exposition isn't abundant, and I imagine the effect for someone unfamiliar with the movies is not unlike constantly perceiving something in the corner of your eye that you can't quite see.