Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has a strong command of tone, filling scenes of everyday existence with a sense of looming apocalypse and the uncomfortable feeling that violence could break out at any moment. It features a memorably tough female lead as its title character and gets a lot of mileage out of robot enemies with the uncanny ability to pose as human. Its only problem is that all those elements come on loan.
As an extension of the Terminator film franchise, that only makes sense. James Cameron's 1984 original and its 1991 sequel created a template solid enough that even a third-party second sequel couldn't screw it up. But television remakes require a little bit of reinvention to work and with The Sarah Connor Chronicles' pilot we essentially get 45 minutes of Terminator without the series' stars and with special effects that look really impressive. For television.
The story doesn't just pick up not long after the end of Terminator 2, it practically picks up with the same shot. We get footage of a highway rolling by as Sarah Connor (now played by Lena Headey, the Spartan Queen from 300) delivers some overripe narration. "Would he still reach for you," Headey says of her fated-to-save-the-world son, "if they only dream you've ever shared with him was a nightmare?" The year is 1999 (at first), and while this would seem to place the action squarely between the second and third Terminator films, the producers have said this takes place in an "alternate timeline." (Which, to their credit, kind of makes sense for this franchise.)
A spectacular-ish action scene involving an old-school Terminator finding the Connors opens the show. It's a dream sequence, but it establishes an air of paranoia that carries over throughout the episode. It's also enough to spook Sarah into abandoning her fiancé, packing up her son John (Thomas Dekker, Hayden Panettiere's gay, then not-gay, then mysteriously absent best pal from the early episodes of Heroes) and heading to New Mexico. (Her instructions: "Half an hour. One bag. Plus the guns I'll make pancakes.")
There John meets an evil Terminator posing as a substitute teacher who shoots up his classroom then spits out the bon mot, "Class dismissed." Who programs the witticisms into these things anyway? He also meets a helpful/sexy Terminator played by Summer Glau, who brings the same dance-trained physicality she brought to Firefly.
Glau's far and away the most compelling element of the show. We never learn about how her character works, but we get hints that she's "different" from other Terminators they've encountered. If the show wants to become more interesting, it would be smart to concentrate on her character. Dekker's feckless enough to make Edward Furlong look like Joaquin Phoenix. Heady has an admirable intensity but her character has one note and the note gets old after a while.
I've watched the pilot and the second episode now, which airs Monday night and is of comparable quality. I can't say I'll be checking this out regularly unless I hear it gets much better, but then I tend to cut shows loose fairly quickly. There's too much great television to settle for merely good television; I've bailed on Heroes, too. But there are elements of a strong show here and it might turn into one in time. Assuming, of course, that the ongoing writers strike doesn't turn into the entertainment equivalent of T2's Judgment Day.
- The pilot was shot in New Mexico but subsequent episodes were shot on a set that was once Gilmore Girls' Stars Hollow, transformed from a small-town paradise to gritty urban L.A.
- Heady is only 14 years older than Dekker. It would be nice to report that this isn't distracting, particularly in a scene where SPOILER WARNING they end up naked together after traveling through time, but I can't.
- The line, "No one is ever safe," gets set up as this series' equivalent to, "The truth is out there."