Saturday, December 13, 2008

427



This really sucked. I’m not the only “Terminator” fan who awaited the premier of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” with a skeptically eager frame of mind, though my very flexible expectations failed to be met. Oh, what was wrong with it: Sarah Connor (Lena Headey), that matriarch of the machine strewn future, was gratingly philosophical and relentlessly boneheaded. Her son John (Thomas Dekker), now a 16-year-old dreading the looming hand of fate, was virtually interchangeable with any other annoying teen on TV. And Cameron (Summer Glau), the pseudo-hot terminator sent from the future to protect John, was awkwardly sexual and lacking virtually all of the cold curiosity about human life that made the previous cyborg protector so compelling.

Something happened around that first season finale. I don’t know where the turning point started. Perhaps it was when Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green), resistance fighter from the future and John’s uncle, surprised his nephew with a birthday visit to the boy’s father, now a grade-schooler. Maybe it was with FBI agent James Ellison’s (Richard T. Jones) SWAT team assault on Cromartie (Garret Dillahunt), the terminator hunting the Connor’s, which resulted in a creative, TV budget inspired bloodbath set to the sounds of Johnny Cash. But for me, I think it was during a quiet moment that saw John, standing alone over a temporarily disabled Cameron, lovingly stroke the machine’s hair, his cognitive awareness of the cyborg’s true purpose overwhelmed by sentimentality and pretty fake flesh.

Things steadily got better after the second season began. The series sentimentality was dialed down. John kills a man in self-defense and morphs from a gun-shy dweeb to an increasingly edgy, deadly teenage rebel. Sarah’s determination to prevent nuclear apocalypse from ever occurring intensifies, resulting in plots that comes across more as grim missions than weekly TV troubles. Derek’s presence pays out in spades, his “90210” portrayer making a surprisingly convincing fatalistic hero. And the cyborgian Cameron becomes less an idle protector than an aggressive combatant against the mechanism that created her.

The plots segued from mundane to challenging. One harrowing plot saw Cromartie launch a quite devious plot to kill John with grisly results. Another sees tech firm CEO Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson) revealed as a liquid metal T-1000 actively working towards computer demon Skynet’s creation while raising a human child. Derek encounters a fellow soldier and lover (Stephanie Chaves-Jacobsen) that brings with her a number of unexpected complications. Cameron discovers a terminator that mistakenly went to the 1920’s and became a bank robber. And one wildly good episode, “Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today,” unfolded from five perspectives, culminating with a Mexican bloodbath and the demise of Cromartie.

Some serious themes have even slipped in. One episode sees Derek recognize a war criminal (Richard Schiff) from the future, raising issues of fate and complicity. Another deals with post-traumatic stress, whereas more concern the perils of fate. Yet more hours deal with stalwart sci-fi themes such as the effects of time travel and the potential humanity of machines.

I stuck by the series when it underwhelmed because I knew the source material contained great potential. While nowhere near the current TV heavyweights (“24,” “Lost”) in terms of permanent resonance, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” has become a great surprise, and one I anticipate weekly. If only we could travel back in time and fix up that first season!

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