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Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season One   B-

Warner Bros. Entertainment

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Creator: Josh Friedman
Cast: Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, Richard T. Jones.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Nobody goes home. Nobody else comes through. It's just him and me."

Would that that were the case. But even hardened resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) could not have imagined the power of franchising when he uttered those words in 1984's The Terminator. Cult hits beget giant blockbusters, which beget lingering catch phrases, which beget improbable runs at the governor's office, which beget even more giant blockbusters... which beget The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The difficulty with expanding on the original movie is that it was essentially a one-off, establishing a contained narrative based around a cause-effect time paradox. Director James Cameron gambled a bit by positing a sequel which undid that set framework, but he escaped unharmed largely because it was quite a compelling scenario in its own right. (Also, the man knows how to film a car chase like nobody's business.) But in so doing, he opened the door for all kinds of narrative tinkering, with new robot killers coming back through time almost on a whim and the ground rules of the first film gradually falling further and further by the wayside.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles both benefits and suffers from this trend. As a TV series, it is required to expand the Terminator mythos exponentially while still staying true to the spirit and intent of Cameron's films. It walks a tricky line, which gets trickier every time the writers need to come up with a new hook to keep the viewers interested. The show begins after the events of the second film, with sci-fi messiah mom Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her son John (Thomas Dekker) still on the run from the authorities. Fears of the future still haunt them -- a future where machines have taken over the world and John is fated to lead a human resistance movement that finally topples them -- and they have good reason to be paranoid. More T-800 Terminators (cyborg assassins that can pass for human) have been sent back in time to hunt them down, along with a gaggle of human resistance fighters engaged in nebulous missions of their own. Direct assistance comes in the form of a reprogrammed Terminator (Summer Glau), who, like Schwarzenegger's robot in the second film, is here to help. With new players on the scene and the danger escalating by the minute, Sarah decides to take the fight to the machines: hunting down all the possible ways they can take over and eliminating them before they can constitute a threat.

From a continuity standpoint, it's shaky as hell, and it doesn't do any favors by periodically looping back on itself. The number of Terminators that keep popping up starts to reduce their menace after awhile and scary logic holes emerge which fans had best not poke at lest the entire endeavor collapse in on itself. Gimmicks like the arrival of Reese's brother Derek (Brian Austin Green) and extraneous subplots such as Sarah's romance with a goodhearted paramedic (Dean Winters) serve more to clutter than enhance. The show's soap-opera proclivities wear out their welcome very quickly, particularly John's efforts to attain a "normal" life through the trials and travails of high school. (Flunking trig and getting picked on in the locker room kind of take a back seat when robot death machines are gunning for your pretty-boy butt.)

Things improve tremendously, however, if you accept The Sarah Connor Chronicles on its own terms and just enjoy the ride. The plot threads work best when they adhere as closely as possible to the spirit of the movies -- most notably an extended arc involving a chess-playing computer called the Turk, which may eventually evolve into a malevolent AI. The show also handles the nuts and bolts of its universe with exceptional skill, including both a number of clever throwaway concepts (my favorite involves a T-800 disguised as a substitute teacher) and high production values that allow it to reasonably emulate Cameron's action pieces. It has a streak of darkness to it as well, weighing the consequences of killing innocents who may inadvertently trigger an apocalypse and showing flashes of brilliance in future sequences every bit as horrifying as the movies imply.

The show's biggest trump card, however, remains its two leading ladies. Headey strikes a terrific balance between evoking Linda Hamilton's performances from the movies and making the role her own. She is unquestionably Sarah, but a Sarah whom the actress can occupy unchallenged without invoking comparisons to her predecessor. Glau, for her part, has officially inherited Christina Ricci's mantle of Creepy Chick We Can't Get Enough Of. With her thousand-yard stare and deliberately blank delivery, she screams "killer robot" in all the best ways, and while the show sometimes tries too hard to enhance her sex appeal, she remains one of the biggest reasons to keep tuning in.

The considerable expense of The Sarah Connor Chronicles has left its future a wee bit dicey, and while the currently-airing second season has done all right, there are signs of further cracks forming in the foundation. The Season One DVD makes an easy introduction for new viewers, however: it's only nine episodes long and while it ends on a cliffhanger, its narrative arc is more or less self-contained. The extras are interesting, but unexceptional, consisting mostly of behind-the-scenes stuff and some fair-to-middling audio commentaries for three of the nine episodes. Though not a must-own on the caliber of Cameron's movies, it brings its share of pleasures to the table, and fans willing to be flexible will find an interesting riff on the Terminator franchise here. Things may get worse before they get better (we'll see how McG's movie does next year), but for now, The Sarah Connor Chronicles is holding the line with reasonable aplomb.

Review published 09.12.2008.

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