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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

DVD Review: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Tue, Sep 2, 2008 at 9:15 AM

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I'm not going to claim that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a great TV show, 'cause it's not. But if you haven't seen it, I will say this: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a better TV show than you probably think it is.

There's a lot of sci-fi on TV these days (or at least there's a lot of stuff that's vaguely genre-related that airs on the Sci Fi Channel), but aside from the occasional episode of Battlestar Galactica (which it feels like airs about once every 10 years), there's not much good sci-fi around. Sarah Connor, like the films that inspired it, is a solid blend of sci-fi and action, something that blends car crashes and chase sequences with ideas about speculative science and futuristic warfare. (I guarantee it's the only primetime action show, for example, to make a casual, off-hand reference to the singularity.)

Season two starts up next week, and the nine-episode-long first season is currently out on DVD if you want to catch up before then. More details--plus some rambling about hot chicks and killer robots!--after the jump.

Let's begin with the hyper-nerdy canonical business: The first thing Sarah Connor does right is ditch Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Sarah Connor more or less ignores the fact that film ever existed, writing off the events therein as those of an "alternate timeline," and fuck, this is kind of one of the goofiest and/or best things about sci-fi: If you don't like something in a story, you can usually find a way to retcon it out of existence so as to get on with telling other, better stories.

Sarah Connor delves into its story a little while after Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with a teenaged John Connor--the future savior of humanity--being cared for by his badass mom, Sarah. On the run from law enforcement and psychologists who think Sarah's prophecies of an apocalyptic war with robots are deluded crazy-person talk, John and Sarah go from town to town, lying low and living under assumed names. But then Cameron--a robot from the future, who looks like River from Firefly and, in one of the show's winking in-jokes, is named after Terminator creator James Cameron--shows up to protect John, and things get a lot more interesting.

The second thing that Sarah Connor does right is casting: 300's Lena Headey takes over from Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and while she's a largely different character here--more approachable and less, you know, terrifying--Headey maintains enough of the character's tough charms to make it never feel like a complete departure. Meanwhile, Thomas Dekker--playing a character who's already been handled by Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, and, as of next summer, Christian Bale--proves likeable and cool as John Connor, and Summer Glau, as Cameron, kind of steals the show as the awkward, superpowered robot disguised as a teenage girl. (Cameron is kind of what would have resulted if Gene Roddenberry decided to make Data a high school cheerleader, or if Small Wonder had been an action show.) Watching these three characters live and run and fight and occasionally collide proves to be pretty entertaining, in large part because these actors seem utterly comfortable in their roles, and show runner Josh Friedman knows how to use them.

(Friedman seems less certain as to what the fuck he's supposed to be doing with boring-ass FBI agent James Ellison, who's played by Richard T. Jones, and, like Cameron, also boasts a name that's a Terminator in-joke. Tasked with tracking down Sarah Connor, Ellison spends most of the first season doing some fantastically bland police work and making sure the usually fast-paced show grinds to a halt once in a while. Late in the season it becomes obvious that Ellison is a Christian, which feels like a really lazy way to add some sort of dimension to the character--but believe it or not, having a Jesus freak who's chasing after a crazy lady who says robots are gonna kill us all somehow ends up not being any more interesting than having a boring-ass FBI agent who's chasing after a crazy lady who says robots are gonna kill us all.)

The Sarah Connor Chronicles stumbles a few times--over the course of these nine episodes, there's some stupid dialogue, a plot hole or two, and at least one dead-end subplot. But all that said, when the whole season is viewed in its entirety, Sarah Connor is way better than I expected it to be, and even better than it felt when its individual episodes aired. By the time this season gets to its final episodes, one senses that it's more or less hit its stride as a fun, fairly clever action show that also delves into some cool science-fiction territory, and I'm pretty sure the second season will be better than the first.

Oh, and also, the season finale contained this bizarre sequence--the below video's vaguely spoiler-ish--which earns the show, at least from me, no end of good will.

Killer robots and Johnny Cash and Lena Headey talking about Lord of the Flies? C'mon! How can that not be kind of great?

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