Sunday, January 20, 2008

TV Review: Terminator - The Sarah Connor Chronicles

I consider myself an unabashed Terminator junkie. I’ve seen the three movies more times than anyone ever should. For a while my wife had an image of a gun-toting, teeth-clenching Linda Hamilton as our PC desktop background, which I fully endorsed. I became envious when my brother-in-law moved to California, not because of the beautiful weather and, uh, scenery, but because he would be residing in the state of Governor T-101 himself.

So it would be gross understatement that I eagerly anticipated the two-night series premier of Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Set after Connor and her preteen son John have made Cyberdyne go cablooey, the series certainly has a tough act to follow. All three of the original movies are solid, quotable in everyday life, and even carry a message about the possible destruction of humanity without being heavy-handed.
Unfortunately, the first two episodes failed to live up to this legacy. It was just a little too slick and glossy to make it stand out from the many other cookie-cutter action/suspense shows on network television.

Although the results were decidedly mixed, there are some positives that make the show worth watching:

There is plenty of suspense, action, and shoot-em-up sequences to keep viewers interested in what will happen next.

There are tie-ins and similarities to the three original movies that Terminator fans will notice and enjoy. The first episode featured movie staples such as the standard cyborg glare-and-walk, the line “come with me if you want to live,” and John Connor sulking about his future as leader of the worldwide resistance.

The acting is good; Lena Headey as Sarah, Thomas Dekker as John, and Summer Glau as femme terminator Cameron all do a nice job. The characters will have room to develop; John of course will transform from the mopey teenager he is now into the less-mopey young man of T3, and eventually into the badass leader of the resistance.

In a ploy long used in television but mastered by Fox in many of its programs, there is plenty of eye candy for hormonal teenage dudes out there. The Terminator-themed Maxim photo shoot starring Headey and Glau is probably inevitable.

Despite this, the series has a long way to go to equal any of the three movies. It’s doubtful that fans of the movie franchise will enjoy the television series as much, and it’s even possible that some fans will view the show as a waste of time.

The first two episodes lacked the grittiness and dark undertones of the movies, especially those of T1. That movie featured a dirty and grimy Los Angeles of bums, chain-smoking cops, and naïve 20-somethings looking for disco kicks, and had an accompanying running soundtrack that sounded like a techno cross between the video game Tron and the band Suicide. It all combined to increase suspense and add to the apocalyptic themes of the movie.

Each of the three movies raised interesting notions about the fate of humanity and how people, through increasingly complex technology designed to advance and protect human existence, could actually unknowingly cause their demise. This major theme was lacking in the first two episodes, probably lost somewhere in a hail of gunfire and the Family Connor running like hell. I’m not asking for the show to turn into a Sartre-like discourse on the meaning of life, but right now the biggest philosophical question raised is the inevitable sexual confusion John will experience as he debates whether he should try to nail his underage femme protector.

Assuming the television series follows the storylines of T2 and T3, some of the show’s mystery is already gone, since anyone familiar with those movies already knows the eventual outcome. In T3, we learn that a new T-101 with a muted understanding of the English language comes back again to protect John, though for some reason this model’s face is far more wrinkled than the T-101 model of T1. We also learn that John’s living off the grid, chugging Budweiser for maximum product placement, and popping pills from various animal hospitals. We learn that the cyborg creators value beauty, since the female Terminator sent back to kill John is damn gorgeous. Finally, we learn that John marries the red-haired chick from My So-Called Life.

The first two episodes were littered with close calls and narrow escapes, a motif Fox has shamelessly used in shows such as Prison Break and 24. Add to that the premiere episode’s introduction of John, Sarah, and Cameron time-traveling from 1999 to 2007, and there’s a potential disastrous recipe for ridiculous storyline twists and abandoned plotlines.

At this point it’s a toss-up as to whether The Sarah Connor Chronicles will succeed or fail. With a nice time slot following Prison Break and frequent promos during the NFL playoffs, the show will likely attract a decent audience. Whether the show can actually match the quality of three Terminator movies remains to be seen.

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