Sunday, December 20, 2009

They Have a Plan

They were Created by man
They Rebelled
They Evolved
There are many copies
And they have a plan

No, this isn’t a review of the new Battlestar Galactica straight-to-DVD movie (if I can make it through more than just the first 45 minutes of the film, maybe that’ll be my next project. Until then…) but instead of the DVD release of a show that I assume not as many people watched, FOX’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, season two. The show began airing on Sunday, January 13, 2008 and ran with decent if unspectacular ratings before being ignobly canceled after just two seasons. It’s a damn shame, too, since season two was so good I would have been frothing at the mouth waiting for the third season to be released, had the cancellation not occurred.

Season one ended on such a shocking cliffhanger that it’s impossible not to wonder how I actually survived the months between my DVD viewing of the two seasons. Not only had the covers of Sarah Connor (300’s Lena Headey) and her son John (Thomas Dekker, Heroes) been cracked by a couple of Russian-related moogs intent on doing them harm, but Agent Ellis’ (Richard T. Jones, Vantage Point)  FBI team learns just what happens to a group of heavily-armed agents who go up against Cromartie, a T-888 sent back in time to kill John Connor. (Hint: The FBI doesn’t do so well). Oh, yeah, and friendly Terminator Cameron (Summer Glau, Firefly) was in a car that got, well, car-bombed. Season two picks up immediately following the events, and stuff gets crazy…

In the confusion, the would-be assassins fail to realize that Cameron didn’t exactly die in the bombing. And stuff gets even better from there. After dispatching of the assailants, Cameron’s programming resets, leading to an outstanding sequence of her pursuing her former ally John Connor through the streets of Los Angeles. Almost as good is Cromartie letting Ellis live, leading to Ellis questioning what he believes and leaving the FBI to search for information on the Terminators another way, through the private company of Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson of Garbage fame). And so begins the second season of Terminator, which takes everything that was great about the first season and stretches it out over a longer run of episodes and almost makes the perfect show out of it.

After the first episode, our weary heroes need to find a new home and base of operations (their old one kinda burned down) and new obstacles arrive: John learns about girls and relationships with schoolmate Riley (Leven Rambin, All My Children), and a list left on their basement wall in blood by someone else from the future leads them on jobs throughout the city from a nuclear power plant to a Japanese computer company suspected of creating the new Skynet program. It’s not all good though, and one storyline in particular takes up far too many episodes, four, for what it ultimately provides to the plot. Still fantastic episodes abound on these six disks, starting with the opener, Samson and Delilah. Allison from Palmdale tells a bit about the girl Cameron was modeled after; Goodbye to All That finds John and his uncle Derek Reese (Brian Austin Greene, 90210) protecting a future Resistance hero from a current Terminator; The Tower is Tall but the Fall is Short sees our heroes seeing a therapist, but not for the reasons you might think; Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today shows us a south-of-the-border shoot-out with Cromartie, Complications has Derek’s lover Jesse from the future (Stephanie Jacobsen, BSG: Razor) bringing Derek to interrogate a suspected future Skynet collaborator (Richard Schiff, The West Wing); Self Made Man, about what happens when you overshoot when time traveling; The two-part Today is the Day flash-backs Jesse to her final days on a friendly-Terminator driven submarine; And the finale episode Born to Run is an absolute treat, with another cliffhanger ending that will drop your jaw on the floor and curse out FOX for not bringing this great show back for one more undeniably awesome season.

Despite obviously sinking most of the show’s budget into the special effects department (and the effects look GREAT on TV) executive producer Josh Friedman had some great talent to work with. Besides all the great technical work and writing  his crew did, standout among the behind the scenes  belongs to Bear McCreary. Musicman for such outstanding sci-fi shows as Battlestar Galactica and Eureka, Bear had the unenviable task of creating a score for the series but remain true to the score of the first two Terminator movies. In that, Bear succeeded spectacularly, creating a sound that was obviously new, but managed  to hearken back to the 80’s, when the stars of the show were Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, and the Governator. It’s just a perfect thing that many composers would have screwed up somewhere, but not Bear. He’s just that damn good.

Acting was something Friedman had in good supply on the show too. Everyone had their moments, but you couldn’t get much better than Headey as Sarah Connor unless you had Linda Hamilton return (the Linda Hamilton from twenty years ago, mind you). Headey however does her damndest and succeeds in harnessing Sarah’s distrust, fear, anger and frustration without it seeming too much. She epitomizes sexy without going too over-the-top, and for that alone she should be lauded. That she’s that and more is icing on the cake. And Glau is perfect for the tinman-like Cameron, creature without a heart who just might be the one who kills John Connor if she malfunctions again. Brian Austin Green returns from the first season with a jacked bod and great storylines. Not entirely trusted by anyone in the house, Green really pulls it off as Kyle Reese’s brother, and really comes through as the level-headed, warm-hearted member of the house. Jones is actually disappointing as Agent Ellis, what began as an interesting character in the first season got relegated to second-tier status the second time around, and except for some great interaction with the other characters, Jones is wasted in much of the season. Of course, that may be because of the trifecta of new talent that stole screen-time from him. This was Shirley Manson’s first acting job. No, really. She’s perfect as Catherine Weaver, an executive with a secret and an interest in the Terminators and where they come from. If Manson doesn’t go back to Garbage, I hope she gets more parts like this. Levin Rambin is actually pretty good once you get past her first few scenes. She has good chemistry with John Connor and although her character gets put through the wringer writing-wise, you really end up liking her. Maybe it’s the smile, the cocky attitude, the pain under the skin, but I really felt connected with the character, even if it wasn’t a character the show particularly wanted. And Stephanie Jacobsen is serviceable, though not all that great, as another resistance fighter from the future and seems to play double agent, working sometimes with Derek while secretly spying on the Connors and their allies.

The best acting jobs on the show might belong to Thomas Dekker as John Connor and Garret Dillahunt (Last House on the Left) as the Terminator Cromartie. John undergoes a transformation during the show’s second season, the reasons for which are eventually explained to us over the course of the season.  The result is an even better performance than he had done the first time around, and he really comes front and center , beginning to become the man he was born to be. Dillahunt doesn’t do much through the first half-dozen episodes, but it’s the second half of the season where he shines through. Watching his performance throughout the season was just a joy, and if you ever watch this show (and you should!) remind yourself to ask why this man’s not in more things this good. He, like Dekker, are too good to pass up.

The show’s not without it’s flaws - so few shows are - but my biggest problem is with the time-travel aspect. Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but in the original movies it was very difficult to send people (or terminators) back in time, but during the course of the show no fewer than ten characters were sent back to the “current” time period. It gets a little weird when you suddenly have all these characters who all the sudden are from the future. If it was so damn easy, why didn’t Skynet just send an army to the past and be done with it? It’s not bad, just seems off to me. That, plus the unusually poor four-episode side-track I mentioned before, are the majority of my problems with the show.

You know what’s really scary? Not that this show didn’t get picked up by FOX, but that FOX picked up the Joss Whedon show Dollhouse to run another season (and get canceled to boot) rather than give this show another chance, despite similar ratings. After the somewhat disappointing Terminator:Salvation, I might still hope that people will remember this show and just how good it is, because FOX has made sure that by canceling it, there probably won’t be more smart and well-planned entertainment like this on network television. SyFy, see if you can pick up the rights to this series, because what Terminator really needs is the old SyFy treatment like it’s likewise geek oriented BSG.


Megmo Eskimo said...

'Latest Issue' has FINALLY returned!!! Well it may have taken over a year to do so but it was well worth the wait. Perceptive review of a fabulous yet underrated show. Lena Heady, Thomas Dekker and Shirley Manson were fantastic to watch. I hope this spurs more people to watch it...and maybe SyFy will heed your advice and pick it up!

♥ Lisa ♥ said...

Having this show leave breaks my heart. I loved this gem, sadly when I explained it to others they seemed to always get stuck on the female terminator angle. Perhaps I need to find new friends? *laughs* I love Summer Glau (RIP Firefly) and hopefully she'll find another show to shine in.

Jeff said...

This show got short shrift, I agree. I do appreciate that FOX gave Dollhouse the opportunity to write to a fairly graceful exit, as like TSCC it was a show that only got better during its second season. Shame they could not have done more with TSCC, though -- so much plot potential flushed. I will be lending my DVDs out to friends for whom the show was never even on their radar.