Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Fight the Future (No, Wait, That's a Different Sci-Fi Franchise)

(ISTV Archive, originally posted January 23)

Genre television is full of parents screwing up their kids. It could be Jack Bristow on “Alias,” who subjected his daughter to mind-control conditioning as a child so she could withstand brainwashing as an adult. Or it could be Jack Bauer in “24,” mollycoddling Kim to the point that she ended up prey to cougar traps (seriously, this never stops being funny to me). And while the king of lunatic-parenting still belongs to "Dexter" foster-dad Harry Morgan ("Therapy, shmerapy! I can sort out my future serial killing son!"), we’ve got a new contender.

Sarah Connor, eponymous lead of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," does a bang-up job of fucking up her kid (with the best of intentions, of course) by relentlessly drilling into her teenage son's brain mantras like "Nobody is EVER safe!" and "Resist the urge to be seen as special or important!"

Lena Headey's tightly-wound performance in the pilot episode is meant to be viewed as lioness-protective, but mostly all you can think is "Climb down from your crazy tree, stress monkey." Her intensity begs the question: Can you still consider someone dangerously paranoid, even when you know she's being hunted down by killer robots from the future? Answer: Hoo-boy, yeah.

Between Headey's repressed-spaz-attack, her agonizingly ponderous voice-overs, and her teenaged son John whining, "You changed the future, you just didn't change it enough!" - one of many lines that makes you wonder, "Okay, just how much is the time travel aspect of this show going to hurt my brain?" - it's easy to think that maybe this just isn’t the show for you.

And it gets a little worse before it gets better, as good robot Summer Glau (who, between this and "Firefly," has got to be wondering what it is about her that keeps getting her cast as hardcore weirdoes) constructs a time machine to shoot them into 2007. This show wasn't initially meant for midseason, which means even when they jump ahead, they're still six months behind the viewer.

Weird, yes, but no weirder than the logic behind the time-jump, which is, "So the bad robots can't find you here." But...just how much damage did you do to the timestream, lady? Unless you were always supposed to, in which case...wouldn't this missing chunk of John Connor's history be pretty well-known to the bad robots already? And if that’s the case, then….uuuuuuggggghhhh. (That would be the sound that tells you to just stop worrying about logic, lest blood rocket out of your eye-sockets from the stress.)

The real reason, of course, is that otherwise the producers would have to film the show as though it took place in 1999, and who's got the energy for that kind of set-dressing? So here we have an entire episode devoted to clarifying that future episodes will place in the present, so don't ask so many damn questions.

You’ve likely gotten the impression that the pilot didn't exactly floor me. You are astute. But one night later, the strangest thing happened: the second episode was miles ahead of the pilot.

(A strange occurrence, as the general notion is that creators get six months to put together their pilot, but once they get greenlit, they have to slap together a second episode in like three weeks - so the quality usually suffers.)

But here we are, with a second episode that manages to find its footing by loosening up a tad. Headey’s mood drops from panic-mode into darkly-ironic, and future freedom-fighter John tries proving his mettle against that most daunting of stress-tests: high school. Not helping in this case is his robot bodyguard, who is busy learning how to act hoo-man (and seriously, thank god for Summer Glau, because with someone less adept at playing Dangerous Weirdo, this bit could get pretty obnoxious otherwise).

After three episodes, the show seems to have developed a solid long-form plot goal that doesn’t involve trotting out a Terminator-of-the-week to menace the regulars. Instead, the characters are on a mission to stop the future before it occurs, by tracking down the new potential creators of Skynet and…uhh…

Well, that’s the fun thing. You can’t have Sarah Connor killing everyone she thinks might be a potential threat week after week, because A) that gets boring pretty quick, B) this is a network show, and C) even after a few justified killings, it would become difficult not to question her sanity. So we see the character instead becoming humanly empathetic to these people who clearly don’t mean to bring about an apocalypse, and as a result, finding non-lethal ways to subdue their threat level.

It’s a theme John asserts in the third episode, questioning the point of hiding, denying their own humanity and behaving like robots to stay safe. And it’s a good theme to have. But based on a steady ratings slide since the premier, I’m not sure how much time they’re going to get to explore it. But lone benefit to the writer’s strike is that the show will get the full run of episodes to prove its worth. Hopefully, that will be enough.

No comments: