Under the Radar: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

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Under the Radar is a column by Strange Harbors that explores hidden gems in pop culture. Whether it's a little seen film, an underappreciated television show, or a forgotten comic, there's a lot of quality stuff out there that goes relatively unnoticed. This column's job is to shine an oft-needed light on these overlooked, but ultimately worthwhile, works. This week, we'll be taking a look at the short-lived but excellent Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - a television series that captured the magic of the James Cameron films way more than their later sequels ever did. 

I first saw Terminator 2: Judgement Day when I was ten years old, and probably like many others of my generation, the second installment of James Cameron’s sci-fi duology was my action movie awakening. Although I was too young to appreciate it upon its 1991 release, Terminator 2 was the perfect confluence of successful “gotcha” marketing (a feat almost impossible to replicate nowadays because of the internet), balls-to-the-wall action, and cutting-edge visual effects. A dutiful Arnold Schwarzenegger in a surprising role reversal from the first film, a serpentine Robert Patrick as the villainous T-1000, and a hard-as-nails Linda Hamilton reprising her mom-on-the-run Sarah Connor make up the keystones of one the best action sequels of all time.

I didn’t really understand it at the time, being only ten years old, but what made the first two Terminator films so special wasn’t the revolutionary special effects, breakneck set-pieces, or cyborg-on-cyborg action, but its depiction of a mother’s love for her son. Although you can’t possibly ignore the iconic sci-fi moments - the first time you see Arnold’s T-800 rampage through the police station, or the first time the liquid metal T-1000 reels from a shotgun blast only to reform itself - none of it would work as well without its emotional throughline: that Sarah Connor would do anything to protect her son. John Connor may be the future leader of the resistance and the savior of mankind, but to Sarah, he’s just her boy. And the more the series deviated from this simple emotional core, the worse it got. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was a merely competent teen thriller that just happened to have Skynet and robots in it, Terminator: Salvation was so far up its own ass that all sensibility went out the window, and the less that’s said about the lazy Terminator: Genisys, the better.

This brings us to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - in my opinion the only other installment of the franchise worthy of succeeding the James Cameron films. Helmed by writer and producer Josh Friedman (The War of the Worlds, The Black Dahlia), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles stars a pre-Game of Thrones Lena Headey as Sarah Connor, and Thomas Dekker (Heroes, A Nightmare on Elm Street) as her son John. Taking place four years after the conclusion of Judgment Day, the show wisely circumvents the mediocrity of Rise of the Machines, and sees the Connors on the run once more, relocating to New Mexico after Sarah abandons her fiancée Charley Dixon (Dean Winters). The core cast is rounded out by Summer Glau (FireflyDollhouse) in the cyborg protector role of Cameron, sent by an adult John Connor in the future to aid his younger self, and Richard T. Jones (GodzillaWhy Did I Get Married?) as James Ellison, an FBI agent tasked with hunting down the Connors. The series ran a scant 31 episodes on FOX, with a writer's strike-abbreviated first season of only 9 episodes and a second season of 22 episodes, before being unceremoniously cancelled. Despite its short run, however, The Sarah Connor Chronicles cemented itself as a show ahead of its time with sharp writing, strong character work, and a daring disregard for the status quo with twists that are as natural as they are surprising.

The first thing you'll notice about The Sarah Connor Chronicles is that it is not a lighthearted affair. Unlike its big screen counterparts, there's not as much tongue-in-cheek humor as you would expect from a story about killer robots from the future. Summer Glau's metal guardian is the closest the show gets to comic relief, with her awkwardness and generally off-putting remarks getting played for some laughs. For the most part, though, the show is deadly serious. Bleak, morose, and thrilling, The Sarah Connor Chronicles is grim and gritty done right. But what makes the show special is the aforementioned focus on the relationship between Sarah Connor and her son. The show is called The Sarah Connor Chronicles for a reason, and Lena Headey does excellent work as the jaded and tired Sarah Connor, admirably filling Linda Hamilton's shoes. A lot of reviews at the time pegged Headey's Sarah as "stiff" or "wooden," but I never thought so. Played with a steely and quiet intensity, Headey carries the show on her shoulders with a strong performance that put the franchise's focus back on her relationship with John, and what it means to be the mother of humanity's deliverance from the Skynet apocalypse. When there's danger around every corner and cyborg assassins always looking to exterminate your child, there isn't much time to be fun mom, and the show leans into how overprotective and overbearing Sarah Connor can be. Headey never reaches the extremes of Linda Hamilton's unhinged Sarah Connor (and probably for good reason, as 20-plus episodes of Hamilton-level Sarah Connor would probably be too much for network television), but every once in a while, her ferocious devotion to John will shine through and remind us of what she is willing to sacrifice. This is a woman who will not hesitate to put a bullet in her own brain before compromising her son, and when she proclaims "DO IT!" when held at gunpoint by a T-888, in a register between a snarl and a desperate request, the audience believes her willingness to die for the cause.  

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"...A daring disregard for the status quo with twists that are as natural as they are surprising."

The rest of the cast is great as well. Thomas Dekker's John Connor walks a fine line between the rebelliousness of a snot-nosed teen and the resourcefulness of the future savior of mankind, and although some critics weren't quite fond of his portrayal, Friedman and company did an admirable job keeping clichéd teen archetype tendencies to a minimum - this John Connor is a far cry from the awfulness that plagues many teen characters of other prestige dramas. And even though FOX probably did the show a misleading disservice focusing the promotion and advertising so heavily on Summer Glau's Cameron, it's hard to blame the network when her performance is such an asset to the show. Glau's performance filling the Schwarzenegger role is revelatory: eerie, convincing, and occasionally humorous, sometimes you'll completely forget that you're watching a human portraying a robot. The biggest surprise of The Sarah Connor Chronicles cast, however, is Brian Austin Green (Beverly Hills 90210, Happy Endings) as Derek Reese, John's uncle. Making his first true appearance in the first season episode "What He Beheld" as the sole survivor of a group resistance fighters sent back in time to stop Skynet independently from Sarah and John, Derek is eventually brought into the fold when he crosses paths with the Connors as they both investigate an advanced chess-playing AI known as The Turk. Probably best known for his role as David Silver on Beverly Hills 90210, Green cut his teeth on the teen drama series and various other supporting roles. Overcoming both his soap opera reputation and the clichéd hardened soldier trope, Green imbues Derek Reese with a complexity that often makes his character the one most compelling to watch. As Kyle Reese's brother and also a member of the future resistance, Derek is a soldier, through and through - ruthless, efficient, and unafraid to get his hands dirty. But what makes the character so great is an undercurrent of tenderness and a paternal/fraternal regard for John Connor, conveying much more depth than just a military mook that helps the Connors in combat matters. The character is also fleshed out in realistic ways: he is loyal to the cause and above all else, loyal to John Connor, but Green's Derek Reese wears his frustrations on his sleeve - frustrations that present day John hasn't yet developed the skills and hardness required of him, and frustrations at future John for his cryptic orders and secretive ways. It's a nuanced performance, and one of the best on the show. 

For Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, you'll come for cyborg brawls, but you'll stay for Josh Friedman's storytelling. Friedman and team do an incredible job in building a world and weaving plot, and the most striking thing about the show is how it relishes its moral ambiguity: save for the single-mindedness of Skynet, every character on the show is an operator in the grey to some extent. Hardliners in the future resistance disillusioned with John's obtuse leadership and reliance on metal, rogue cyborgs splintered off from Skynet, and impressionable newborn AIs are all huge elements in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and they all add to the delicious cauldron of moral complexity and unpredictability that makes the series so compelling. Not everyone is who they seem, and fluid loyalties will keep you guessing at all times. I won't spoil anything here, but the show's use of Garrett Dillahunt is especially adept, and the veteran character actor's arc that evolves from the mindless (but still skillfully executed) role of a ruthless T-888 hunting the Connors into...something else - is fantastic. His dynamic with the mysterious Catherine Weaver, a big corporate player in the show's second season played by Scottish alt-rock star Shirley Manson, is one of the show's other highlights, and is in equal measures ballsy and thrilling in ways that completely upends the Terminator mythos.

Josh Friedman and his writers' room take a lot of risks, and the result is one of the most innovative sci-fi shows of the last decade. Although the show is quite serialized, the writers' playfulness allows them to produce fan favorite one offs such as "Self Made Man," a standalone episode in the second season that has Cameron investigating the early 20th century history of a famous real estate rivalry after she notices a T-888 model in one of the old photographs. She bonds with a wheelchair-bound librarian (Billy Lush) as they sleuth together, and the episode comes across as just plain fun, with some thrilling action and touching moments sprinkled in. And although The Sarah Connor Chronicles loves pushing the envelope when it comes to fun and unexpected storylines, sometimes the risk-taking doesn't quite work. The second season suffers a little from uneven pacing and the obvious need to pad out to 20-plus episodes, with a strange Sarah Connor insomnia plot that comes across as tedious and wheel-spinning instead of surreal and intriguing, and the introduction of Riley (Leven Rambin), a love interest for John in which the payoff is barely worth the setup.  

The Sarah Connor Chronicles, despite its short life, is the true heir to James Cameron's original stories. The show continues with the emotional core that made the first two films so great, with an intense focus on a mother's fight for survival and her fierce devotion to her son. Whether it was the perception that the show was just a cheap cash grab for an existing franchise, or the fact that its measured pace was a little too slow for those expecting non-stop action, The Sarah Connor Chronicles was an overlooked show that deserved much better. In the age of Netflix,  streaming, and comic-book films, this is a show that would have fit right in with multiple seasons and even an ardent fanbase today - unfortunately, it was just a little too early to the party. Thankfully, the show also ended with a note-perfect finale that doubled as a series finale, providing fans with closure as they mourned its cancellation. If you're looking for a complete Terminator experience, start off with the James Cameron films, jump right into The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and skip the rest. You won't be disappointed.