Just in time to distract us from reality — and from the torrent of “reality TV” that the writers’ guild strike has engendered — FOX is airing a new science-fiction series based on the popular Terminator movie franchise. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles premieres on Sunday, January 13 at 8 (EST), followed by a second episode Monday night at 9.
If you somehow missed the Terminator films, starring California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a fluid supporting cast, here’s the backdrop to the new series: Cybernetic time travelers from a dystopian future — where machines have taken over the Earth and seek to exterminate the last human resistance — return to our own time. They come to hunt down — and in the latter two movies, also to help — the future leaders of the resistance. In the 1984 original, Schwarzenegger plays the seemingly invincible machine — a creepy metal skeleton encased in organic, human-like flesh — programmed to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will become the mother of the organizer of the human resistance, John Connor. To protect his mother, the rebel leader sends Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time — who then falls in love with her, becoming the father of his own boss. In the subsequent movies, a reprogrammed Arnold is sent back to protect the Connors, facing off with increasingly powerful, next-generation Terminators (who are capable of really great special effects).
The Sarah Connor Chronicles is set in the period between the second and third Terminator movies — before Judgment Day and the rise of the machines. John Connor (Thomas Dekker) is an insecure teenager who doesn’t seem at all like humanity’s last, best hope, and those pesky Terminators show up regularly to try to knock him off. Lena Headley plays his tigress mother, Sarah, who is willing to kick any amount of cyborg heinie to protect her son. Though she may look frail, she carries big guns and is not afraid to use them. She is a prickly blend of desperation, determination, and maternal love. Like mothers everywhere, Sarah will kill or die for her child.
The Terminators lurk, monitoring the Internet and government databases for news of John Connor, waiting for another chance. What they lack in social skills, they make up for in force and firepower. Summer Glau plays Cameron, a good Terminator sent to help them survive. She looks like a wisp of silk until she hurls a muscle-bound Terminator through a wall. Seeing her knock the bolts out of cyborgs three times her size never gets old. As in the movies, much of the show is devoted to close-call escapes from the pursuing Terminators. When they are not fleeing from soulless robots that can outrun a car, see through walls, and shrug off shotgun blasts to the chest, John longs to just slouch through high school like everyone else — and, unlike most mothers, Sarah wishes the same.
The pilot and first episode hint at plotlines to come. Sarah, John, and Cameron — when they can pause to catch their breath — make plans to stop Skynet, the network that will lead to the machine takeover. Sarah and John want to do less running and more attacking. FBI agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones) is also hunting the fugitive Sarah, thinking that she is a criminally violent mental patient. The strange events that seem to follow her everywhere eventually begin to persuade him that her talk of homicidal cyborg machines from the future isn’t so crazy after all. These plot details, however, are mostly explored through terse, breathless conversations during lulls in gunfights. It’s all about the chase.
The formula works. Viewers will find themselves glued to the couch, unwilling to miss any action for a trip to the fridge. And with the ongoing writers’ guild strike leaving the TV landscape dominated by reruns, reality TV, and election coverage, this fresh, fun, and well-made series is a welcome gift. FOX has nine completed episodes in the can, so hopefully Sarah Connor will carry us through to the end of hostilities in Tinseltown — if not the ones on the campaign trail.
— Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.