Who’d have guessed that, 25 years after the success of The Terminator, the most substantive contribution to this still-kicking bit of sci-fi mythos wouldn’t be that film’s third mega-budget summer sequel, but a FOX TV show? Both love letter to and continuation of James Cameron’s duology (subsequent theatrical films are ignored in this timeline), The Sarah Connor Chronicles‘s much improved second season outdoes McG’s gorgeous but braindead Terminator Salvation for both conceptual creativity and the much-needed backbone of tangible character drama. While motivations and characterizations remain a bit sketchy across the show’s sizeable cast, it is in the former arena that this series most fully lives up to the expectations of its predecessors. Not only does the series imagine a more fully fleshed out progression for the central story of the sentient computer SkyNet’s nuclear war against mankind, but also takes any number of ideas implicit in Terminator‘s central Frankenstein conflict and runs with them to intriguing, sometimes revelatory ends.
Sarah Connor Chronicles is nothing if not drunk on the possibilities of time travel. Newfound dimensions in the war between man and machine emerge as increasing numbers of future fighters are found to have traveled back in time to influence the outcome of events: soldiers preparing the way for the post-apocalypse resistance, traitorous humans carrying out missions for SkyNet in exchange for rewards, and machines that hunt, protect, and even blend in with members of the human populace for any number of specific goals. Alas, this carefully woven web of metaphysical drama proves something of a double-edged sword. The sublime, such as when John meets his father—only a young child—for the first time, is sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of soap operatic hysteria: One too many hidden motivations and secret intentions suggest that the writers were simply padding things out as much as possible regardless of how much implausibility they treaded. Still, warts and all, it’s a hike well worthwhile through this formidable labyrinth of sci-fi conundrums, grounded by the accidental nuclear family of John (Thomas Dekker) and Sarah Connor (a perfectly game Lena Headey), Cameron (Summer Glau, delightfully glib in manner), the female cyborg reprogrammed by future John to protect his present self, and Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green), John’s uncle and brother to his deceased father Kyle.
Ironically, the most satisfying episodes aren’t those that cover new turf (there are enough new developments and characters here for a half dozen films), but those in which all necessary plotting and character development is already in the bag, leaving the writers free to play with the conventions of the format. Though Sarah Connor Chronicles often lags viscerally as a result of its relatively tame TV aesthetic (one regrettably plagued by meaningless Greengrassian nervousness), it tends to make up for it in narrative creativity, often paralleling and intertwining past, present, and future events in manners that echo everything from Rashomon to the second Godfather. Such storytelling methods help to shed light on the unique vantage points held by all in this battle—those who fight on the same side often do so for purely incidental reasons—and it’s refreshing to see these characters settle down, inasmuch as is possible, as gunfights and chases subside and the routine of tracking down the genesis of SkyNet’s artificial intelligence while under the guise of fake identities kicks in as a daily affair.
As layers of the onion peel away to reveal deeper whodunit truths, so too progresses the series’s consideration of both morality under the duress of chaos and what, tangibly, makes us human. To the latter end, Cameron proves the most ingenious creation herein, as her somewhat clueless social skills (nothing keeps her from stating what’s on her mind) and inquisitive approach to human behavior (dangling a bare foot out a car window, she reports that she’s seeing what it’s like to “get away from it all”) suggests an overgrown kitten pawing a ball of string for the first time. While humorously poking at her cybernetic nature (the “I don’t sleep” gag never gets old), the writers provide thoughtful experiences to reveal her growth as a mind; ultimately, her trajectory all but confirms a ghost in the machine.
On the ominous flipside is John Henry, a young artificial intelligence program permitted by his owners to inhabit a recovered, CPU-deprived terminator chassis (played by Garret Dillahunt; think cyberpunk meets Being John Malkovich). Trying to appreciate the concepts of faith and morality, it asks thoughtfully, “Am I one of God’s children?” Like the much-referenced trip of Dorothy to see the Wizard of Oz, it is with such swift tugs of the curtain that Sarah Connor Chronicles probes our inner natures and the conflicts of our modern world, often asking more questions than it answers but offering a serious reflection nevertheless. The riches to be found herein never go as deep as their cinematic predecessors, but that there’s more than what meets the eye is cause for celebration enough.
Given the lack of technical flair on display, saying this DVD transfer does justice to the material is hardly praise. Image is clean with minimal edge enhancement, although blacks and shadows are often unsatisfying and flat. The sound mix is equal parts audible and unremarkable.
A bunch of terminated scenes, a gag reel, four lively episode commentaries with the cast and crew (among many sterling moments is the typically silent Summer Glau's impromptu declaration of love for firemen), an enjoyably par for the course eight-part featurette on the genesis and production of the series, a preview for Terminator Salvation, and a hilariously propagandistic Blu-ray ad.
While one hopes that we've yet to see the definitive post-Cameron Terminator creation, the highly respectable Sarah Connor Chronicles: Season 2 has enough meat on its bones to satiate for the time being.