I’m not the biggest Terminator fanboy, but I did believe growing up that one day my real parents would send robots from the future to take me away from my boring, humdrum existence. My fairy-tale kingdom was a post-apocalyptic future, my royal lineage was a couple of plucky time-hopping resistance fighters, and my Excalibur was a pulse rifle with an underslung grenade launcher.
Unfortunately, the disappointment that was Terminator 3 pretty much wiped out that dream. (It had lasted way too long to be healthy anyway.) So I was less than thrilled by the news that C2 Pictures, producers of the aforementioned lemon, would be turning their attentions toward a Terminator TV series. But then came some baffling-but-welcome news: Terminator 3 would be axed from the franchise timeline to make way for a more streamlined backstory. It’s not often that what appears to be a cheap attempt to drain some cash from an aging property starts off by doing something right. I was hesitantly hopeful about the prospects for the series.
It’s a bait-and-switch, though. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, although billed as a spiritual successor to Terminator 2, shares 3’s mindset in one critical way: It doesn’t get the point. Chronicles gives entirely too much screen time to the kind of mundane elements that were largely ignored by the originals, and in doing so fails to capture the streamlined, frenetic pace and the no-holds-barred, last-stand atmosphere that were such crucial parts of those films.
Terminator 2 alluded to an easy plan for “going off the grid,” which included never being within 20 miles of anything that wasn’t a gun, a makeshift paramilitary training camp, or a desert. Chronicles’ premise stays true to this formula by having John Connor meet his future forbidden synthetic love interest at school, and—you know, I think I can stop right there. John Connor goes to school. Public school. In America. The land of fingerprinters, biometric scanners, and MySpace.
Now, I’ve spent too much time debating movies about robots from the future and not enough time chasing girls, so I’m not currently raising a family. I don’t have intimate knowledge about the day-to-day activities in America’s public schools. But it hasn’t been that long since I was a student, and even back in the Mesozoic mid-’90s, I recall a lot of personally identifiable information being recorded and stored right where the machines could get to it by the school system. If I was spending my life on the run from a genocidal artificial intelligence from the future with access to the entirety of humanity’s digitally encoded knowledge, I’d do a little more to keep hidden than lie about my last name.
This one gaffe could be overlooked if it weren’t a symptom of a wider failure. Time travel makes the storyline overly convoluted and too dependent on deus ex machina. We’re a handful of episodes in, and we’ve already seen a couple of cyborgs, a time-displacement core, a laser rifle, and a second Reese brother. The character dynamics are sometimes off—John and Sara Connor suffer from the effort to make them more believable. Given everything these two have seen and done, the last thing they should be is an overprotective mother and a modern-day Anakin Skywalker. John and Cameron (yes, they named his cyborg crush after James Cameron) edge closer with every episode to a cringe-inducing “John, what is love?” moment.
Those same characters, however, are probably the show’s only saving grace. Thomas Decker’s John Connor is whiny, frustrated, and impulsive. So was I at that age, and I didn’t have to deal with the combined troubles of Mad Max and Dawson’s Creek. Lena Headey doesn’t bring Linda Hamilton’s iron physique to Sarah Connor, but her headstrong turn as Gorgo from Frank Miller’s 300 gives her both experience with cinematic violence and street cred with the nerd crowd. Summer Glau’s previous experience—as the maladjusted Manchurian Candidate-like assassin River Tam on Firefly—informs her role as Cameron.
But decent characterization of a boy, his mom, and TV’s prettiest killing machine does not a series make. TV adaptations of movie franchises typically land at the extreme ends of the quality spectrum, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles is debuting dangerously close to the regrettable side.