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“Will You Join Us?” — Josh Reviews Season Two of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

April 14th, 2009
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In my review of season one of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles as well as my review of the season two premiere, I indicated that while there was a lot that I enjoyed about the show, I also felt that it was far from living up to its potential.

Now that season two has drawn to a close with the airing of “Born to Run” this past Friday (which just might turn out to be a SERIES finale, not just a season finale, as the Fox has not yet announced whether it will renew this ratings-challenged show), do I still feel the same way?

There is so much to enjoy about this exploration of the Terminator franchise.  The acting is solid, both amongst the main cast (particularly, to my great surprise, 90210‘s Brian Austin Green as Derek Reese, brother to the ill-fated Kyle Reese from the first Terminator film) and a high caliber group of guest actors that includes Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing), Dean Winters (Oz, 30 Rock) Stephanie Jacobsen (Battlestar Galactica: Razor) and, in the finale, Joshua Malina (Sports Night, 30 Rock).  The action and special effects are terrific, quite consistently impressive for a weekly television series.  We got to see a lot of great Terminator-on-Terminator combat, and some exciting peeks into the post-Judgment Day devastated future.  

The writers were ambitious in their story-lines, bringing back all sorts of characters and story-threads from the first two Terminator films (the show’s continuity ignores the third one), and taking viewers along on some fascinating explorations of the Terminator world and mythos.  I was overjoyed when the very first episode of season two introduced a new liquid metal T-1000 (like Robert Patrick’s fearsome character in T2).  That was a development I never expected to see.  One of my favorite episodes of the season also had one of the show’s most direct ties to the Terminator films — “The Good Wound,” in which a grievously wounded Sarah Connor hallucinates visions of the long-dead Kyle Reese. I mentioned above that we got some fascinating looks at the post-apocalyptic future that was briefly glimpsed in the two Terminator films, and I loved that the show wasn’t afraid to explore that time-line along with Sarah and John Connor’s adventures in present-day.  Stand-outs in this respect would be the episodes “Allison from Palmdale” in which we learned some of the background of Cameron, the female Terminator played by Summer Glau, as well as the really excellent two-part “Today is the Day,” which depicted an ill-fated submarine expedition lead by a Terminator that had been reprogramed by John Connor.  Or so everyone thought.

What was neat about the show was its central conceit that Skynet’s mission of eliminating Sarah and John Connor (which was the focus of the first two Terminator films) was but a small piece of a much larger puzzle, with lots of machines and humans traveling to various periods of time with all sorts of competing agendas.  I find formulaic, everything-resolved-at-the-end-of-the-hour shows to be pretty boring, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was anything but a show like that.  Yes, most episodes did have a central theme or focus to that week’s story that would come to some sort of resolution by the episode’s end, but each episode also seemed to fit into a much larger mosaic (with only a few exceptions, such as the terrible waste-of-time Sarah-goes-to-a-sleep-clinic episode “Some Must Watch, While Some Must Sleep”).  That is very cool, and gave the show great momentum throughout the 22-episode season.

But this is also the show’s greatest weakness.  As season two (and, if the show is not renewed, the entire series) drew to a close last week, I found myself left with a frustratingly lengthy list of unanswered questions.  Just whose side was the mysterious Weaver (Shirley Manson) really on?  What was she hoping to accomplish with John Henry (Garret Dillahunt)?  Was she the same T-1000 that turned down John Connor’s offer on the submarine in the future (as seen in “Today is the Day”)?  What exactly was John Connor’s offer to her/it?  Who was the entity that hacked John Henry’s systems?  Was it the missing son of Miles Dyson (who was mentioned briefly in the finale)?  Is that mysterious individual (or group) the one responsible for the ultimate creation of Skynet, or is it Weaver?  Will John  Henry become Skynet, or will he become the key to its ultimately defeat?  How exactly did Derek’s girlfriend Jessie manage to access a time machine to travel back in time?  We were given glimpses, over the show’s two seasons, of the machines in the future working on some sort of project — was it just stuff that we already knew about from the films (the creation of Terminators that can masquerade as human beings; the creation of a time machine that John Connor and the resistance will ultimately capture), or was something more going on?

I could go on and on.  So many questions remain, and so many of the characters on the show had motives that are still unclear.

While I have been thrilled by the way that a number of great dramas of the last few year have really broken away from the old-school style of formulaic, episodic story-telling to embrace longer-running, serial stories (shows like Lost, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, etc.) I wonder if shows like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles aren’t showing us a bit of the dark side to that sort of serialized TV writing.  I love a good long-running, inter-connected tale, but I found myself getting frustrated, all season long, by the many questions that this show would pose and then never answer.  (These are problems that I must admit to having with Lost, and with season 4 of BSG, as well, and those are shows which I otherwise adored.)  It’s one thing to have story-lines continue from episode to episode, so that viewers feel like we’re watching adventures that could happen in someone’s real life, with events one week having repercussions in the weeks to come.  But it’s quite another thing to be so obtuse and obscure with one’s story-telling that a viewer seldom really understands why any particular character is doing what he/she is doing.  And that, I think, has been the biggest problem with The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The season ended with a bang, no question, in these last few episodes.  A lot of the season’s story-lines came together, several characters that I didn’t expect to see again re-appeared, one character met with a SHOCKING demise (and high praise to the show, by the way, for catching me totally off guard with that particular twist), and there were a lot of really exciting moments.  And the finale’s cliffhanger ending was a stunner, providing what would be a fine oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-that’s-the-end conclusion to the show, but also presenting a delicious amount of story-telling possibilities should we get to see a third season.  But if this is the end, I will admit to being, on the whole, a bit disappointed with this enterprise.  With so many questions still hanging, these first two seasons of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles don’t feel like a complete story — they feel like the first acts of a much longer tale.  I hope that, should Fox choose to renew the show, the writers take advantage of the opportunity to bring some closure to the show’s many hanging story-lines.  If they can do so while continuing to give us some great Terminator future-war action, then I’ll definitely be along for the ride.

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