I enjoyed the first season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, despite its shortened season which fell victim to the writer's strike, I was looking forward to what they had in store for Season Two. The first season had excellent performances and action sequences, appealing storylines, and show runner Josh Friedman was performing his job well. I expected things to fall in line for Season Two, however I had a small bit of apprehension: the addition of Shirley Manson, normally the lead singer of the band Garbage, to the cast.
I thought this was a dicey proposition. Manson had not done any real acting work before, and Friedman might have been overreaching. Granted, his casting masterstroke in Season One was Brian Austin Green, formerly of Beverly Hills 90210, now appearing as Derek Reese, brother of Kyle. As a brief overview for those unfamiliar with the mythology, Kyle is father to John Connor (Thomas Dekker, A Nightmare on Elm Street), leader of the resistance against Skynet and the cyborg army of terminators. John's mother Sarah is played by Lena Headley (300). And of course, it wouldn't be a show about terminators without one as a cast regular; enter Summer Glau (Firefly) as Cameron. More on all of them in a minute.
Back to the risky decision. Manson plays Catherine Weaver, CEO of a high-powered technology corporation called ZeiraCorp. Manson is a T-1000, similar to Robert Patrick in T2, and she assumes the life of the real Weaver, who died in a helicopter crash with her husband. Their daughter is still alive, which presents a unique challenge, as a terminator hasn't been placed in a truly maternal role before. Oddly enough, Manson's role as an emotionless being trying to figure out how to be a mother is one of the season's better performances (in "The Tower Is Tall But The Fall Is Short"), and she proves to be a capable actress. This introspection from non-feeling machine against a motherly disposition is fascinating in how Manson can show her emotions and yet not reveal her hand, as it were.
Fortunately, we see similar stories behind other characters. In the episode "Allison From Palmdale," not only do we discover Cameron's origins but also why her physical traits were used as a model for a terminator. The performance is not as deep as Manson's, but Glau does admirably. The self-evaluation continues with John as he gets involved in a relationship with Riley (Leven Rambin), which is almost like the last part of teenaged life he'll enjoy before his imminent future with the resistance, of which Sarah dutifully reminds him. Sarah continues to struggle with her mortality because of a possible illness, and Derek has a particular conflict with Jesse (Stephanie Jacobsen, Life on Mars), who also came back from the future with motives that appear to differ from Derek's. The quality of guest stars improved as well: Dean Winters (Oz) and Garret Delahunt (No Country For Old Men) reprise their roles as Charley and Cromartie, respectively. As Agent Ellison, Richard T. Jones is a guy who questions his spirituality and later rationalizes it to believe that what he does is right, though we know otherwise. Some of the other faces in Season Two include former West Wing regulars Richard Schiff and Joshua Malina, and Dorian Harewood (Full Metal Jacket) plays a psychiatrist whose work affects several cast regulars, and has long-lasting impacts for future episodes.
But it's not like any Terminator project is known for its ensemble work. This has the requisite amount of action sequences and visual effects, and that action helps emphasize the points the story is trying to tell. For a good CG illustration, Manson kills the staff of a warehouse before blowing it up, but normally most of the stunts are done practically and look convincing as a result.
Sadly though, I have to think that there weren't enough people willing to take a leap of faith and give the show a chance because it wasn't a big-budget action film. It told stories with each of its characters and did so well. I'm guessing that wasn't appreciated. Additionally, the release of the fourth Terminator film in the summer of 2009 probably gave the show an over saturation point with the public which hampered any acceptance of it. So now the show's gone from our televisions, and while we have a new crop of reality shows and sitcoms with retread stars to pore over, I'd encourage people to give The Sarah Connor Chronicles a second view. It's funny, smart, suspenseful, intriguing and artistic. And yes, it's a science fiction show. Further proof that the genre has some quality creative minds contributing to it.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The season's 22 episodes are spread over five discs and are all being presented in 1.78:1 widescreen with a VC-1 codec. The shows are consistent with their high-definition broadcast, with ample image detail in the foreground, and solid if not unspectacular black levels. Background image depth is good too. While the overall image tends to wander sometimes and appear a little soft in episodes, it handles things like prosthetics, second unit photography and computer graphics quite competently.
I liked the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Sure, it was lossy, and a TrueHD lossless track would have been nice, but this works. Gunshots might not possess a consistent low-end "oomph" throughout the show, but the explosions sound robust, and the soundstage is ample. Speaker panning is present, though not as solid as directional activity, such as doors knocking or bullets in a firefight. Dialogue is well balanced and strong in the center channel, and the immersive experience I had was a nice surprise for a television show. Fox does a fine job here.
You'll find bonus material on all five discs, and fans will enjoy most of it. You've got four commentaries (two on Disc One and two on Disc Five) with Friedman and executive producers James Middleton and John Wirth. Glau, Dekker, Headley and Manson also take part, with the latter two only doing work on "Samson and Delilah," the season premiere. The remaining commentaries are on "Allison From Palmdale," "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Born to Run." Dekker mostly drives the commentaries with lots of joking around and asking the cast/crew questions as appropriate. Middleton and Wirth bring a serious balance to things while Friedman quietly keeps things going. They're entertaining tracks though not especially informative. Also on Disc One is "The Storyboard Process," (2:55) which shows how certain sequences were storyboarded and planned and storyboarded in the season opener. The remaining discs include 12 deleted scenes (10:18) that mainly extend a sequence or two. Disc Two has the fight rehearsal with Cameron and another terminator (5:27), including the shot product, walkthroughs and thoughts from the cast and crew. Disc Five has a gag reel (6:04) that's funnier than I expected. The "Continuing Chronicles" is an eight-part look at the show which looks at every production aspect from design, to script, to shooting, to scoring. Each crew member has several minutes to discuss their role on the show and Friedman's expectations from them, and they recall any particular challenges or accomplishments during the season. The feature gets into the writing rooms during meetings, or in the studio during scoring sessions. It shows pass-throughs on visual effects and makeup effects for some of the characters. It covers a huge layer of depth and is a great value for the season, worth watching regardless of whether you like the show.
I'm melancholy about the demise of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I'm not going to be irrational and suggest that Terminator Salvation killed any hope that the show had, but the show was far better than people gave it credit (largely due to Friedman's excellent hand), and since there's barely two dozen episodes in existence, it's worth checking out. This season includes solid technical merits and good supplements (the "Continuing Chronicles" multi-part feature is excellent), and I think you can watch Season Two without having to see what occurred in the first season, so give The Sarah Connor Chronicles a try.