Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Brief Thoughts

Taking a brief break from Deep Space Nine, but continuing with this month's TV theme, a few observations about the Terminator spin-off series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Two episodes in, I'm cautiously optimistic--not in love yet, but willing to see more. I'm not yet sold on any of the leads, and though I can imagine reasons internal to the story for the slight but noticeable softening of Sarah Connor's personality, I can't help but suspect that the real reason is that a character as scary and uncompromising as Linda Hamilton's Sarah still can't make it onto a TV screen. (Lending credence to this theory is new SF blog io9, which compares Sunday's pilot to the unaired one that made the rounds online several months ago and argues that in the original version Sarah was a great deal more kickass.) There's also no denying that the show is getting an artificial boost both from the absence of other original, scripted television (though next week sees two new Chuck episodes! Hurrah!) and from the requisite comparison to the abysmal failure that was Bionic Woman. Though it hardly blew me away, thus far The Sarah Connor Chronicles has avoided the dreariness, emotional numbness, and backhanded sexism of that series, which is good, but hardly a ringing endorsement. Still and all, there's some promise here, and I'm going to keep watching to see if it's fulfilled. The voiceovers, though, have got to go.

A few more observations:

Right now, the show's greatest impediment seems to be John. This is not a criticism of the actor or even the character as it's been written--John is an impossible character. Make him a hero, and there's no tension. Make him ordinary, and the audience starts to wonder just how this guy becomes a messianic figure. One of Terminator 3's (many) flaws is that it failed to portray John convincingly as either a hero or a person becoming a hero. Terminator 2 got around this problem because, as a child, John's precociousness was allowed to stand as a substitute for any heroic characteristics without making him too perfect (that said, T2 does establish that John isn't an ordinary kid. He bonds with the terminator and helps him discover his humanity, and has a deep respect for human life). Sarah Connor's John falls somewhere in between. By the standards of TV teenagers, he's remarkably non-whiny and well-behaved, but we really ought to be able to say more about the future savior of humanity than that he's a good kid. Clearly, part of the show's mandate is to chart John's growth into his leadership role (and just as clearly, that process is going to involve overcoming Sarah's complete dominance in his life, which is largely responsible for his being such a non-entity), but we've all known kids who were natural leaders and, even at a young age, they possess a certain quality that John doesn't seem to have, and that I, for one, would have found interesting to watch. On the other hand, the show is called The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and its thrust seems to be that Sarah, not John, is going to prevent the apocalypse, so maybe John's blankness is intentional.

Something that screamed out at me in the pilot was that Sarah and John's life in Nebraska was middle-class, and even after running off their clothing and personal grooming indicate a certain level of affluence. The house they settle in in the second episode is empty and clearly abandoned, but it's also spacious and not at all dilapidated, and Sarah stocks the (fully functional) refrigerator with more than just staples and cheap junk food. It's not uncommon for television to depict working class (and even middle class) lifestyles in an unrealistically luxurious and photogenic manner, but it's disappointing to see this attitude from a Terminator spin-off because the films were actually very good about avoiding it. In The Terminator, Sarah was a working class girl. Being forced to flee for her life at the end of that film drove her further downwards into an itinerant lifestyle. In Terminator 2, the people she knows and hangs out with in live in trailer parks, and there's every indication that before her incarceration these were the sorts of places she and John lived in as well. Even John's foster parents were clearly lower-middle class, and almost every item of clothing, possession, home or vehicle we see in that film looks shabby and cheap (with the exception of Miles Dyson's home). I'm disappointed to see that the series has reverted to the television default of unthinking affluence, even if the diamond cache Sarah and John discover in the second episode explains it away.

8 comments:

Mark Jones said...

All your points are good ones, but I tend to be more focused on plot. I'll overlook wooden acting, cheesy dialogue, laughable SFX and flimsy sets if the plot is solid and the characters are smart. The original Terminator had that; Sarah Connor was naive, but smart enough to learn fast and stay alive. In T2 we see that she's a little crazed, but still smart and ruthfully dedicated to her cause (she still wouldn't kill other human beings, much as she wanted to kill Dyson).

But the series so far has already dangerously undermined that. When Sarah abandoned her boyfriend/fiancee did she _seriously_ think he wouldn't worry and wonder and go to the authorities? And she didn't change their surname? That was just stupid. (The friendly Terminator says it didn't matter, that the bad guys would have found them anyhow, but if that's the case, then she should have--it wouldn't have derailed the plot but Sarah wouldn't have looked dumb.)

And also, unless she's going to be going after Cyberdyne redux, which she was NOT initially, why is she staying in the USA anyhow? She'd do better in Mexico or parts farther south. Plus, she, John and the Terminator all seem way too cavalier about committing crimes and getting seen/photographed, which is only going to bring more heat.

Something you might like better is the trilogy of Terminator novels by S. M. Stirling. His take on how Sarah and John's life plays out following T2 was much more to my liking. I'm still enjoying the Chronicles two episodes in, but...I'm also "cautiously optimistic" about it.

Jon said...

With regard to the name change thing, is it too far fetched to say that she was keeping the name change because she felt a little guilty about completely abandoning that identity out of nerves?

Mark Jones said...

Well...the thing is, I could come up with some justifications for why they might do things that aren't the smartest choice. But, compared to the potential downside if they're caught/killed, none of those reasons measure up. If Sarah's going to rabbit, leaving her fiancee to wonder what happened, the LEAST she should do is completely break from that persona--which includes an entirely new name.

jeanjeanie said...

I just watched the two different endings. This is just a guess, but as far as practical considerations go, I suspect that the censors decided the original version was too adult for the time slot in which they aired the pilot -- the Sunday night Family Hour (a time of night when saying "G-D" on the airwaves, among other things, is verboten). The second episode aired in its regular time slot an hour later, and Sarah was much more badass in that one, I thought.

ad said...

we really ought to be able to say more about the future savior of humanity than that he's a good kid.

To be fair, I once read Churchills "My Early Life", and I think that if I had met him as a teenager he would have seemed adventurous, but nothing special.

ad said...

the requisite comparison to the abysmal failure that was Bionic Woman. Though it hardly blew me away, thus far The Sarah Connor Chronicles has avoided the dreariness, emotional numbness, and backhanded sexism of that series, which is good, but hardly a ringing endorsement.

To go slightly off topic for a moment, I suspect that many shows find it harder to write especially strong, sympathetic women than you might think. The problem is that we feel sympathy for threatened characters, but strong characters are harder to threaten.

So a show that tries to write especially strong women finds itself with three options:

1) Write strong unsympathetic women, and be attacked for sexistly writing unsympathetic women.
2) Write strong women, throw especially serious threats at them to make the audience sympathise more with them, and be attacked for misogynistic cruelty to your women characters.
3) Write reasonably normal women, claim that they are especially strong and worthy of respect, and invite the conclusion that if you think those people are extraordinary women in some way, you must have a pretty low opinion of women in general.

(I do not watch enough TV any more to be sure, but I think option 3 is most common.) I suppose the best way out of this is what might be called the Buffy approach: if you set things up in the right way, your strong character will naturally encounter many severe threats to herself and whoever or whatever she is responsible for. Now you can safely follow option 2.

From this point of view Bionic Woman is clearly awkward: if you start by giving two of your female characters superpowers you instantly make it much harder to threaten them, or make anyone sympathetic to them.

Returning to Chronicles, the Terminator franchise is great: Sarah Connor is a relatively normal person who has spent almost all her screen time fighting for the life of herself or her son against a near-indestructible, superhumanly powerful killing machine. So she can easily be sympathetic, as well as strong.

Incidentally, I think there is a symmetric problem with writing emotionally vulnerable male characters, without making them appear contemptibly weak.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not persuaded that it really is so difficult to balance power and vulnerability in female characters. The trick is to remember that women are people. Their strengths and weaknesses may be expressed through their femininity, but they aren't necessarily rooted in it, and similarly the dangers and challenges they face don't have to be a result of their gender. You'd be surprised how many shows - Heroes, the Stargates, Battlestar Galactica, Bionic Woman - fail to grasp this simple truth.

ad said...

Sorry, I did not mean to say that the problem is maintaining a balance, because every character must have such a balance. But I would expect it to be harder to change that balance than to keep it the same. The audience, for example, has its own expectations, but different people will see the same changes differently.

And while I agree that many shows seem to forget that their female characters are intended to be human beings, I am not really surprised. Attempts to create Strong Female Characters strike me as being a little like Dickens’s attempt at a Good Jewish Character in Our Mutual Friend. The fact that the writer is concentrated on the characters identity, instead of her personality, creates a great danger that everything will be centred on that identity.

It is a process that greatly increases the likelihood of failed characters – like Dickens’s Mr Riah (who IIRC was prone to giving speeches on the implications of being Jewish in an anti-semitic society, and whose employer did not seem to be able to go two sentences without reminding him he was jewish). People start to wonder if the character has any other characteristic whatsoever.

I think a lot of shows desire to Say Something about the Female Condition, and tend to walk straight into the trap.

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