David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines
hradzka

catching up on SCC; spoilers through "Self Made Man"

I'm doing lots of business travel, and I tend to watch my TV online. It's been a busy couple of weeks, so thanks to Hulu I've just gotten caught up with TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. It's really interesting to watch the show evolve. I've mentioned before that I flat-out hated the pilot, but when you start at the bottom there's nowhere to go but up. SCC still isn't a great show, but it's becoming interesting, and even its failures are instructive.

The biggest problem facing SCC is that its premise is not one that automatically suggests stories for a television series format, which means that it'd be all too easy for the show to be an unending rinse/lather/repeat of "find the Terminator, stomp the Terminator." The other big problem is that the robots-who-look human gimmick has been really well mined, and recently, by Ron Moore's reboot of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Tough act to follow. So it's understandable that the show has flailed about a bit, and is still trying to figure out what it does best. So far, the best bits have to do with time travel, and the psychological effects it has on people who employ it to run from the dystopian future to the past. (See the excellent guest role by Richard Schiff.) I'm looking forward to seeing what the show does with those things in the future.

That's not to say it's securely on the road to where it needs to go. One of the biggest problems is that the character dynamic is muddled. This is in part because the show reflects the TERMINATOR 2 dynamics, which see John and Sarah at loggerheads. She's trying to protect him and his destiny by ordering his life for him; he's trying to have some semblance of a normal life while maturing into what he's fated to be. The problem with this is that John's maturation, as we've seen in recent episodes, is an interesting character process to observe. We want to see him work things out, but Sarah doesn't. This points up a problem with the series dynamic. The show is called THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, but Sarah is not the central character. She doesn't have a character arc, she's not changing, and she's often limited to being the shrewish mom who tells John, no, he can't do this, when "this" is something that's liable to be interesting to watch. Here's the problem: *this makes Sarah the enemy of the audience.* John growing up and taking charge is an interesting process. Sarah's getting in the way of that, and that's all she's getting in the way of characterization because she's not developing in her own right. This is a real problem. If it continues, segments of the audience are likely to start disliking the title character. On the upside, though, the show is finally starting to do a decent job with John.

My suggestion with regard to Sarah is that she should realize that she's compensating for having screwed up motherhood. Now that she wants to be a mother for her son, and not just see that he gets trained to kill Terminators, she finds that John has grown past the age of needing that. This is Sarah's problem. Solution: Cameron is learning about being human. Sarah is learning how to be a mother. The interaction of these two character arcs is fertile ground.

Even the best episodes so far are pretty heavily flawed. "Self Made Man" is weird and awkward; it's pretty much pure exposition, and a heck of an example of a bottle show. But the character writing is some of the show's best, and it's one of the best episodes the show has ever done. It's clumsy, but it works.

The action scenes still need work, I think, particularly the showdowns with Terminators. Our heroes face off with Cromartie in "Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today," and it doesn't play all that well. Which is a shame, because -- hey, it's Cromartie! He's been a nemesis for a while! His death, however temporary, should have been more impressive than it was.

There are a couple of reasons for it not playing effectively. One is that there was no pipelaying for what's going to happen. In "Goodbye to That," we saw the Barrett rifle well before it was used against the Terminator. A Barrett is visually exciting and tremendously distinctive. If you've never seen a Barrett rifle before, your reaction was, "What the &%$@ is that?!" If you've seen a Barrett rifle before, your reaction is, "Holy &%$@! I can't wait till they use that!" Either way, excitement and tension is created; you're waiting to see that sucker in action for the whole episode, so when it comes, your hopes and expectations are fulfilled.

By contrast, there's no set-up for the attack on Cromartie in "Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today." Our heroes get him in a crossfire with full autos and then Summer Glau comes in with a semi-auto shotgun for the headshots. This is a tactic I endorsed a while back, so I'm pleased to see it, but onscreen I realized it's not as dramatically effective as it could be. You expect a big-ass Barrett to do damage, but an audience is more familiar with shotguns. This is where exposition is highly useful. Even a throwaway lines about the shotgun being loaded with slugs would have helped. Maybe a scene where our heroes need to breach a door.

Exposition is a good idea in general, actually. The characters need to talk about their guns, about their ammo, and especially about their tactics. This is an area where each character brings something unique to the discussion. Derek Reese has fought more Terminators than anyone else -- but he's done it with the future's weapons, so he's not at his strongest in the present day. John Connor is the future savior of humanity; he's not a master tactician yet, but he's learning. Cameron *is* a Terminator, and knows more about the details of how they work than the humans do. And Sarah Connor has killed Terminators with modern weapons. The characters have different perspectives, and would have different ideas. Good scenes could come from this, and it would be especially effective development for John: we'd see him learning to think like the savior of humanity, like a guerilla leader.

The more episodes of SCC I see, the more I realize that the showdowns with Terminators are a tough nut to crack, dramatically. There's something else I'd recommend using, but it would be harder to do in television than in the movies: false endings. James Cameron is the *king* of false endings. He will give you an ending that is intense, exciting, thrilling, and totally worth the price of admission. Only *it doesn't work,* and his heroes have to fight it out in an even *more* thrilling climax.

Think about ALIENS: they lift off with that great James Horner cue, the colony explodes behind them, and they've got a denouement on the landing platform when OH MY GOD THE ALIEN QUEEN IS STILL ALIVE and Ripley has to get down with the power loader. Or think about the Terminator films; after all, we're talking about Terminators here. In T2, "Hasta la vista, baby" would be a perfectly bad-ass ending, wouldn't it? Or heck, think about T1. In T1, Reese's pipe bombs are nicely paid off when the truck blows up. And then the Terminator comes out of the wreckage. Then they bomb the Terminator itself, and *it* explodes. That'd be a good ending, too. But no -- it's still alive after that, so Sarah has to kill it with the hydraulic press. By the time it's over, the audience is almost as freaked as Sarah is.

There is no better way than a good false ending to demonstrate the unstoppability of Terminators: we're scared to discover that it wasn't stopped, because *we really believe it should have been.* But false endings are very hard to make convincing. The fake kills in slasher movies (the killer is dead! oh, wait.) mostly haven't been believable since HALLOWEEN, because by and large none of those fake kills would ever be satisfactory as endings. So the audience doesn't think they are. Our reaction is, to quote ARMY OF DARKNESS: "It's a trick. Get an axe." To make it play, you need to burn a really good kill just to show it as ineffective. And that could lead to the writers running through a lot of plausible methods of stopping Terminators very quickly.

Nice BLADE RUNNER ref in "Complications," though.
Tags: scc
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