In the wake of the disappointment that was NBC’s “Bionic Woman,” it’s difficult to approach Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” without the flinching reluctance to trust of the recently brokenhearted. At first glance, the shows have so much in common: the weight of previously successful franchises; cool fighter chicks, some robotic, all capable of engaging in car chases, demolition, gun play or hand-to-hand combat; enemies who appear out of nowhere and threaten the world (as opposed to just wanting to knock over a bank); lots of ominous computer screens, not to mention the need of the heroine to protect a family member (Jaime Sommers’ sister, Sarah Connor’s son).
But there the similarities end, because although “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” has gadgets aplenty, it has what “Bionic Woman” never quite acquired: a brain and a heart.
Picking up where the feature film “Terminator 2" left off, “Sarah Connor” follows the title character’s attempt to keep her teenage son, John, alive so he can become the leader of a band of rebels fighting the Skynet robots who, in 2011, declare war on mankind. Robots who keep sending increasingly upgraded terminator models back in time in an attempt to kill their foe before he reaches adulthood. Trying to figure out how all this works, time- and space-continuum-wise, will give you a headache -- why can’t someone from the future just come back and explain how exactly John was able to survive? -- so it’s best just to accept the whole conceit on its own terms.
One of those terms is that the grown-up John has sent Cameron (Summer Glau) back in time to help Sarah (Lena Headey) and teenage John (Thomas Dekker). Cameron is a terminator too, only the good kind, the kind fighting on the side of the humans. I hope that isn’t considered a spoiler. It surprised me during an early viewing of the pilot, but since then, the show’s ad campaign has focused on Cameron’s torso suspended, naked of course, and trailing metallic bits (memo to Fox: Were you intentionally going for a “Saw” meets “Westworld” vibe?) so I think that big reveal is done for.
With her kick-boxer-fit form, lovely face and owl-like gaze, Glau, who played River in Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” is one terrific robot. She can go nine rounds with the big guys, breaking walls and getting hit by cars, but she also conveys an intriguing, if limited, humanity that, one hopes, will enrich future story lines. “In the future you have many friends,” she says, attempting to reassure the restless John. “Are you a new model?” he asks her. “You seem . . . different.” “I am different,” she says.
And how; with Glau around, Arnold Schwarzenegger is missed not one bit. The character of Cameron, indeed all of the characters, are nuanced in a way the driving two-hour action of the feature films did not allow. The tension between mother and son, for example, is introduced early on -- John is a teenager now, and after years on the run, would like to go to school in the same place for more than a year or two, to fit in and experience something approximating normal. He is fully aware of who he is supposed to become -- the guy who stands between mankind and total annihilation (so no pressure), but entering young adulthood, he does not sense within himself anything like greatness.
Sarah, meanwhile, is discovering that to keep her son safe, and oh yeah, save humanity, she must risk losing him, or at least his love. She is, by necessity, more drill sergeant than mother, screaming at him to never trust anyone, to never let himself feel safe “because no one is safe.” Mother as anti-nest. It is a provocative relationship, much more complex than the mother-warriors we are accustomed to, most of whom are standard lionesses defending the truly young -- Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens” comes to mind. This Sarah Connor has to cope with an adolescent on top of everything else. Linda Hamilton’s are large shoes to fill, but Headey handles it beautifully, projecting heartbreak, fear and determination in a single glance. Sarah is notably not part of that future band of scrappy rebels; the seeds of her own destruction have already been sown, as she is just coming to realize.
There is, at least in early episodes, an almost Shakespearean exploration of fate vs. character in “Sarah Connor,” but you shouldn’t let this scare you off. There are also plenty of really great fight scenes, and explosions, as well as neato devices developed in the future and jury-rigged in the present. There’s time travel (which, it is now generally agreed upon, requires nudity) and the mystery of who’s behind Skynet. Ancillary characters include an FBI agent tracking Sarah since she escaped from the asylum who begins to wonder if maybe Sarah isn’t so crazy, an old boyfriend who will no doubt add zest and complications, and of course that indestructible, undeniable bad terminator, whom you can always identify by those red eyes.
Mercifully, in these days of drive-bys and school shootings, this terminator has been programmed to kill only John, so although he is perfectly capable of spraying cop cars with bullets just to get everyone to back off, he does not commit murder and mayhem for their own sake. Or even to draw Sarah and John out of hiding. Which doesn’t make sense when you consider that the robots have declared war on mankind, but as I said, it’s better to put these things right out of your mind. Focus, if you must, on “Sarah Connor” as a surprising and rich parable of modern parenting, or better yet, just enjoy the ride.
‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’
When: 8-9 p.m. Sunday premiere; regular time will be 9-10 p.m. Mondays
Rating: TV-14-SV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for sex and violence)