With twenty-two episodes now aired (a full-season’s worth), Terminator – The Sarah Connor Chronicles is finding itself in a place that a lot of scifi shows end up in their second season: producers not delivering on fan expectations. This isn’t necessarily a creative fault. Fans have a funny way of developing their own ideas about a series and get irked when the creative team doesn’t read their minds (or read their posts) and then jump lock-step to their desires. It happens with a lot of shows. I’ve been reading a lot of fan commentary in the forums as well as those comments emailed to me (guys…get brave…you can post public comments), and I’d like to use them as a sort of jumping off point for discussion.
First off, I want to say that you all should (and I’ll shout this) STAY THE COURSE. Fans, we all bemoan the paucity of science fiction being broadcast. You sort of have to stick with the show even when it falls into a bit of a valley. I’m not saying you shouldn’t grumble and moan—that’s among a fan’s jobs—but you also have to exhibit some degree of loyalty and persistence that things will resolve.
Standing Separately Together
I think the biggest criticism of the second season to this point is that the stories are so disjoint. You get isolated adventures with one or two of the protagonists with few threads to tie these adventures together within an episode. Sarah and Cameron will go off on some fool’s errand. Catherine with play with her pet Ellison. Derek and Jesse will bump uglies. John mopes. Where is that feeling of us vs them that suffused the stories of Season 1?
I know it seems sacrilegious to say, but I’m starting to think the derailing catalyst was Derek. For a mini-arc (as was planned) this was a great character. It tied John into the future in the same way Sarah was: via one of the Reese boys. But since then, Derek has done little that was productive. He nay-says Cameron’s worth. He bemoans that now-John isn’t a soldier. He shacks up with his girlfriend. Other than the info on Martin Bedell, he’s not really contributed anything special that a couple of hours of debrief wouldn’t accomplish.
Here’s the thing…with Derek in the show, the producers had to come up with something for him to do. But he has no mission. His team was wiped out by terminator Vick. He’s not training John for anything in particular. He doesn’t do research. He’s just there. Or…actually, he’s not. He’s schtupping Jesse.
I think there is just a limit to how many advisers John can have around him that are more than recurring characters. Sarah and Cameron seem to be the limit.
On Journeys and Heroes
While it’s been noted that John is on what is known as a “Hero’s Journey”, the question has been asked about how can that be if he isn’t the featured character. I say that we already have an example of this from Xena – Warrior Princess: Gabrielle. I wrote about this early in the series’ run (Whoosh! Issue 2 and Issue 18). This showed that you can build the series emphasis on the mentor while also following the journey of the hero to be. So, John doesn’t have to be in every episode, but the path leading to him becoming the future hero needs to be a constant thread.
And thus starts to bring into relief the problem for the producers and fans alike: who is the main character for the series? Even in an ensemble piece, there needs to be a central character representing each of the two sides of the conflict (drama is about conflict). Creating the character of Catherine Weaver was a bold move that has served to make her the ambiguous antagonist to the goals of Cadre Connor. I say ambiguous because it’s still unclear as to whose side she’s on.
But on the other side, the “good” side, who is the main character? From the title of the series, it should be Sarah. However, the fans have chosen Cameron. Again, there is precedent for this. On Happy Days, Richie Cunningham was supposed to be the main character, but a supporting character, “The Fonz”, captured the fans’ imagination. It is a credit to Ron Howard, who played Richie, that he understood the situation and stepped back for the sake of the series instead of his own ego. That series lasted 11 seasons, by the way.
The clue here is that just about every character, when paired with Cameron, becomes a more interesting character. Therefore, for the Connor team side, I think that the producers need to commit to having Cameron be the lead. She doesn’t necessarily have to have the lion’s share of scenes, but neither should she be as underutilized as so many fans have been complaining about.
The Writer’s Trap
I’ve been committing “writing-with-intent” since the 1980s. Most of that was spent squirting out screenplays. From examining films and TV with that sort of mindset, you start to see a lot of what goes on in the heads of writers.
Something that I’ve seen in script after script is the desire of a writer to hold on to a secret for too long. It’s done so often that it’s hackneyed. As Hitchcock observed, it doesn’t matter if the audience knows the secret…only that the characters don’t. If writers withhold key information for too long, two things happen: 1) the audience gets bored and frustrated; 2) the characters begin to look like idiots. How to solve this? The writers (or creative team) need to let their egos get out of the way of telling the story that they are presenting. Basically, tell the story and stop trying to prove how bloody clever you are.
Something that writers constantly forget: there are always new ideas. Writers sometimes get so enamored with some plot reveal or a particular story point that they hold on to it jealously, as if they will never have another good idea again. Poppycock. If that’s the case, then what are you doing in series television?
The Other Shows
Anathema to a successful show is the love of another successful show. Sometimes this infects the creative team on their own, but often comes from the “suits” “upstairs”. You can almost see it happening with TTSCC. The first season was an action-oriented science fiction show. Then, between seasons, there seemed to be some sort of desire to embrace Lost or The X-Files or other such disjointed silliness.
When writers try to get signed to a TV series, they are told to submit scripts from just about any other series than the one they are submitting to. Why? Because the experts at writing for a series are the writers for that series. There is almost no way that you, an outsider, can measure up. And it thus follows that if a series tries to pattern itself after the formula that made another series successful, it will fail because the brain-trust is both trashing the expertise they have in their own show, and not measuring up to the tale-telling of the other series. In fact, you start hemorrhaging fans because you don’t have confidence in your own product.
I Meant To Do That
In life, everyone stumbles. It happens in television series all the time. That doesn’t mean that the series is doomed to fall, especially if it has the support to right itself. My feeling is that TTSCC, in the course of finding its path, stubbed its toe on the curb. Personally, I think it can find its footing again. The powers that be need to figure out what story they are telling and then tell it. They have to pay attention to making the stories more intertwined. They need to have confidence that if they tell their stories well, they will succeed in their own right. Sure, you can walk in someone else’s shadow…but it’s warmer in the sun.
I believe that most of the creative choices that are irritating the fan base will work themselves out by the end of the second season. I’m hopeful that if the fans of the show stick with it, that TTSCC might survive to see a third season (though with its budget, that’s a big hope as of this writing). If the show manages to hold on to its current numbers following the move to Fridays, then it will survive. It’s up to the fans.
It’s also up to the fans to keep watching even if the story the writers chose to tell isn’t the story you want them to tell. It’s also up to the fans to be constructively vocal. Let the production staff know the weakness and the strengths of the show. Clearly there is a bit of consensus floating around the ‘net at this time. I’m not saying that the producers should pull an Ellison, wimp out, and bow to public opinion (that also kills shows). However, they should see if they agree that what the audience identifies as problems are actually problems that managed to work their way in.
As for me…like with John in “Samson and Delilah”, I’m going to take my risk with Cameron.