There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
The 2008 pilot episode of the Fox TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. A direct sequel to the 1991 blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the series begins in 1999, with single mother Sarah Connor (Lena Headey, who plays Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones) having sacrificed any semblance of a normal life in the years since she first went on the run with her son John Connor (Thomas Dekker). Now a teenager, John is aware of the role he’s supposed to play in the future to save the world from a mechanized dystopia. But he’s beginning to grow weary of his mom moving them from town to town and identity to identity to avoid the relentless robotic killing machines that keep getting sent back into the past to kill him. In the first episode, directed by Game of Thrones veteran David Nutter, the Connors survive their latest scrape, thanks to a friendly android named Cameron (Summer Glau) who warns them about the ever-evolving dangers of the world to come.
Why watch now?
Because Nutter also directed Headey in last week’s Game of Thrones season premiere, and he does so again in this Sunday’s episode.
Due to the logistical complexity involved in shooting Game of Thrones, producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have relied on a small pool of directors, most of whom are veterans of high-end action-adventure and fantasy television and are known for working on the likes of The X-Files, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and Fringe. David Nutter is one of two of those directors (along with Miguel Sapochnik) who’s won an Emmy for Thrones. He’s been a go-to genre craftsman since the early 1990s, with a reputation as someone who can deliver breakneck action without distracting from the story. For a time, Nutter was considered something of a good-luck charm for science fiction TV pilots, too, helping Roswell, Smallville, Supernatural, and a dozen more get picked up.
Like the Harry Potter movies, Game of Thrones has also become something of an employment service for accomplished and aspiring UK character actors, creating such strong associations between these performers and their roles that, for the rest of their careers, they may be defined by the work they’ve done on the show. In Headey’s case, her performance as the cruel, cursed Cersei Lannister has supplanted the two characters she was best-known for before, also from genre pieces: the Spartan Queen Gorgo in Zack Snyder’s 2007 sword-and-sandal epic 300 and Sarah Connor.
Headey drew a tough assignment when she agreed to play Sarah. That character was already well-defined by Linda Hamilton, who portrayed her as an ordinary young Los Angeleno in 1984’s The Terminator and then as a buff, maniacally driven action hero in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In The Sarah Connor Chronicles pilot, Headey picks up where Hamilton left off in the second film, playing the heroine as highly capable and a bit bonkers. In one of the episode’s first scenes, Sarah breaks up with a loving man (played by Dean Winters) who wants to marry her because she doesn’t want to be tied to any one place where the Terminators can find her and John. She ignores her son’s complaints about their rootlessness, insisting she has to safeguard this boy who’s destined to be humankind’s greatest champion in the war against the sentient machines.
As for Nutter, it’s easy to see from the first Sarah Connor Chronicles episode why so many producers have wanted him behind the camera for action-packed, geek-friendly shows. He wasn’t working here with the kind of mega-budget that James Cameron had for T2, but he did have access to roughly the same level of resources that Cameron had for the first Terminator, plus more advanced digital effects. With that, he turned out an exciting hour of TV, with multiple shootouts and chases. More importantly, he and the show’s writer-creator, Josh Friedman, keep all the craziness grounded by showing it through the eyes of their main character, a woman who’s lived through plenty of battles already and knows what’s at stake.
Who it’s for
Science fiction fans who dig explosive action and badass women.
Although the Terminator movies involve time paradoxes and anxious warnings about the rise of artificial intelligence, few would ever accuse them of being brainy. Cameron established the series’s intellectual level early on. These stories have humanistic messages, but their primary purpose is to thrill the audience. Following that lead, The Sarah Connor Chronicles pilot rockets from one narrow escape to the next, all the way up to a surprise ending that brings Sarah and John up to speed on what’s happening in the future — and the lengths they’ll have to go to if they want to prevent humanity’s eventual extinction.
They’re aided in this mission by Cameron (not the director, but Summer Glau’s character), who absorbs bullets, drives a semi truck and even commits bank robbery to keep the Connors alive. Fans of Glau’s work on shows like Firefly, Dollhouse, Alphas, and Arrow ought to appreciate the bright personality and ferocious physicality she brings to Cameron, a machine with a soul. (She won a “Best Supporting Actress on Television” Saturn Award for the performance.)
The star of the show, though, is Headey, whose performance as Sarah Connor at times feels like a warmup for Cersei Lannister: a woman who forgoes social niceties because she has a child to raise and a world to save.
Where to see it
Until earlier this month, the show was on Crackle, but it appears to have been pulled. It’s still widely available for digital rental or purchase for as little as $2 an episode from all of the usual major digital outlets. For more pre-Thrones Lena Headey, the 2000 road-trip dramedy Aberdeen (featuring one of her first big leading roles) is available on Vudu and Tubi, and 300 is available to DirecTV subscribers.