"Self Made Man" (2x11; FOX, 12/1/08)
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By tv algebra, I should've stopped watching The Sarah Connor Chronicles year. Its acting is perfectly mediocre (with the sad exception of Shirley Manson -- it pains me to say that she ought to concentrate on music). It's supposed to bring a battle-hardened post-apocalyptic mindset but usually engages in the moral danger of a shrinking violet. And its entire premise is based around Skynet -- fighting Skynet, stopping Skynet, finding out what Skynet is after, etc. -- so even if the humans score a victory, another Skynet plot will pop up, undercutting any real sense of plot progression and leaving us with an interminably drawn out serial. Yet I haven't missed an episode, the reason for which has to be more than the attractive leads (since in Tvland, they're a dime a dozen).
The second season opened with a respectably improved premiere, though it featured one unforgettable moment in which Summer Glaubot -- always lissome and pouty, usually John Connor's protectrix but now malfunctioning and trying to terminate him -- is caught in a trap set by him and his human allies. In a desperate gambit (as far as cyborgs are capable of desperation), she screams out, "I love you, John, and you love me!" The heretofore unspoken tension of a young man being guarded by a lithe protectrix is finally exploded into a last-ditch ploy to exploit this exact adolescent fantasy, and TSCC finally challenges its target audience to beyond the complacency that previously characterized this series.
While this scene remains the single most indelible image on TSCC, the rest of the second season hasn't always lived up to it (Sarah Connor's three dots storyline has been a non-starter). But from beginning to end, "Self Made Man" exemplified this image of TSCC at its most uncompromisingly robotic -- Glaubot has a secret project in which she's befriended a paraplegic cancer survivor/library assistant. Over the course of one night, they slowly unravel the mystery of a man who came from nowhere to build a real estate empire in the 1920s, a man who crushed his rivals ruthlessly, a man who happened to be a Terminator. (The episode had a bit of fun with how the '20s admirably interpreted the Terminator AI's literalism as hard-working stoicism.) As the two amateur historians find out more about this Terminator, it becomes more and more obvious to everyone (except the attention-starved library assistant) that Glaubot is blatantly exploiting him for his access to historical records, summoning girlish charm only when he becomes suspicious of her cold and demanding behavior until eventually she drives him to suicide, which she finds out only when she meets his replacement, and at which point she starts her project over again. All the while, the hard-nosed exploration of cyborg ethics in "Self Made Man" is underpinned by some mind-tickling time-travel scenarios, and the underachieving series that can't seem to be killed, not even by low ratings, has unexpectedly come up with the most intriguing American sci-fi narrative this year.
Indie rating: The Raveonettes - "Blush"