Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sarah Connor and Dollhouse step up their games

FOX's sci-fi block on Friday delivered in a big way, with both Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse offering exciting, thought provoking episodes (that sadly, not too many people are watching).

T:TSSC occasionally ventures off the primary narrative of "saving the future" to quietly examine the psychology, and emotional toll of, waging a present day guerrilla war against robots from the future (see the glacially-paced 3 episode arc about Sarah's mindset that kicked off this latest run of episodes). A lot of fans don't like those types of stories, and think they hurt the general appeal of a show that should offer lots of shit blowing up. I understand those complaints, particularly as it relates to garnering a more prominent Nielsen rating (more people would rather watch Howie Do It or Wife Swap? Humanity scares me), but I enjoy those types of episodes as well.

However, Friday's episode, "Adam Raised a Cain," had a little something for everyone. You had nice movement on the master plot (Team Connor connecting the dots leading back to Zeira Corp and Catherine Weaver), significant action (a terrific shoot out at the Weaver house), quiet and contemplative poignancy (the bookend scenes at the burial ground), some freaky looks at robot/robot and robot/human relations (all the scenes with John Henry, Weaver and Savannah, all superbly played by the actors) and even a rarity for this show, humor (Savannah's teacher thinking John Henry was a myspace predator, Savannah telling her mom, played by Shirley Manson, that she "can't sing," and this exchange "He can't be trusted." "No one can be trusted." "But I only want to kill HIM."). Plus, a major character getting killed in the first 15 minutes of the show.

I was in the enviable position of being familiar with, but never having watched a minute of, 90210. So I didn't have any Brian Austin Green baggage to carry with me into watching him embody Derek Reese. I thought he did a fantastic job portraying the haunted future war vet and uncle to mankind's savior, John Connor. So it was shocking to see him take a bullet to the head from a T-888 during the mission to save little Savannah Weaver. I really applaud the show's producers for staging this seismic development in the way that they did. No swelling chorus of music. No long, heroic slo-mo goodbye. No last minute cliff hanger. Just a shot to the head, when you least expect that it will happen to our heroes. Bang. He's dead. Matter of fact. Bringing into sharp relief the risks our little band of main characters faces every day. Kudos to Josh Friedman and BAG; we'll miss you Derek.

The show has one more episode to go before wrapping up its season, and in all likelihood, the series. I'm looking forward to next week, and will be sad if it doesn't come back.

Over on Dollhouse, the hot streak of good episodes continued with "Needs." One of my complaints about the show is that the Dollhouse has been presented at being not very competent, especially for the prices they charge, with "glitches" that seem to occur to the dolls on virtually every episode. They creatively addressed that issue this week (and in previous weeks), by showing us that what we see is only one Dollhouse of 20 total, and that the dolls we witness having glitches are are only a handful of a much larger stable of dolls in this one house. So instead of "half the engagements screw up," we now know that programming is becoming erratic in 4 or 5 actives (Echo, November, Victor, Sierra and possibly Mike) out of say, 30 or 40 in only one house and hundreds elsewhere.

”If your child starts talking for the first time, you feel proud. If your dog does, you freak the hell out.”

"But I also care what you’re doing. To our ‘pets.’”

To address the underlying issues, a plan is developed that kept twisting and turning throughout the episode. The 5 dolls wake up without a programmed personality! Oh, wait, it's just a training exercise for Dollhouse security. But wait, 4 of them escape out into the wild and the test has failed! Oh, wait, they were supposed to get out, to come to peace with pre-Dollhouse issues that kept corrupting their programming. Even twistier, the whole plan was devised by Dr. Saunders (an always nuanced and excellent Amy Acker), who now seems much more integrated with and committed to the workings of the Dollhouse than we were supposing. (All signs pointed to her being the "mole." Now, that appears not to be the case, unless of course it is, because the way things are going, it could be anyone now, including Adelle, Topher, Dominic or most likely, Topher's lab assistant Ivy).

Each of the escaping actives, except for poor Mike (who I think was probably a "plant" and didn't really have any glitching issues to resolve), gets to address their subconscious psychological drives. Echo (who I still don't really like as Caroline) gets to deal with her savior complex. Victor addresses his need to fall in love. November deals with the loss of her child, and Sierra, in the most disturbing part of the episode, confronts the scumbag who "sold" her against her will into the Dollhouse program (and who ickily still keeps "renting her out" now that she's programmed to be more accommodating).

“Is this some kind of frequent buyer reward?” Ew.

I hope the poor female handler participating in the exercise gets one of those nice bonuses wired into her account, since Echo beat the shit out of her with a fire extinguisher.

In part of his riveting encounter with a pissed off Echo, Topher also shows why he's in programming, and not the front man:

“We’re good people. Nice people. We help people become better people by giving them what they need. I don’t usually do the sales pitch.”

Out of the Dollhouse, we also learn that Agent Ballard isn't quite as altruistic as he seems, given his dreams about Echo (sure to produce a "man reaction" I would think). And the Inspector Clouseau of the FBI also finally discovers that his place has been bugged:

“Can I trace where it was transmitting?” “Absolutely, if you were E.T.”

Overall, this was a really good episode anchored by some terrific performances all around, and some very solid writing.

Both "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Needs" get an A+ in my book.

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