Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles kicks off its second season on Monday (Sept. 8) with a high octane episode that includes explosions, car chase and plenty of CG effects, but executive producer Josh Friedman notes that the show doesn’t need to function as a tentpole movie every week, that it couldn’t function in that way.
"I kind of like it when they say, the money people come to us and say, ‘You know what? This episode’s going to have to be a little smaller than the last episode,’" Friedman tells reporters. "I kind of enjoy writing smaller, more character-driven episodes, and I think that, at the end of the day, well, I mean, I think there’s sort of three audiences, I think, for the show. There’s the people who really come for the action, there’s people who really come for the characters, and then there’s the large Venn diagram in the middle, which is the people who want both. And I think those are the ones that ultimately, I think, are the most pleased consistently because they’ll get one or the other during the week. To me, it’s a drama. It’s still a family show, a family drama that is in the science fiction world and has action in it, but it’s still, I think, character first for me."
Indeed, amidst the big-budget theatrics of the premiere, Friedman clearly has his eye on quandaries that go beyond whether or not Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) will be able to protect future-savior-of-humanity John (Thomas Dekker) from an assortment of mechanical and flesh and blood adversaries. Dating back to the James Cameron origins of the franchise, the Terminator films have always dealt with issues of fate and faith, a spiritual crisis that’s now coming to the surface.
"It’s something that’s always been in the franchise. I think that Sarah as a very, very radicalized Mary figure and John as sort of a Jesus figure has always been in the franchise, and it’s stuff that, thematically, is interesting to explore," Friedman explains. "And I’ve kind of become fascinated with it through the Ellison character, and part of it was just because Richard T. Jones is quite religious and I’d spent some time talking to him about it, and I figure it seemed like a really natural place to sort of explore some of those themes. And especially with him, regarding whether or not his faith is either confirmed or challenged by, you know, with the things he’s seen. I think it’s easy to assume, oh, because there are terminators in the universe that that means that God doesn’t exist or something, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily true. So it’s interesting just to see people with particular ideologies have to try to fit radical world views into it."
One problem that comes from raising the stakes in this manner is that the stakes for the characters have to be similarly elevated. At Comic-Con in July, Friedman informed the crowd (and the show’s cast) that at least one main character will soon be facing their own personal Judgment Day.
"It’s usually their behavior on the set," Friedman says of how he makes life-and-death choices. "No, it’s pure storytelling. It’s painful to say good-bye to actors. It’s painful, especially on this show. Everyone’s wonderful and they’re all lovely people, and going to an actor and saying, ‘Here’s the script and this is what’s going to happen,’ is extremely difficult, and it’s never driven, at least so far, for us, it’s never been driven by economics or anything extracurricular. It’s in the writer’s room and you’re, all of a sudden you’re having this dawning realization that you have a really good idea for something story-wise, but it’s going to end up costing somebody a job. And it’s not easy. These are people, and most of them will, they’ll go on and get other work, but it’s not a fun thing to do really."
Beyond issues of theology and mortality, Friedman faces the challenging of maintaining his show’s focus, balancing the one lead character who’s messianic with the other character who’s name is in the title of the show. Even series star Headey admits that’s sometimes been a challenge.
"It’s been an interesting season," she says. "I feel that Sarah has taken a, kind of a backseat in terms of being proactive and taking care of business. I think that we’re going to see a lot more of John taking control and then becoming, making steps towards becoming the man he has to be to take on his tasks. And I think this season for Sarah is kind of her losing slight control over everything pretty much, and my feeling is that I think there’s a slow madness sort of happening in her because she feels that everything’s kind of out of reach right now."
Of the delicate balance, Friedman says, "I think that it’s very doable. The Sarah/John relationship is the central… relationship in the show, and I think that, at different times, there can be different shifts in terms of the power dynamic or the proactivity. Lena talks a little bit about her character taking a back seat to John. I think that it’s a parent/child struggle, and I think that, as a parent, I’ve kind of, well, my child was a lot younger, but kind of watching the push and pull of that dynamic, to me, is fascinating. So I sort of look at them as a pair. Ultimately, yes, it’s called The Sarah Connor Chronicles and it’s about how does this parent of this special child deal with that, and it’s challenging. I think it’s challenging for any parent, and it’s challenging for this particular parent because of who he’s supposed to be, but I don’t believe that she ever has to stop being Sarah Connor. I think it’s just the challenge is kind of figuring out who that is on a daily basis."