Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles'

Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau of 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles'

Even if the writers strike wasn't in the process of turning the entire television landscape into a diaspora of repeats, retreads and reality, there was already going to be a lot of pressure on FOX's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles."

Even if the latest incarnation of the resilient "Terminator" franchise -- Look, Mom... No Ah-nold! -- weren't suddenly positioned as FOX's scripted salvation for the spring of 2008, it was still going to be a costly, high-risk, big-name gambit.

My immediate reaction, after watching the first two episodes of "Sarah Connor," is that the series is by no means a disaster. It isn't over-invested in sci-fi mythology and the transition to the small screen has been as smooth as one could hope, particularly in terms of the inevitably diminished production values. What the show lacks, at least thus far, is the sort of single-minded purpose that defined the two James Cameron films and even Jonathan Mostow's 2003 "Rise of the Machines." "Sarah Connor Chronicles" is, at least through two episodes, neither fish nor foul and what with the strike and all, this isn't necessarily the best of environments for a show trying to stumble upon its purpose.

With all three movies, you knew exactly what you were going to get, plot-wise. In the future, John Connor was going to be a great warrior in the human resistance against a group of technologically advanced robots. As a result, the the robots sent a series of increasingly advanced Terminators (Arnold Schwarzenegger then Robert Patrick then Kristanna Loken) back to kill first Connor's mom Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and then Connor himself (Edward Furlong and then Nick Stahl). Each movie was a narrative freight-train.

"Sarah Connor Chronicles," because it's designed to last for 15 or 50 or 100 episodes, can't afford to be that monomaniacal. Set a few years after "Terminator 2" (and taking slightly ludicrous steps at the end of the pilot to erase nearly all of the possibilities of the third movie), "SCC" finds justifiably paranoid Sarah (Lena Headey) and predictably whiney son John (Thomas Dekker) trying desperately to live off the grid, avoiding both the robots from the future (embodied in the pilot by the properly stoic Owain Yeoman) and the federal agent (Richard T. Jones) on their tail. Providing assistance is sexy female Terminator (Summer Glau), who seems to have a few secrets about John's future.

The "Terminator" films made these attacks on Sarah and John's lives look like shocking events, dreaded visits from Arnold Schwarzenegger that occurred every decade or so. The series takes a different approach, presenting the Connors as being constantly under siege, with the threat of death no more traumatic than changing schools or starting a new job. Ideally, the show becomes less a series of weekly chases and escapes from brutal robot slaughter and more a chronicle of how a single mother and her son attempt to live their lives when imminent death is like another member of the family. In a perfect world, the show would be almost like "The Sopranos" with robots. It won't be, of course.

The events of the last two movies (and the budgetary restrictions of the small screen) seem to have set back the Terminator cause by several decades, so our heroes' new adversaries are less like Loken and Patrick's liquid-metal terrors and more like the sort of stoic, boxy gadgets played by California's current governor. That enhances the Everyday Threat aspect of director David Nutter's pilot, which keeps its scale low after its explosive opening seconds. The major action set-piece is a school shoot-out that producers temporarily considered scrapping and now appears with only minor tweaks. The result is that "SCC" isn't really of blockbuster scope. It's no more ambitious than, say, last spring's prematurely cancelled "Drive."

Since the show is meant to be more intimate, a lot of pressure is on the stars. Headey's in a tough place, because while no individual actor put a permanent imprint on John Connor, Sarah was pretty thoroughly defined by Hamilton. That's why Dekker's wimpy, work-in-progress John is more in line with expectations than Headey's frazzled Sarah, who lacks the biceps and psychotic intensity we last saw in the character. The stand-out in early episodes is Glau, showcasing the same sort of deceptively passive deadpan mixed with physical grace that fans of "Firefly" came to love. It would be better for Glau if her feigned blandness didn't have to play opposite the blandness of her co-stars. I found myself wishing that Jones had more to do, that he would become a more intriguing Gerard to contrast the three-headed Kimble in the "Fugitive" dynamic.

Because encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise isn't required, "Sarah Connor Chronicles" should be able to lure in less initiated audiences, but some of those viewers may be turned off by the lack of a clear sense of what the show's week-to-week goals are going to be.