Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – The Complete Second Season (Warner) – The TV spin-off of the Terminator films turned out to be both smart science fiction and gritty, spectacular action for the small screen, which already makes it more compelling and rewarding than the last two films in the series. It earned the show a loyal following and solid ratings, though unfortunately not quite solid enough. In the show’s second (and ultimately final) season, the fractured family unit – tough, battle-hardened mom Sarah Connor (Lena Headey), petite hellcat of a robot bodyguard Cameron (Summer Glau), brooding, suspicious uncle Derek from the future (Brian Austin Green, turning out to be quite the TV action hero in a real career revival role) and John Connor (Thomas Dekker), the teenage boy destined to be the savior of the human race – begins to unravel in divisive secrets and splintering suspicions. John’s troubled girlfriend (Leven Rambin) and Derek’s enigmatic lover from the future (Stephanie Jacobsen), who has inexplicably followed him back in time, complicate their lives with their own hidden agendas and the shadowy corporate conspiracy behind the machine apocalypse just gets more intriguing and ambiguous. But most riveting is the evolution of the growing cast of robots, making them both more “human” and less predictable.
Garret Dillahunt is back as the Terminator that hunted John through the first season, now playing the body inhabited by a supercomputer that creepy corporate schemer Catherine Weaver (pop star Shirley Manson, who brings a weird, unemotional disconnection to the role that is both unnerving and distracting) seems to be trying to turn into Skynet. And why not? She turns out to be a Terminator herself, the cool T-1000 liquid metal version from the second movie, and she hires Richard T. Jones, the FBI agent who dogs the Connors through the first season, to teach this new being what it is to be human (she picks up a few tips herself along the way). They are brawny episodes in a visceral action series, one of the most expensive on TV, and it shows in each dynamic scene. The gritty writing, vivid characters and dynamic visual style did not, however, attract a big enough audience to justify the show’s high budget and it was cancelled after the superb season.
The box set of 22 episodes on six discs (five on Blu-ray), in a hardcase with hinged trays, makes a fine testament to the show’s short-lived legacy. There is commentary on four episodes, a collection of eight substantial featurettes on the development and production of the season, storyboards and other behind-the-scenes supplements. Exclusive to Blu-ray is Collision with the Future: Deconstructing the Hunter-Killer Attack, an excellent deconstruction of a single effects-heavy moment from the finale from four different perspectives. The four-screen grid doesn’t really work to watch them simultaneously—you need to just jump in and watch each screen separately to get any real information—but it does help illustrate how the separate jobs interrelate to create the final effect. And yes, the show looks great in high-def.
At first glance, Castle: Season One (Disney) might look like just another crime procedural on a schedule already creaking under the weight of CSI spin-offs and knock-offs. Close, but not quite. The “fresh twist” to the familiar genre is that the particular expertise of Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) is the free-wheeling creativity of a fiction writer who looks at every mystery as a plot and looks for the motivations and structure that would make it into a great story. Castle is essentially a fun-loving celebrity novelist whose fame and connections get him a spot (as “consultant”) on a special detective unit, where his boyish enthusiasm and complete lack of discipline clashes with the tough and sexy squad leader (Stana Katic) with banter right out of an old Hollywood romantic comedy. In a culture of geek-speak procedurals filled with jargon and dubious science, this is a refreshing breath of personality and lighthearted character-based writing. But I also appreciate that Castle is the single father of a devoted, smart, responsible daughter (Molly Quinn) growing up way too fast for his comfort (“At least one of you is,” remarks his equally self-absorbed drama queen of a mother). Their chemistry gives the cute scenes a familial devotion; you can buy Castle as her father and Quinn as a teenage daughter who is more adult than he is. And while Katic may look like a model (you could cut yourself on her cheekbones), she has the strength of presence to hold her own against Fillion’s devil-may-care energy.
Creator Andrew W. Marlowe took his inspiration from seventies detective shows and pays tribute to his inspiration by casting Stephen J. Cannell in the show (as himself, a mystery-writing buddy to Castle) and feting Cannell in the featurette “Castle’s Godfather.” Ten episodes on three discs in a standard case, plus two commentary tracks on the season finale (Nathan Fillion appoints himself as life of the party on the party track with creator/executive producer Andrew Marlowe, creator/director Rob Bowman and actors Katic, John Huertes and Molly Quinn) and a tongue-in-cheek “Write-Along with Nathan Fillion” featuring (you guessed it) Cannell teaching Fillion the ropes of writing mysteries. Also features the obligatory collection of bloopers and outtakes.
“Mentalist (noun): Someone who uses mental acuity, hypnosis and/or suggestion.” That’s the definition that opens each episode of The Mentalist: The Complete First Season (Warner) and that’s exactly what Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) brings as a special consultant to the Major Crimes squad of the California Bureau of Investigation (yes, it’s a real law enforcement agency). Jane is a former stage psychic who one used his talents for observation and reading people to play at supernatural abilities, until a serial killer punished his arrogance by murdering his family. He now uses those talents to investigate crimes and gauge suspects. He’s still the showman, however, who doesn’t just use sleight of hand talents and a gift for misdirection and theatrics but revels in them, and flamboyant behavior and chaotic methods often try the patience of his boss (Robin Tunney) and CBI agents. Jane is a cousin to both “fake psychic” James Roday on “Psych” and “deception expert” Tim Roth on “Lie To Me,” but Baker makes Jane more fun to be with than Roth and far less annoying than “Psych” star James Roday. It’s Baker’s show, but then he plays a character who works every room he’s in like he’s the star attraction, even if it’s a murder scene. The rest is just another procedural crime show where one man’s special gifts and insights find the truths that no one else can see, with dark edges (Jane’s obsession to get the serial killer who murdered his family is so consuming that it defeats his good sense) and light humor that too often comes at the expense of the professionalism of the team. 23 episodes on six discs neatly collected in an extra-wide case with hinged trays, with two well-made featurettes among the supplements.
Also new this week is 30 Rock: Season 3 (Universal), which once again made a good Emmy showing—it took home awards for Best Comedy, Best Writing and, of course Best Actor in a Comedy Series (Alec Baldwin is the funniest man on TV, or at least the funniest who actually means to be funny, which disqualifies Glenn Beck). There’s also Ugly Betty: The Complete Third Season (Disney), Ghost Whisperer: The Fourth Season (Paramount), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – Year Ten (Universal), the final seasons of Showtime’s Brotherhood (Paramount) and the old syndicated horror series Friday The 13th (Paramount) and Spongebob Squarepants: The First 100 Episodes (Paramount), and I belatedly received Fame: Season One and Two (Fox), too late to actually look at but not too late to get in a plug before the movies comes out.