“Why is this happening again?” a 15-year-old John Connor (Thomas Dekker) mutters near the outset of this Fox series, proving that while he might by the future leader of a rebellion against murderous machines, he doesn’t understand much at this age about Hollywood math. Credibly expanding the “Terminator” franchise into TV, this series faces a considerable challenge — beginning with the usual contortions of time-travel logic — to maintain its initial pace without devolving into silliness, but under director David Nutter and show-runner Josh Friedman, the first two hours roll a slick brand extension off this profitable assembly line.
Occupying a window between “T2” — which featured the assault on a barely pubescent John — and the 20-something version in “T3,” the pilot finds Sarah Connor (“300’s” Lena Headey) vigilantly guarding her teenage son, never knowing when the next portal-popping threat from the future will send them scurrying into retreat.
In fact, John has only just become acquainted with a pretty new classmate, Cameron (Summer Glau), when another Terminator turns up as a substitute teacher, attempting to administer the toughest pop quiz ever. (After toying with excising the scene last summer because of the Virginia Tech shootings, cooler heads prevailed, and it’s back mostly intact.)
So the Connors are on the run again, with an FBI agent (Richard T. Jones) in hot pursuit — introducing an extra “The Fugitive” riff — along with the mechanical monster. The first of several intriguing plot twists, however, temporarily puts mother and son out of danger — though for how long remains anybody’s guess.
Friedman and Nutter (whose enviable directing record as a pilot launcher continues) recognize that simply scaling down the cat-and-mouse chase sequences for TV won’t be enough to sustain a series, so they rely on the movie franchise’s time-travel motif to provide new wrinkles that become apparent in episode two — namely, that emissaries from the future, good and bad, can pop up in this current reality, creating various narrative possibilities, among them another shot at altering humanity’s grim destiny.
Even with that, the questionable logic that has allowed the “Terminator” franchise to flourish (such as a guy from the future fathering a child in the past) could easily unravel on an episodic basis. Fortunately, the reworked pilot (shot in New Mexico before production shifted to Los Angeles) exhibits a tighter pace, impressive and abundant action with convincing effects and, frankly, plenty of eye candy between Glau and Headey — who solidly slips into the Rambette role, complete with the portentous voiceover — sure to be enjoyed by teenage boys of all ages.
Fox is wisely seeking to leverage all these hormonal assets for everything they’re worth, launching the show (which, with nine completed hours, is scheduled to run through early March) to benefit from heavy promotion during the NFL playoffs, as “24” has in the past. Moreover, the series will zap over to Mondays, taking up residence in an hour where “Heroes'” absence should free up action-hungry eyeballs.
Strategically it all makes perfect sense, provided that Friedman and company can continue meeting the daunting task of oiling the tracks on this thrill ride. “No one is ever safe,” Sarah tells her very-important son — advice that’s as true for a sci-fi series facing this many creative hurdles as it is for the world’s eventual savior.