"Heroes" viewers have seen cheerleader Claire's father go to great extremes to keep his daughter safe. Now Fox's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" brings a gender twist to that kind of preternatural loyalty, as Sarah Connor works like a barbarian to protect her teenage son, John. Sarah will run, shoot, strut, coerce, insult, lie, motorcycle, and steal to shield John from an army of terminator robots. The hunks of metal travel back in time to destroy the boy who'll become the man who'll save 3 billion people, and Mom, always looking fabulously fierce, is having none of that.
British actress Lena Headey makes Sarah into the heart and soul of this series, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channel 25. Without Headey and her maternal magnetism, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" would probably deteriorate into a nonstop series of effects-laden fight scenes that's as cold and grim as NBC's "Bionic Woman" remake. She leavens Sarah's machisma with warmth and dignity as she single-mindedly ushers John (Thomas Dekker) from city to city, alias to alias, and year to year. While Linda Hamilton made Sarah into more of a lean, mean fighting machine in the "Terminator" movies on which this series is based, the charismatic Headey is so much more than a gym babe.
Headey is nicely balanced by the show's second female lead, Summer Glau, who plays a cyborg teen sent back from 2027 to protect John. Named Cameron, presumably after "Terminator" movie director James Cameron, Glau is the emotionless yin to Headey's full-hearted yang. Cameron is supposed to be a lean, mean fighting machine. She can only pretend to be human, which leads to a few funny moments in Monday night's second episode, as she mimics people, and one tragic moment, when she behaves inhumanely. She becomes Sarah's sidekick, with Sarah calling her "Tin Man" and yelling to her, "Do what you do, girlie" in front of a safe that needs some superhuman fiddling.
And so the three play dodge and dart with the bad guys, while trying to evade FBI agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones). It's all fast-paced action with pauses for energy reboots. "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is a sci-fi adventure series that has a lot of promise, but only if writer Josh Friedman can turn away from violence and explosions regularly enough to build these characters.
As John, Dekker, who played Claire's friend Zach last season on "Heroes," has the potential to be both a cynical kid who has spent his life on the go and an awkward teen. Dekker and Headey make lots of intense mother-and-son eye contact, but Dekker makes it clear that John is also looking for intimacy with someone his own age. He is largely unimpressed by his mother's obsession and his own awareness that he will become some kind of messiah. In the second episode, which is significantly superior to Sunday's premiere, John has a sweet montage in which he keeps changing the outgoing message on his cellphone. He is unsure of who he is and who he wants to be.
The casting of Dekker was a smart move, not just because he's destined to become a teenybopper prince but because of his "Heroes" connection. "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," which will air regularly on Mondays at 9, may appeal to a large segment of the "Heroes" audience, particularly now that "Heroes" is out of new episodes due to the writers' strike. This series runs on the same blend of time travel, paranoid atmosphere, global consequence, and familial intensity. And, unlike the more recent "Heroes," it still has the potential to be coherent.