At one point in the pilot of the Sci-Fi Channel’s newest show, Eureka, our main viewpoint character, US Marshall Jack Carter, wonders whether he’s wandered into the Twilight Zone. It’s exactly what you’d expect an average character in an average show to say, when confronted with what Carter’s been confronted with, but for the average viewer, I suspect the situation will seem a bit more familiar than that. After a car accident while driving his delinquent daughter Zoe home, Carter finds himself in another one of those American small towns. You know the sort: like Eerie, IN, or Twin Peaks, WA. The sort of place The X-Files visited every other week. One of those towns that has more than its share of stories to tell.
Admittedly, unlike the other examples, Eureka is firmly a sci-fi town: no magic or mysticism here. The premise is neatly summed up when Carter calls a smartass kid with a theoretical physics textbook Einstein. Deadpan, the kid replies, “No, I’m an Oppenheimer. The Einsteins live on 4th.” Eureka is a secret town of geniuses, founded after World War II as a haven for intellectual thought and experimentation, and (apparently) the site of most of the inventions and scientific discoveries that have been made in the US since then. It has the best of everything, from healthcare to environmentally-friendly transportation, and is full of gadets and gizmos. It looks like a fun place to live, and more importantly to watch, since you can already see that the daily dilemmas are going to be a bit more out-there than the usual. But if the setup is original, the play is familiar: thoroughly normal outsider comes to a town of weirdos. Weekly wackiness ensues.
There is an interesting twist, but I don’t know whether it was deliberate on the part of the show’s makers or not. As a general rule, in small-town stories we start off on the outsider’s side. We want them to uncover whatever the mystery is, and it’s only gradually, as the series develops, that we start to care about the townsfolk. In Eureka, by contrast, I was rooting for the townsfolk right from the start. Jack Carter is competent, reliable, amiable—some intimacy issues and workaholism, but nothing threateningly serious—and dull. The good people of Eureka, on the other hand … well, let’s face it. It’s a town full of geeks.
Or at least it should be, and that’s what makes the show so frustrating to watch. For a while it looks as if it’s going to be: we meet the guy who cooks up a machine that will undo the fabric of reality in his basement, the car mechanic who used to be a shuttle engineer, the downright odd chief scientist (and if you ever watched any Ally McBeal, however ashamed you might feel of that fact you’ll at least know that Greg Germann gives good odd). But gradually, everything defaults to a more traditional quirkiness. The characters are TV-land geeks and geniuses, not real ones. It doesn’t help that none of the female characters are scientists, and that what we get instead are stock types: the sensual psychotherapist, the stern, lethal deputy sheriff, and the efficient DOD agent. But none of the characters, male or female, act particularly sharp, or feel particularly true, in the way that the cast of The West Wing or Primer are sharp and true. The inhabitants of Eureka are geniuses defined by what they know (most of which we, inevitably, have to take on faith), not by how they think.
Part of the trouble, I think, is that Eureka wants to be one type of show, when it’s really another. I think it wants to be cool, to be a show that (like Galactica) non-geeks can tune into (if for different reasons; none of the cast of Eureka is portrayed with a tenth the depth and dignity of Galactica‘s crew.) Unfortunately, on the evidence of the pilot (which you can watch online, for free, at the Sci-Fi Channel site), Andrew Cosby and Jaime Paglia are never going to be challenging Joss Whedon or Aaron Sorkin in the snappy dialogue stakes, which is a disadvantage from the start. The episode is most entertaining when it’s relaxed, and not trying to be hip; the Twilight Zone reference is forgiveable, but when Deputy Jo dubs Zoe “Felon Spice”, we can only cringe.
But really, Eureka just shouldn’t be cool. It’s probably one of the least cool shows ever devised, not least in its potential for truly heroic amounts of technobabble, and it should let itself revel in that. Carter may be a good hook for the average US TV-watcher, but surely the people who are actually going to be tuning in to this show are going to be watching for the next wonder, and for the geeks. There are signs that the writers know this, as evidenced by the arrival of the Big Bad Military partway through the pilot’s second half, intent on shutting down the town, an event which immediately puts Carter and the town on the same side. And when two soldiers, faced with the end of the world, do the “it’s been a pleasure working with you” thing, it’s a background moment, played as a throwaway—in any other show it would be the focus, but here the focus is on the guy tapping away at a computer terminal, and the kid scribbling equations on the floor. Despite this, the end of the episode brings us firmly back to Jack Carter, and it’s hard not to feel that choice is going to be a handicap.