Eureka

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.

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Posted in SF, TV. 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “Eureka”

  1. Chance Says:

    In Eureka, by contrast, I was rooting for the townsfolk right from the start.

    It reminded me a lot of Northern Exposure in that respect – though I like Marshall Carter a hell of a lot more than I ever liked Joel Fleischman.

    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.

    Don’t disagree with anything you’ve said above, espcially about how all the geeks aren’t real geeks, but TV geeks who never feel particularly sharp or particularly true, but the show being from Carter’s perspective didn’t bother me all that much – I felt like he was going to develop an affection for the town pretty quick and so become one of them.

    But what actually bothered me more was the evil conspiracy headed by Greg Germann – I think that’s where the downfall of the show is going to lie – it’s going to be a premise that’s going to get tired pretty quick, and one that’s so stock and tired I don’t think I can invest in it at all.

  2. Niall Says:

    I never saw much of Northern Exposure; IIRC it was on in some daft late-night slot in the mid-nineties, and by the time I became aware of it it was too late to get into it.

    I felt like he was going to develop an affection for the town pretty quick and so become one of them.

    Yeah, quite possibly. The post may be overly critical. I didn’t hate the show, and I’m sure some of my reaction is the result of going in having seen virtually no publicity, only knowing the premise, and not having correctly calibrated my expectations.

    I thought the revelation that [spoiler] was heading up the conspiracy to get into Section 5 was more disappointing, to be honest. Mostly because I’m not convinced Greg Germann is actually evil. (Although this does not strike me as a show that’s going to do moral complexity well.)

  3. Chance Says:

    I thought the revelation that [spoiler] was heading up the conspiracy to get into Section 5 was more disappointing, to be honest. Mostly because I’m not convinced Greg Germann is actually evil.

    Ah see, it was obvious to me from the first moment he walked on stage when he was sparring with the Sheriff that he was the shows resident Bad Guy. (Though I do concede he might be less bad guy who has been sucked in by super bad guy and doesn’t know it yet.)

    Although this does not strike me as a show that’s going to do moral complexity well.

    Agreed – but then again if it is mostly on the lighter side, I won’t particularly mind all that much.

    The post may be overly critical. I didn’t hate the show, and I’m sure some of my reaction is the result of going in having seen virtually no publicity, only knowing the premise, and not having correctly calibrated my expectations.

    I had the opposite experience. I had several people suggest I go watch it and read a pretty glowing review in the Washington Post beforehand. I mostly felt like you did – enjoyable, but sortof meh. I’ll watch it again as I do think there’s some promise in the show, but it certainly isn’t something I am looking forward to (yet, anyway.)

  4. Martin McGrath Says:

    I watched it tonight – I sort of liked it. I mean the characters are all pretty stock and it’s trying for that Northern Exposure/Wonderfalls/Due South type whimsy but doesn’t quite reach it (then again the first season of Northern Exposure was that show’s weakest). Interesting that Peter O’Fallon directed the pilot, who also directed episodes of Northern Exposure and Wonderfalls.

    I guess the thing that bothered me most was the autistic genius boy (why is The Shield the only show on television which portrays autism remotely realistically) and the “reverse the polarity” ending, both of which smacked of laziness.

    I thought the Marshall was an essential ingredient (who else are they going to explain all the technical stuff to so the viewer has a clue what’s going on) and I liked the supporting cast, which was impressively strong. Matt Frewer, Joe Morton, Greg Germann and Maury Chaykin all really stood out – I hope they don’t write Sheriff Cobb out completely, Maury Chaykin always makes me laugh.

    The best thing about the show was the little background touches – the triangular bubbles, the solar-powered car, the restaurant that serves everything – I thought those worked well. But for the main plot, even with the big bad arc, I think there going to have to work really hard for this not to slip into disaster of the week.

    Oh, and (SPOILER!!) given the ending, does that mean that when Jack blacked out just as he was about to get it on with Beverley that she’d spiked his drink? Or was he just exhausted?

  5. Abigail Says:

    I had roughly the same reaction to the pilot as you and the other commenters here did – it’s pleasant but not great. But I won’t be watching the show – the female characters are a deal-breaker for me. It’s not just that none of the main female characters are scientists, or that the two female townspeople are such crude stereotypes – the busty sexpot who turns out to be evil and the mommy (and, it was strongly implied, hectoring housewife) who is killed – but that none of the minor scientist characters, like Joe Morton’s assistant, or even the extras within the institute were female. Even the two genius kids were boys. I’m actually angry.

  6. Niall Says:

    Martin: I was assuming that disaster-of-the-week was what they’d be aiming for, at least to start with. It has all the hallmarks of a formula show, as far as I can tell.

    Abigail: it was so bizarrely one-sided on the gender front that at first I thought they were setting up this community as a 1950s-time-warp place, and were gradually going to undermine it. But no, they appear to be serious. Clutching at straws, I didn’t get a particular sense that the housewife was hectoring (the opposite, if anything, though that’s not a big improvement), and I assume that we’ll get to meet more of the townsfolk over the next few episodes.

  7. Justmatt Says:

    I disagree with a lot of this review. Having been a computer geek since the early 80’s, as well as watching WAY-Y-Y too much TV in my life, I think I’m qualified to comment on the geek factor on the tube.

    Yeah, it’s quirky, but that’s nice sometimes. It’s a cute show which doesn’t try to be preachy like Galactica and doesn’t go in for cheap gross-out gags like many of the other shows on Sci-Fi.

    No every show needs to try and change the world, sometimes they just want to tell a fun story.

    Stuff like the Felon Spice comment and advice about not sleeping on the nuclear device are what makes my non-geek spouse enjoy the show as well.

    I think I’ve seen 6 eps. so far and I can tell you that it’s on of about 5 shows I care about. The rest is all derivative claptrap.

  8. Ed Says:

    I think the Twilight Zone line has something to do with the Twilight Zone episode called “Valley of the Shadow”. In this episode an average guy stumbles upon a town of genius with advanced technology.


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