A Town Called Eureka
I’ve been watching a lot of Eureka lately. It’s coming back to the new SyFy1 next week, which I’m excited about, but it really came to my attention as a show to think about when it became a topic of conversation among some sciencey people as a show they really like. I was a little surprised at its popularity, because it always seemed to me like one of those shows where the fiction overtakes the bounds of scientific plausibility (something that doesn’t really bother me, but is roundly disdained by others in my household). The more I watch, though, the more it seems like an important example of the possibility of a non-mediocre middle ground.
Eureka’s premise is that a charming, common sense, everyman, All-American guy named Jack Carter gets assigned to be the sheriff of Eureka, a top secret town full of geniuses. Most of the town is employed by Global Dynamics, a hidden facility sanctioned by the government and designed to create world changing scientific advances. Sheriff Carter’s job is to wade through the daily catastrophes associated with the creation of artificially intelligent military drones, satellites that beam aggression from space, devices that erase memory, etc. etc., while also administering common sense justice against those who use their geniusy powers for selfish purposes. He may not be able to spell corporeal, but he sure can sniff out a bad guy.
This premise allows Eureka to have its science fiction both ways – it reveres its genius townspeople, it delights in its super geeky setting, but the viewer’s experience of the scifi wackiness is always mediated by Sheriff Carter’s everyman perspective. The space that gets carved out between Carter and everyone else defines the show’s scifi-meets-real-life appeal: Carter lives in an omniscient smart house named Sarah who can anticipate his every need, but who nevertheless gets pissed off when he’s late for dinner. The town hot spot, Café Diem, lets you order anything you can possibly think of and prepares it out of its fission-run, warehouse-sized freezer, but Carter really just wants a burger. Science fair day at the Tesla School for Advanced Learning includes one entry that promises to be the next major development in medical digital imaging, but the school is still ruled by a coterie of gorgeous evil genius girls who mercilessly mock Carter’s daughter Zoë. Eureka lets the viewer imagine awesome scientific advances in the context of recognizable real life, while refusing to condescend either to its slightly stupid main character or its non-genius audience.
The middle ground here comes primarily out of the show’s combination of Carter’s police procedural street smarts and the scifi genre invisible man explodiness, but the impressive resistance to mediocrity comes largely out of its sheer quirkiness. The tone is set by the show’s opening credits, a ridiculously catchy cheerful whistling melody punctuated by odd minor intervals and a piano/washboard backup. That homespun whistle calls back to the Andy Griffith Show backbone that is built into Eureka, but those unexpected intervals cannily inform you that Carter’s Main St. is a different kind of place than Andy’s. Outside of the really masterful main credits, Eureka indulges in a familiar, comforting silliness – lots of covered-in-goo gags, geeky call outs to Doctor Who and Star Wars, Carter’s house is actually a woman jokes, and the unending, ever satisfying encounters between Carter and the scientists he tries to police.2 The silliness, though, rarely falls from pleasurable familiarity into boring predictability. New monsters of the week, inventive solutions to mundane problems (your clothes keep cleaning themselves after you take them to the dry cleaners!), and the occasional ring of emotional sincerity prevent the premise from exhausting itself.
Eureka’s writing, while fun, never really elevates it beyond its genre fiction format, and it certainly does not challenge the audience to examine their own lives or confront the existential futility of modern institutions or require them to follow seventeen interwoven plotlines. Still, its pleasant veneer of glossy entertainment acts less as a shell that disguises an empty core and more like a stylistic safety bubble. Inside the bubble, you can forget the implausibility of shared dreaming and instead snicker when the whole town experiences Sheriff Carter’s classic forgot-to-wear-clothes-to-work nightmare. Buried safely within the slick layer of quirk, you’re encouraged to set aside your fake science alert radar and resign yourself to comfortable, imaginative fictional pleasure. Eureka doesn’t take itself too seriously, but its premise and tone do offer some deeper insights. It is an amiable, friendly show, ultimately optimistic about science, the future, and human nature, and full of enough style and imagination to guard against blandness. It lauds common sense without dissing nerdiness, it values loving human relationships without devolving into sappiness (okay, it’s a little sappy), and even as it laughs at itself, it does so without undermining its own project.
All of which is not to say that Eureka is perfect – it certainly isn’t. Some monsters of the week fail to create an appropriate amount of panic, and the origin of any given problem is pretty repetitive (“You say there’s a problem with the flow of time? Who at Global Dynamics is working on a project about time? Lots of space debris headed our way? Say, isn’t someone at Global Dynamics working on a space debris thingy?”). And then there’s the issue of Degree for Men Absolute Protection, which… is a topic for another day. Still, at its best moments, Eureka allows the audience to imagine a future of scientific advances like clean water and air, vaccines for all diseases, and the end of drought and hunger, but it’s difficult to appreciate them from a large-scale perspective. Instead, we experience this edenic future within a familiar, American small town, full of self-cleaning clothes, cars that drive themselves, and houses that have dinner ready when you come home.
1Yeah, that stupid rebranding is a whole different blog post.
2Carter, to evil scientist: “I’m on to you. I know you have a device that can create a worm hole, or uh, bend time, or make you invisible – a wormholing, timebending, invisibling device that…shields you from the mind.”
Other scientist: “Yes. He said invisibling.”