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"Eureka:" Smarter Than Average

Writing for TeeVee has done something horrible to me: I'm now actively disappointed when I find a new show that isn't utterly godawful. It's just so much fun to give lousy shows the evisceration they so richly deserve. In that respect, the SciFi Channel's new summer series Eureka let me down. It is, I'm sad to report, actually sort of good.

Don't get me wrong -- it's not a patch on the new Battlestar Galactica, a series so ridiculously awesome, especially by SciFi's increasingly lowered standards, that its continued presence on the channel's lineup suggests either bribery, sudden head injuries among the network's executives, or sudden recovery from head injuries among those same executives. Fans of embittered television criticism may also be pleased to hear that it has some decidedly weak, insult-worthy elements. But on the whole, it's a surprisingly amiable, amusing, and even sporadically touching series.

As federal marshall turned new town sherriff Jack Carter -- seriously, why do all square-jawed TV law enforcement types have to be named Jack these days? -- Colin Ferguson is the show's biggest asset. He's funny, charismatic, and entirely willing to let himself look like an idiot -- the latter of which may stem from his previous stint as a cast member on NBC's ill-fated remake of Coupling. The writers do a decent job establishing Carter as a capable, likeable guy, and they've given him a pleasantly combative rapport with his troublesome daughter Zoe (Jordan Hinson), but in the end, Ferguson's performance makes the character -- and at least in the early episodes, the series -- shine.

Other standouts among the cast include the always-good Joe Morton as Henry, the town auto mechanic and jack-of-all-trades, who manages to shine despite a set of nubby middle-aged-man dreadlocks that do no one involved any favors. Neil Grayston is appealingly twitchy as Fargo, a creepy-funny ubernerd working for the think tank that employs most of the townspeople. Debra Farentino, who I remember best from EZ Streets, still makes a heck of an impression as a slinky, manipulative shrink who's actually some sort of traitor in Eureka's midst. Last but not least, there's the absurdly hot Erica Cerra, deadpanning wonderfully as Carter's hardassed, unflappable deputy. (SciFi's Web site tells me that Cerra previously appeared on The L Word. I have never wanted to watch Showtime more in my life.)

In addition, the writing -- while nothing you'd be tempted to write the Emmy committee about -- has some welcome meat to it. I was pleasantly surprised when the second episode followed up on some dangling plot threads from the pilot (available for online viewing), using one character's unresolved fate to drive a surprisingly poignant tale of loss and reconciliation. The whole business about Farentino's character, with her sinister agenda and unknown bosses, also seems promising.

So what doesn't work? Well, for starters, I wish the series would stop being so damn scared of its own concept. Despite taking place in a town full of superscientists, the show's science-fiction elements seem confined entirely to Star Trek-style technobabble and a few briefly glimpsed wacky gadgets. I suspect this may be the work of SciFi executives, who have grown notoriously terrified of anything resembling actual science fiction on their network, lest the Joe and Jane Sixpacks of the world grow confused by too many polysyllabic words. Maybe I'm just a nerd, but I'd be surprised if a few smart writers couldn't work the science aspect more fruitfully into Eureka's storylines without requiring viewers to lunge for a textbook. The "smart house" that bedevils Carter with its passive-agressive sulkiness is an admittedly good start -- here's hoping we see more as the series continues.

There's also a painfully contrived love interest in the form of government agent Alison Blake (Salli Richardson-Whitfield); the character's stiff and boring, and the actress has absolutely zero chemistry with Ferguson, despite the producers' awkwardly obvious attempts to shove them at one another. The boss of the think tank, Blake's estranged husband, is also a blank -- he's got the smug oiliness of Lois and Clark-era Dean Cain, crossed with the truly unfortunate facial stubble of classic Ron Silver. (I regret to report that he's also named Nathan. Thanks, Eureka producers. Thanks ever so much.)

In addition, Matt Frewer keeps showing up for some reason as the town dogcatcher, a role not exactly destined to rank among his best. Think the Reverend Jim from Taxi, crossed with Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura, then add the worst Australian accent ever to assault the ears of mankind. On second thought, don't.

I'm not sure if it's a credit to Eureka, or merely a commentary on the rest of the summer TV lineup, that I like the show despite its flaws. For a town beset by black holes, frequent explosions, and the occasional affront to the laws of physics, it's actually a fun place to spend an hour or so every week. You can see for yourself Tuesdays at 9/8 CT on SciFi. Do yourself a favor and keep one finger on the mute button, though -- just in case Frewer shows up.


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