Sunday, October 14, 2007

Eureka? I Have Lost It!

So, I have on many occasions made reference to all of the quality television that is available nowadays, especially via cable channels. We may well look back on this period of time, rather than the fifties, as the Golden Age of Television, or maybe call it the Platinum Age, because gold just isn't good enough, hasn't been for a long time.

But even though there are many outstanding programs to choose from, there still is something about television that lends itself to the mediocre, to junk, which Neil Postman argued, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, is what television does best. Back in that first Golden Age of Television, Ernie Kovacs said that television is a medium because it is so rarely well done.

But enough with the cooking metaphors. The point is, sometimes we don't want to watch something that requires focused attention, that asks us to ponder deep messages or make sense of complex story lines. Sometimes, we just want to veg out and be entertained. And when I say we, I of course mean me, myself, and I, and the vast majority of Americans, of course, of course.

But it is also true, for me, and I suspect for you, that sometimes we start watching a show that we think might be interesting, and it isn't terrible, so we continue to watch it, even though it's not all that exciting, out of some form of inertia, habit, or just to pass the time. Maybe the show has potential that it's not living up to so far, but maybe, just maybe, things might change.

So, this is the situation I find myself in when it comes to the SciFi Channel's original series, Eureka, which completed its second season not too long ago. And if you click on that link, you can go to their page on the SciFi website, and there are episodes of the program you can watch if you care to.

When the series premiered, I thought the concept was a promising one. The title of the program is also the Greek word for "I have found it!" and the image of a scientist or inventor shouting "eureka!" is pretty much a commonplace in our popular culture, or at least it was when I was growing up. As for the program itself, Eureka is the name of a small town, set up in secret, that is populated almost entirely by super geniuses, as a kind of think tank/industrial park/colony for creative thinkers in the applied, and theoretical sciences.

Now, the premise here is an intriguing one. On the one hand, we have the traditional all-American small town, on the other we have good old American ingenuity, on the one hand old-fashioned community, on the other, progress. The two sets of values and myths are contradictory, but co-exist generally by being kept apart from one another. Bring them together, and we have the potential for a new American myth, a new synthesis to emerge, much like Claude Lévi-Strauss said that the function of myth is to mediate cultural contradictions.

And let me emphasize once more, this is a very American myth. If it were Europeans telling this sort of story, then it wouldn't be a small town, it would be a wonder-city, a metropolis (as in the Fritz Lang silent film). It's the small town that makes this peculiarly American.

So, what we would expect from this sort of series is a sense of excess. Futuristic technology popping up everywhere, lots of robotic devices, a kind of Jetsons meets Andy Griffith. The ads promoting the show led us to believe that's what we would be getting, and for that matter, so do the opening credits. And through the miracle of computer graphics, making it so should be a cinch.

Only, the show never delivers. There's lots of Andy Griffith, sure, but just not enough Jetsons to satisfy the set-up. Maybe it's because much of contemporary technology, computers, virtual worlds, biotech, just lacks the visual interest of the older, mechanical devices that once signified the futuristic. But even so, the problem is that there is one futuristic technology highlighted in each episode, typically presenting a mystery to be solved. But just one, which is hardly excessive. Otherwise, there are a few things here and there, including a smart house, but it's just not technology popping up everywhere, gratuitously.

Futuristic technology should be environmental in this show, not just the occasional gadget. That's what's missing, as the environment itself is essentially an ordinary contemporary small town. What this program demands, or seems to promise and fails to deliver, is excess, technology as far as the eye can see, embedded within the context of the small town. In fact, if done right, this sort of myth should set things up so that the technology is what makes a return to small town life and genuine community possible, thereby resolving the contradiction between the two myths.

Apart from the lack of a surfeit of new technology, the series seems to be sidetracked and distracted by the presence of some alien intelligence that some of the scientists are trying to study. Sure, that fits the science fiction theme, but as it becomes the central mystery that ongoing plot lines revolve around, it detracts from the emphasis on invention that the show seems to be about.

The problem goes farther than the mise-en-scène, and extends to the characters, the inhabitants of this scientific small town. When it comes to scientists and inventors, it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that such folks are typically portrayed as eccentric. But one of the minor disappointments of the show is that, of the regulars that make up the cast, eccentricity is largely limited to Jim Taggart, a supporting, relatively minor character (an Aussie crocodile hunter type), played by Matt Frewer, the former Max Headroom whose comedic talents seem not to be put to very good use here. The other major character type you would expect to find dominating the cast is the nerd, which in the program is concentrated in Douglas Fargo--but why is he the only nerd here?

In the cast picture below, you can see how resolutely normal everyone looks. In the foreground on the right is the main character, Sheriff Jack Carter (Eureka's version of Andy Taylor/Griffith). He is supposed to be our point of identification, the regular guy who, in the pilot, becomes the Eureka's new sheriff, and in every episode is dumbfounded by all the genius and advanced science and technology that surrounds him, but is able to use his basic common sense to solve every problem that comes his way--a fine albeit mild manifestation of the anti-intellectualism basic to American culture. Now, that's fine, but rather than representing the audience as an observer of Eureka's technological excess, he becomes the focus of the program, so much so that the sense of wonder that we should be experiencing is replaced by Carter's own ordinariness. Joining him as a newcomer to Eureka is his rebellious teenage daughter, second from the left below, who humanizes Carter, but places further emphasis on his character as opposed to the technology.

Henry Deacon, dressed as a handyman with a beret, had the potential to be an eccentric inventor type of character, but over the course of the series shifts from a jack-of-all-trades, perhaps the biggest genius of them all, to a star-crossed lover, then a man with secrets looking to avenge his love who was died in an accident (or was it murder?). It's a shift that is too abrupt and loses exactly that charm that we might expect to find in Eureka, as Henry does not turn out to be the goofy kind of inventor you'd expect to find in this scenario. As for the chick next to Sheriff Carter, that's Beverly Barlowe, the town's shrink, who's more than a little sinister. She's an intriguing character with potential, but underutilized, until the end of the second season where she suddenly has a significant role at the end.

Carter's love interest through the first season and into the beginning of the second is Alison Blake, on the far left, who is divorced from Nathan Stark, the slick looking (and arrogant) bearded guy in the suit. Both are resolutely normal aside from being geniuses. From Alison's point of view, her relationship with Nathan is clearly over, although they remain cordial colleagues. Nathan seems to have regrets, and is definitely jealous of Carter. So now, kudos for the interracial romance/love triangle. But while the first season presents Alison and Sheriff Carter as gradually getting closer and closer, there's an abrupt about-face during the second season, which ends with Alison getting back together with Nathan. Simultaneously, Carter finds a new love interest, so, there are no hard feelings on either end, and it is all very pat, it seems to me.

It's as if someone in authority suddenly stepped in and told the producers that they were advocating divorce and immorality with this scenario, given the presence of the ex and the fact that they have a child (with a disability to boot). And they were somehow pressured or convinced to change direction suddenly, abruptly. I'm not saying this actually happened, just that this is how it looks to me. And for whatever reason it happened, they would up eliminating one of the better elements of the series as a consequence.

At the beginning of the series, Nathan's parental role was very much downplayed, and his son is pretty much identified as Alison's child. What brings them back together during the second season is their son, Kevin, who has become involved with the alien entity. Again, not a bad development overall, but it eliminates one of the interesting sources of conflict in the series.

But here's the thing. In the pilot, Kevin is introduced as a young boy with severe autism, mute (although with a hint of speech). He is also potentially a savant, which fits in very well with the scenario for Eureka. The inclusion of an autistic character is an obvious point of interest for me, and I looked forward to some interesting developments. Sure, there's a tendency to latch onto the whole savant thing in film and television narratives, and to exaggerate it to absurd proportions sometimes. That's a stereotype, but at least Kevin wasn't another rain man, and I looked forward to some plots dealing with childhood autism.

But those plot lines never materialized. Instead, through the intervention of the alien entity, Kevin was magically transformed into a typical child, feeding unrealistic fantasies of recovery from autism. This was very, very disappointing. In the final episode, he is freed from the alien influence, with the understanding that he would revert back to his earlier state. But at the end, in a brief scene, he seemed to retain his power of speech, somehow. I just can't help but think that this represents a missed opportunity to actually engage in a substantive way with the realities of autism.

So, not enough fantasy where fantasy is called for, and not enough reality where reality is called for. This is a program that could have been something special, but has unfortunately missed the mark.

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