My Kind of Town: “Eureka” Takes Its Final Bow

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Scientific American’s blog network on July 18, 2012.


So, the triumphant return of <insert favorite summer cable series here> is great and all and Ima let you finish, but it was the end of an era at the SyFy Channel Monday evening, when the final episode of the quirky dramedy Eureka aired — a.k.a. one of Jen-Luc Piquant’s favorite TV shows of all time. OF ALL TIME! She’s been a weepy pixelated mess ever since., even though the writers, cast and crew came through with a terrific series finale despite being abruptly cancelled with little time to wrap up loose ends.
For those deprived souls outside the loop, Eureka is an affectionate paean to the small town, with a twist: its entire population is made up of brilliant scientists (and their families), all of whom work at a vast, sooper sekrit lab called Global Dynamics that gets a large part of its funding from the Department of Defense, yet is dedicated to curiosity-driven research — at least in principle. The show’s premise is partially inspired by places like Los Alamos, Berkeley Lab, Livermore National Lab, and Bell Labs, but mostly it’s a love letter to science and scientists by co-creators Jaime Paglia and Bruce Miller.

At the heart of it all is Sheriff Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson), the quintessential Everyman with the big, big heart, who must team up with the brainy bunch week after week to combat the very exotic complications that routinely plague Eureka: AI attack drones gone rogue, everyone in town sharing each other’s dreams, nanobots pervading the lab, the brain-jacking of a major character via a brain-to-brain neural implant, rips in the fabric of spacetime — plus a time-traveling stint in 1947 that reset the entire series timeline — and a fictional manned mission to Titan thanks to the invention of a faster-than-light drive. We’re talking science fiction, people, albeit inspired by real science.
Once, in Season 4.5, the town experienced a sudden disruption of the Higgs field that caused a lot of otherwise heavy objects to float, and while I gave into the temptation to nerd-gas about that a bit over at Discovery News (one of the hazards of being married to a physicist), it was an amusing way of playing with some very big ideas that don’t usually make it onto TV.
As actor Wil Wheaton, who plays particle physicist Dr. Isaac Parrish, shared on his blog, one scene from that episode (“Up in the Air”) captures the lovable geekitude of scientists:

When we’re in the [Global Dynamics] rotunda with Carter and Henry [Joe Morton], talking about my Higgs Disruptor … Parrish is talking about how his Disruptor is signed, but the authenticity of signatures from that era is questionable. You can barely see it, but during rehearsal, Joe and I realized that we’re both scientists, and we’re talking about a piece of antique equipment that was signed by Higgs himself! We decided that, being nerdy scientists, we’d get excited about that, and temporarily forget that there’s a bunch of antimatter hanging out above Eureka waiting to deliver an Earth-shattering KABOOM!

The scientists are the rock stars in this wacky town. Frankly, what Eureka does best is capture the culture of science: the almost childlike enthusiasm and sense of wonder about the world, and the endless curiosity that drives scientists to ask questions, test theories, all of which leads to even more questions. They worry about their funding, deal with family crises and lab mix-ups, and above all pursue interesting science.
The scientists are also believably diverse (male, female, black, Asian, short, tall, chubby, plain, good-looking, and everything in between). Fargo (Neil Grayston) might be the quintessential nerd, but Nathan Stark (Ed Quinn) is tall, dark, handsome and brooding, and very much a slick “company man.”
Carter’s love interest, Allyson (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), ends up heading Global Dynamics in Season 2, while Henry (Joe Morton) is the wacky experimentalist with the high ideas who serves as the town’s conscience — perchance even its “soul,” if a town can be said to have one.
High school is a different experience in Eureka. Instead of jocks lording it over the geeks and nerds, being smart is cool, with academic achievement valued far more than athletics. In one episode, Carter’s delinquent daughter, Zoe (Jordan Hinson), is awaiting her IQ test results, and Carter reveals his own IQ is 111: “more than 100%!” It becomes the trendy high school insult for awhile (as in “That is sooo 111…”), although Zoe turns out to have a much higher IQ, and actually fits in quite well as time goes on, eventually attending Harvard Medical School.
One of my favorite episodes in Season 1 features Henry’s old girlfriend visiting with her husband, a brilliant (supposedly) scientist with a reputation for sweeping in and solving any challenge at the 11th hour. Except it turns out he’s not that brilliant — he just has a mind-wiping device that can “steal” people’s memories — just long enough for them to forget the solution to a problem, so he can sweep in and pretend he solved it. He’s done this to his own wife, stealing her own professional reputation and earning the accolades that should have come her way. The device he uses may be fictional, but the gender dynamic most certainly is not, and academic misconduct, while rare, does indeed happen.
The show does all of this without ever resorting to hidden agendas and overt “messaging,” which make for lousy narratives. It’s always an interesting dynamic weaving real science into science fiction, and the Eureka writers manage that balance very well — but let’s face it, a good story is always going to come first.
One of co-creator Jaime Paglia’s favorite examples of this natural tension between getting the science right and telling a good story occurred when writing the episode “Blink,” Eureka‘s version of a “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign (and a very effective one). Global Dynamic scientists under pressure to complete their projects by a deadline — or risk losing their funding — turn to a hopped-up form of speed.
Jaime wanted to show one such user, having overdosed, moving so fast while running that he literally can run across the surface of Lake Archimedes without sinking. He asked science consultant Kevin Grazier (who has also consulted for Battlestar Galactica and spent years as a scientist at JPL) how fast that would be. Kevin did some calculations and decided it would be around 565 MPH — a speed at which the flesh would likely be flayed from the body, among other inflicted damage, so it was impossible. “Well…. I’m gonna do it,” was Jaime’s response, so Kevin sighed and gave him the basic outlines for a remotely plausible scenario.
Before the iPhone’s Siri, there was S.A.R.A.H. The acronym stands for Self Actuated Residential Automated Habitat, a literal “smart house” built inside an abandoned fallout shelter that serves as Carter’s residence throughout the series. S.A.R.A.H. is an AI that can open and close the hermetically sealed doors, control internal lights and temperature, and make sure Jack has a nice cold beer on tap and a tape of the latest baseball game when he gets home from a hard day’s work. In a pinch, she can diagnose injuries and compare current DNA samples against samples on file. (Fargo created her, and named her S.A.R.A.H. after Buffy actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. S.A.R.A.H.’s “voice” is Fargo speaking in a feminine falsetto.)
S.A.R.A.H. may be a fictional Dream House, but Georgia Tech has the Aware Home, an ordinary-looking two-story house tricked out with all the latest sensing equipment: cameras in the ceiling, microphones in the walls, and invisible trip wires in the doorways. There’s even a “smart dollhouse,” part of project called InterHome. Per a 2009 article in New Scientist:

Developed at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, the house is fitted with a network of infrared sensors connected to a central computer. By working out which rooms we tend to occupy at different times, software algorithms learn when we need the lights, heating or air conditioning systems turned on and, perhaps more importantly, when we don’t, says Johann Siau, the project’s coordinator. …
InterHome also aims to boost home security. By connecting door and window lock sensors to the computer, it can send a text message to the homeowner if they have forgotten to lock the front door, for instance. Texting back will lock any doors or windows in question.

Sure, S.A.R.A.H. has a rather mercurial temperament. She once locked Carter out when he forgot to call to tell her he’d be late, and when Carter considered leaving the town of Eureka, her abandonment issues kicked into high gear and she locked everyone inside — using her laser defense system to zap the pizza delivery boy when he tried to escape.
But all that changed when she fell for Deputy Andy (Kavan Smith Ty Olsson), Carter’s well-nigh indestructible robotic sidekick in later seasons; AIs have feelings, too, at least if they’ve been upgraded with special emotion software. So even S.A.R.A.H. got a happy ending.
As Alisdair Wilkins said over at io9: “What show other than Eureka would throw into its big wrap-up montage a shot of an ecstatic robot about to have sex with a house? No other show, that’s what, and that’s all the reason I need to miss Eureka.” Sniff.
Eureka had a great run, and went out on a high note. And for those who missed experiencing the series the first time around, well, the residents of this scientific paradise will live on via DVD.
Parts of this post originally appeared here on February 6, 2010.

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