Mad science is getting quirky and lovable once again on the Syfy Channel, as Eureka returns for the long-delayed second half of its third season. We've seen the next two episodes of this crazy-town show. Spoilers ahead.
Faithful Eureka viewers will remember that at the end of the most recent episode, Jack Carter got fired as sheriff by the Department of Defense, which gets some veto power over the town's affairs because of all the sensitive zaniness that goes on there.
So the first episode back, "Welcome Back, Carter," picks up right where this cliffhanger left off — Jack is taking a job with the Department of Homeland Security, which hires him in spite of his inability to say anything much about his previous job. Meanwhile, the town of Eureka gets a new robot sheriff named Andy, who's just as good natured as Jack, but lacks a certain... intuition.
The replacement-robot-sheriff story was treading on territory I felt like I'd visited many times before, and I was pretty sure I knew where it was heading. After all, it's hardly a spoiler to say that Jack gets his job back at the end of the episode, right? But the "Sheriff Andy" story actually took some turns I wasn't expecting at all, and wound up impressing me quite a bit.
Andy, the android sheriff, starts out as just sort of a one-note joke, but he actually sort of grows as a character over the course of the episode. He's just as much of a silly screw-up as every other character on Eureka, but he's no worse — and the show winds up showing not just his innate niceness, but also his dignity. He's given some chances to prove that he's more than just a tool or a device, and to show that he actually has a choice about being a protector of the town — he's not just following his programming or instructions.
The actual plot of "Welcome Back Carter" is fairly flimsy but entertaining — trees fall down in a very random, yet organized, fashion, and Jack suspects that something weird is going on. (Because, duh. Something weird is always going on.) But the new Sheriff, Andy, refuses to believe that anything unusual is happening — until more objects start falling in random, yet apparently targeted ways.
One thing that jumped out at me about both "Welcome Back Carter" and the second episode, "Your Face Or Mine?" was the fact that the person who's behind the somewhat disruptive shenanigans doesn't really get punished. In both cases, the malefactor causes a ton of disruption and some damage, but winds up apologizing, and gets let off the hook, more or less. Because Eureka is such a good-natured show, even people who break the law and cause mayhem get a slap on the wrist, followed by an understanding hug.
At its core, of course, Eureka really is a show about law enforcement, and the limits of carrying a big stick. Our main character, Jack Carter, is the town sheriff, but he's regularly forced to deal with weird and random occurrences that go way beyond stolen cars and assaults. It's not just that everyone in Eureka is a genius, except for Jack and his deputy, Jo. It's also that the "crimes" Jack confronts are usually at least partly accidents, and they usually stem from abuses of science. And science, the show seems to suggest, was made to be abused. Science loves it! Science is strapped to a bed wearing fishnet stockings and Groucho Marx nose-glasses, begging for more.
Eureka is frequently compared to The Andy Griffith Show, which is one of my favorite shows of all time because Griffith really is all about the abuse of police power. The central dynamic in many Griffith episodes is the debate between Andy and his deputy, Barney Fife — Andy's response to any situation is a pat on the shoulder and a kindly talk, but Barney regularly wants to lock everybody up, and on those rare occasions when Barney gets to carry a gun, he'll shoot first and think about it a few days later. The Andy/Barney dynamic is like a debate over the limits of hard versus soft power — do you keep order in the town of Mayberry through fear and heavy-handedness, or through a sort of gentle folksy paternalism?
And Eureka seems to ask similar questions, only about science. (To some extent, Jack's deputy Jo seems to be more of a hard-ass than Jack, but it's not quite the same as the Andy/Barney thing.) Eureka, the town, is an encapsulation of the scientific community (if only all scientists were geniuses) and the scientific disasters that happen so regularly you can set your watch by them stand for our worst fears about science. And every week, Jack shows that science can run amuck, it's fine, as long as there's an understanding, kindly authority figure there to pat it on the shoulder every now and then.
Jack is much less laid-back and all-knowing than Andy, of course — in the second new episode, airing next week, Jack gets put through a series of tests designed to make sure he's still fit to be sheriff, and he gets plenty flustered and demoralized. He's not just our authority figure, he's also our everyman, scratching his head at what the whiz-kids see fit to throw at him.
That episode, "Your Face Or Mine?", is directed by star Colin Ferguson. So the "series of tests" sequence is designed to remove Jack from the main storyline, so he can be behind the cameras instead of in front of them. Meanwhile, Deputy Jo Lupo has already aced the series of tests — further adding to Jack's distress when he's struggling with them — but in the main part of the episode, she faces some difficult tests of her own. Which involve getting Erica Cerra to wear a red dress and act all vampy on top of a piano, among other things.
Eureka's been away so long, I'd forgotten how much fun it could be, and how twisty and surprising its storylines are capable of being. Neither of the two upcoming episodes goes where you think it's going, and that's actually a harder feat than you'd expect. The stories are mostly excuses, though, for our heroes to face huge and bizarre challenges, and to prove that in the end, the human spirit is weirder and stronger than any mad science. And that's not a bad message to spread.
Eureka's back on Syfy, starting tonight at 9 PM.