By Gillian Flynn
Updated August 08, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Eureka: James Dittiger

Eureka is an impossibly quaint town that can’t be found on any map and is prone to mishaps like, oh, the breakdown of time. It looks like the sister city to Cicely, Alaska, and indeed it’s peopled with Northern Exposure-style eccentrics. There’s an easy-going mechanic-cum-coroner, Henry (Terminator 2‘s Joe Morton); an oversexed owner of a B&B, Beverly (NYPD Blue‘s Debrah Farentino); and a dubious out-of-towner, new sheriff Jack Carter (Coupling‘s Colin Ferguson). But if Eureka‘s exterior is Northern, its heart is all X-Files. As it turns out, Henry is actually a genius engineer, and former U.S. marshal Carter found himself relocated to Eureka after he learned a bit too much about the town while driving through with his daughter (Jordan Hinson). Eureka, see, has been the sanctuary of our keenest scientists since WWII. This town of best-and-brightest is expected to produce edgy ”war toys,” should a crisis arise again. (B&B keeper Beverly, meanwhile, is involved with a network of spies trying to see exactly what gets produced.)

The frustrating thing about Eureka is it doesn’t know how seriously to take itself — how much to Expose its X-Files. The scientists’ brilliant projects — rays that beam aggressive thoughts, serums that regenerate tissue — would be fascinating if the series would properly explore them. But in the effort to keep the situation light, the scientists themselves are treated as comic relief: One pudgy fellow is a neurotic with germ issues, another looks like he could be related to The Office‘s Dwight Schrute. Each week’s plot seems to boil down to ”Which Crazy-Ass Genius Screwed Up This Time?” Carter, when not mopping up the messes of Eureka‘s lab rats, has his own distracting side projects: a crush on his boss (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), and a nemesis, Stark (Ed Quinn) — the boss’ estranged hubby. Unfortunately, these three actors have so little chemistry they could make phone sex sound like a lecture on particle physics. Still, the dull love triangle has more intrigue than Stark’s big secret, an alien ”artifact” he keeps in a glowing room; I’ve dubbed this mystery ”The Thing in the Room I Don’t Care About.”

Eureka is never scary or titillating, but it can be charming, and that’s due in large, large part to Ferguson, a Second City-trained actor who packs just the right amount of indignation and bemusement into his reactions. His one-man scene in episode 2, in which Carter was forced to apologize to his fully automated ”smart house” after he was late for dinner, was Eureka‘s best moment yet. That wasn’t necessarily because it was funny (though it was), but because it handily encapsulated what the series is too often lacking: that flash of confidence and joy when everything clicks. Call it a eureka moment.