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Sci Fi takes quirks to nth degree in 'Eureka'

There's a warm and fuzzy place in my heart for eccentrics and weirdo s. OK, so a harmless guy is talking to himself in a cafe (without a cell phone headset on his ear). So a lady -- or a guy -- has too many knitted flowers on her -- or his -- flapper hat. Come on, there's a little of the outsider in all of us.

But in its love affair with such ``colorful characters," TV has a habit of pasteurizing them into annoyingly generic quirkiness. And that's especially so when the show -- such as Sci Fi's mediocre new ``Eureka"-- is set in small-town America. Often , along the lines of ``Gilmore Girls," ``Ed," and ``Everwood," the freaks and geeks have been just too precious and puppy-doggish. When it premieres with a two-hour episode tonight at 9, ``Eureka" will set loose enough cloying quirk to trigger a four-alarm quirk alert. With its population of must-love oddballs, the series drowns its cool sci-fi concept in a flood of ``Northern Exposure" quaintness.

Eureka is an idyllic Pacific Northwest town that's a secret government home for scientific geniuses . But don't think ``Lost." With all the brainy nuts, the show adopts the light-hearted dramedic tone of ``Monk" and ``Psych." There's the child who scribbles math equations in chalk on the sidewalk, and a diner owner who can cook whatever you crave. That car mechanic? A rocket scientist. Also afoot: a ``biological containment specialist," played by Matt Frewer from ``Max Headroom" with a hokey Australian accent.

The rules of predictable TV dictate that there be a normal guy who finds himself trying to make sense of all the cute nonsense. And, of course, his car has to have gone off the road so that he's forced to stay in town while his engine is repaired. Let's hope show creators Andrew Cosby and Jaime Paglia didn't spend too much time ``creating" that setup.

The everyman is US Marshal Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson), who's transporting a teen runaway (Jordan Hinson) when he lands in Eureka. Sure enough, he gets sucked into the local troubles, as time-space experiments are going awry, and he agrees to help out the officers and a pretty Department of Defense liaison (Salli Richard- s on-Whitfield) with whom he flirts. He gets a room at a boardinghouse run by a psychotherapist (Debrah Farentino) , who flirts with him. This therapist is not ``Twin Peaks" psycho so much as silly-sitcom psycho .

The show looks admirably shiny and happy while it shakes up its blue-skied Americana with strange cosmic occurrences. But that's about the only thing that works well on ``Eureka." Ferguson is a likable lead, but he can't do much when Carter is forced to run from one fish-out-of-water cliché to another. And after we learn that Carter and his wife have separated, a few too many sappy afterschool-special moments ensue.

Meanwhile, the plot ambles forward across two hours , revealing what we've already figured out. It's for those among us looking for opportunities to be proven right. Even the sci-fi material in ``Eureka" is unengaging, and not what you'd expect on a channel devoted to science fiction. The futuristic developments in Eureka are vaguely fairy tale-like, and not dramatic or sophisticated enough.

The premise of ``Eureka" might have gone somewhere with a little less levity and a lot more smarts. A show about a glut of geniuses ought to be written with some degree of intelligence. Instead, ``Eureka" is a lazy venture that doesn't bother to go for the gold.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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