Science fiction with a smile

Mysteries and magic unfold on the renamed Syfy network, from the funny "Warehouse 13" to the charming "Eureka"

Topics: Fiction, I Like to Watch, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Television,

Science fiction with a smileColin Ferguson, left, in "Eureka," Joanne Kelly and Eddie McClintock in "Warehouse 13."

 Mystery is a dying art. Holding on to your secrets during the digital revolution feels as antiquated and prudish as holding on to your virginity during the sexual revolution.

Not only is trying to keep your personal life private nearly impossible, but the whole concept of being a “private person” is patently outdated. What does it even mean? Not mentioning your tubal ligation on your Facebook page? Not tweeting about your disintegrating marriage?

Nothing is confidential anymore; those who’d like to pretend otherwise are greeted with suspicion and raised hackles. In an age when “community building” seems indelibly linked to casting your secrets into an unfathomable digital void, self-censorship can strike people as downright unneighborly. Information wants to be free, and no doubt about it, it’s prepared to break your kneecaps and make a run for it if necessary.

Secrets to service

A stubborn desire to breathe new life into deep, dark secrets and long-protected mysteries lies at the heart of Sci Fi’s “Warehouse 13″ (premieres 9 p.m. on Tuesday, July 7), a drama series about a structure in the middle of the Badlands of South Dakota that’s home to a vast collection of ancient treasures with mysterious powers. This is where some shadowy branch of the government keeps artifacts safe from the nefarious forces in the world that might use them to do evil.

That’s right: “Warehouse 13″ is about a place, filled with things — not just things but secret things with invisible powers (that aren’t digital). Have you ever heard of anything quite so old-fashioned in your life?

Two secret service agents, Myka (Joanne Kelly) and Pete (Eddie McClintock), certainly haven’t. When they learn that they’ve been whisked away to this clandestine location so that they might spring into action each time some powerful tchotchke slips into the wrong hands, our heroes are less than enthused. Not only is the warehouse creepy and cluttered, but it’s guarded by Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek), a scattered hippie-professor type who alternates between easygoing cookie baking and panicked rummaging through the relics in his care.



Of course, if “Warehouse 13″ tried to tout itself as a sophisticated drama like “Fringe” or “Battlestar Galactica,” it would fail miserably. You can’t offer up an enormous storage space filled with old paintings and chalices and crystal balls and not make the mood a little goofy and retro. Luckily, everything, from the old-timey, staticky intercom device the agents use to communicate with Artie to the enormous, rusty warehouse itself (Is there anything more outdated than the warehouse, in this age of digital bartering?), offers little nudges and winks that we’re not supposed to take these adventures too seriously; rather, we should enjoy them as sweet and light and faintly nostalgic, like a spirited mix of “The X-Files” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

In the first episode of “Warehouse 13,” Myka and Pete investigate a particularly creepy case of assault that involves a good-natured college boy suddenly beating up his girlfriend while chanting ancient Italian texts. (Any time anyone starts chanting in Italian, you can assume that some satanic force is behind it.) The two agents uncover clues with the typical degree of misdirection: Could the boyfriend be evil? No, too obvious. How about the slightly evasive professor or that eerie rich lady with the jealous ring to her voice?

But crime solving is just one moving part in this strange invention, which feels a little awkward and hokey — this is Sci Fi, after all — but shifts gears pretty smoothly from kitschy to edgy to creepy and back again. Still, the whole mess threatens to fall from the sky at any minute despite a wide array of magic tricks: twists and turns, poignant back story, witty banter, awkward pauses, heartfelt exchanges. There are times when you have to question the writers’ urge to pack in everything but the kitchen sink: Here’s a mysterious death, followed by a joke, followed by an unnerving encounter, followed by some clever dialogue, followed by a disturbing hallucination. It’s a little hard to know where this wild and bumpy ride is headed after a while.

Fortunately, Kelly and McClintock pull off their roles in this precarious high-flying adventure, teetering between heaviness and humor in each scene. Myka is your run-of-the-mill kick-ass female character, the likes of which were so rare just 10 years ago but now dominate the small screen, particularly during the summer months. Pete, on the other hand, is a new animal: half effective agent, half hapless boy. Most of the time, Pete feels like he wandered off the set of a broad comedy like “Old School” or “Knocked Up” and somehow wound up with a gun in his hand. In one of the last scenes of the first episode, when demons are running wild and madness is in the air and the whole thing is swerving dangerously close to dorky “Raiders of the Lost Ark” territory (“Indy, cover your heart!”), Pete gets so spooked that he tries desperately to play it off by joking around with the hypnotized zombies in his midst. The moment completely undercuts the drama of the scene, yet it’s indescribably, stupidly funny.

But does it really work, just because we laughed? Sometimes comedy is just a convenient reset, like a stiff drink with your in-laws that smoothes the conversation but also fogs your memory of what was said. No wonder dramas without jokes are as outdated today as deep, dark secrets that have yet to be transformed into Twitter updates. Skim the summer schedule and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single drama that doesn’t have a strong undercurrent of humor in it: “True Blood” without a sense of humor is just a bad B-movie that never ends. “Mad Men” without humor is just a disturbingly detailed flashback. “Burn Notice” without a sense of humor is “Miami Vice.”

Are we too impatient and glib to stomach drama without comic relief? OK, I know I am, but are you?

Deep Syfy

Of course, nothing makes me more impatient and glib than the news that Sci Fi is changing its name to “Syfy,” reportedly to make it clear that the channel includes not just science fiction, but fantasy, the supernatural and the paranormal.

Don’t scoff! Branding is important these days. Why, just the other day I was considering changing my name from Heather Havrilesky to SeaDonkia Fleur, to make it clear that I’m not just a TV critic but also a human being, a digital word artist, and a handy disposable wipe. If people see the name “Havrilesky” they might not understand every facet of what my “brand” has to offer, but if they see “SeaDonkia Fleur” they’ll know that I’m a complete asshole.

Likewise with Sci Fi. The brand name “Sci Fi” is too regular and respectable and easy to understand, let’s face it. But Syfy? Like a typo or a mumbled acronym for an STD or the name of an angry little dog in a scratchy pink sweater, Syfy is something we ignore for as long as we can, cringing and fighting the urge to drop-kick it back to its idiot owner. Syfy is so artless and dorky and weak, it begs to be demeaned and disrespected.

But that sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Small town romance

Of course, not every show on the Channel Whose Name We Feel Dirty Using And Therefore Won’t Until We’re Forced To is as embarrassing as the silly notions of its reckless overlords, and not all dramedies are glib. Just look at “Eureka” (9 p.m. Friday, June 10, on Sci Fi), a show that’s at once goofy and deeply earnest. “Eureka” may be a little awkward, but what it lacks in sophistication and slickness it makes up for in clumsy sweetness and pure intentions, as if “Doctor Who” wandered down to Mayberry to seek advice from Andy Griffith.

Apparently the show’s writers are aware of this particular appeal: The first episode of the fourth season of “Eureka” finds former sheriff Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) being replaced by a robot sheriff that, once it extracts itself from its own box, “Terminator”-style, dons a good-guy smile and introduces itself as “Andy.” Andy is designed to be the perfect replacement for Jack: He carefully analyzes the facts, then draws logical conclusions from them.

Yes, we know where this one is going: Sticking to the facts is no way to navigate the topsy-turvy happenings in the messed-up little town of Eureka, with its population of half-crazy geniuses. The stakes are high around these parts, too: The entire world is about to end thanks to something happening in Eureka in about four out of five episodes.

Maybe this explains why the townspeople remain reasonably relaxed and happy, even when the apocalypse is imminent. When Jack’s computerized house S.A.R.A.H. tries to kill the new robot sheriff, she explains herself by calmly telling Jack and his daughter, Zoe, “I apologize. I let my artificial emotions get the best of me.” There’s something about this optimistic mood that keeps “Eureka,” in all of its cgi-aided foibles, light and enjoyable. If the show took itself too seriously, we’d chafe at its corniness.

Like Mayberry, Eureka has miles and miles and miles of heart. Even Andy the robo-sheriff chuckles amiably and shakes his head instead of getting competitive or homicidal in the face of a threat to his authority. When Jack invites him to a party after a big disappointment, he says, “I think I need to spend a little time in my box, you know, sortin’ things out.” You have to appreciate a town optimistic enough that even the robot cops are respectful and contemplative. Yes, the residents here are moody and sometimes envious, but they’re most definitely not glib.

How do they maintain their optimism, in the face of such nonstop peril? If we could solve that mystery, we might stop wasting our time posting updates on Facebook and Twitter and step outside for some good, old-fashioned analog appreciation of time and space and people and places and other antiquated stuff like that.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>