'Eleventh Hour's eleven million problem

Rufus SewellWhy hasn't Eleventh Hour been formally picked up for the full season yet? The networks have made their call on whether to pick up or cancel almost every freshman and sophomore series that only began this season with a 13-episode order. Fox picked up Fringe and Sarah Connor. NBC picked up Knight Rider, Life and Kath & Kim, will let Crusoe play out the string, and dispatched My Own Worst Enemy and Lipstick Jungle (supposedly, in the last case). The CW picked up 90210 and gave additional episodes, if not yet a full season, to Privileged. ABC hasn't announced anything officially, but there are unconfirmed reports all over the web about the future, or lack thereof, for Eli Stone, Dirty Sexy Money, Pushing Daisies and Life On Mars. CBS whacked The Ex-List, picked up The Mentalist, and has ordered additional episodes of comedies Worst Week and Gary Unmarried. All of that leaves one show hanging in the balance, one show that nobody knows what's happening with: our little show here, which as of this episode is officially past the halfway point on its initial 13-episode run.

Consistency is apparently overrated. From a ratings standpoint, Eleventh Hour may be the most consistent show on the air. Here are the total viewers, in millions, for each of the first six episodes: 11.4, 11.9, 11.8, 11.2, 10.9, 11.7. Not a whole lot of standard deviation going on there. Eleventh Hour has consistently proven, week after week, that it'll be somewhere in the eleven million range. On any other network, that'd be a major hit - eleven million would be the top show on NBC outside of football and the #2 show on Fox outside of House. But CBS, far and away the strongest network in viewer totals this fall, is biding its time. CBS seems to be hoping for a spike one week, believing that Eleventh Hour has a week in it where it jumps to 13 or 14 million so that they can announce a pickup at that point. I don't really see the point. Isn't a loyal audience ideal? EH has proven that the same viewers are coming back week after week. I'd honestly rather have that than see the viewing totals read 11-11-11-14-12, which would mean you shed 15% of your audience from one week to the next. But for now, Eleventh Hour is stuck on 11 million, week after week, and it continues to be in limbo as a result.

(Ah, but wait, you say. You consider yourself an amateur TV ratings expert, and you know that raw aggregate viewer totals aren't really what matters. Everybody has their own metric of choice: some people believe that the 18-49 demo is all that counts; some people believe that retention from the preceding show is what matters most of all; some people believe that what you really need to do is compare viewing totals to what aired on the network the year before. Feel free to discuss your favorite ratings angle in the comments.)

And now on to the episode itself. In a flawed episode, there were nonetheless some positive developments. But let's start with the biggest flaw. One of the most important things that Eleventh Hour really needs to accomplish every week is to make it clear that even though each episode may feature a case of science going wrong, the show nevertheless comes from a pro-science viewpoint. That's vital. If you can't accomplish that, then there's really no point to the show at all. Jacob Hood is unabashedly pro-science, and will constantly tell us of the possible benefits of even the craziest-sounding research, but he needs to be backed up by characters in each episode who come across in the same way. In short, even the bad guys need to have some semblance of good intentions.

That was done much less effectively in this episode than in some of the others thus far. The whole rationale of why chemically-altered super-soldiers might be a good thing is never very convincing here. By the time that Dr. Nesic is trying to justify his actions at the end, he's saddled by the fact that he has come off as a crackpot for the first fifty-plus minutes of the episode. Even the more nefarious, murderous villains of previous episodes, like the coroner in last week's episode or the brain surgeon a few weeks back, had more detailed and more legitimate motivations that we as an audience could buy into. But the motivation for why Dr. Nesic was secretly experimenting on Kevin Pierce was never made all that clear here. In turn, this episode feels like Bad Science, full stop, rather than Bad Science that came from good intentions.

On the other hand, if Bruce Nesic is comparatively less effectively detailed than previous episode baddies, Kevin Pierce is more effectively detailed as the unwitting victim of the week. Part of the formula of the show has turned out to be the fact that each episode offers an unwitting sap whose life is endangered by others' actions. Pierce seemed to be a little bit better fleshed out than characters in a similar position in recent weeks, like Edward the cryogenics client last week or Ned the smallpox-afflicted construction worker the week before that.

Perhaps the most positive development in this week's episode, though, is the fact that Hood and Young are clearly getting more comfortable with one another. That whole theme I had mentioned earlier in the series about how Jacob Hood is a really private guy who wasn't at all comfortable opening up about himself is quickly dissipating. Hood is getting far more comfortable with Rachel, and now he's happily spinning stories about his younger days and how he ended up with this job. There are two major benefits here, the first obviously being that this will allow for greater character development and give viewers more of a hook to keep interested in following these two from week to week. The ancillary benefit is that the more comfortable that Hood and Young get with one another, the more comfortable they are joking with one another and having a little harmless fun with each other. This week's episode probably offered the greatest number of lighthearted bits of comedy between the two characters, which is very helpful in calming the mood of a thematically dark series.

As the episode begins, Hood and Young are summoned by Colonel Brooks, the head of DARPA (played by Patrick St. Esprit of the Sleeper Cell Alumni Society). DARPA is the scientific research wing of the Department of Defense (known to some of us by another name, Global Dynamics), and is most well-known for being, in Hood's words, "the folks who really invented the internet." Not that that's necessarily always something to take pride in.

DARPA is working on a project to make better soldiers. They've worked for years and years on making the outside of the American soldier better: better weapons, better equipment, communications technology and strategic advantages and so on. This project is working on improving the inside of the soldier. In short, they're working to chemically alter the mind of a soldier to be a better fighter.

There has been an incident at a lab in Nevada where research is being done on chimpanzees, and Hood is asked to investigate. But what he's really being asked to do is investigate and clear a prized chimpanzee named Sacha, because if Sacha was really responsible for the violent attack on fellow chimps and a veterinarian at the lab, Sacha would have to be put down, and this chimp has had a whole lot of money and research poured into him as the leading test subject. When Hood and Young make their way to Nevada, they meet with the lead researcher, Dr. Nesic, who believes that somebody is trying to sabotage their research and blame Sacha for it. The initial suspect for who might have sabotaged the research is an animal rights activist who snuck onto the research team and was going to expose alleged animal abuse, but the activist, Rudy, is ultimately not the guy.

While Hood and Young are talking with Rudy, Dr. Nesic is dealing with a patient, USAF Sgt. Kevin Pierce. Nesic and Pierce are interacting under the ruse that this is just a side project of Nesic's, working on medication to help with post-traumatic stress disorder. In reality, Nesic is secretly administering the same experimentation to Pierce that he was doing on Sacha and the chimps, despite telling everyone that the research was presently only limited to animals and had not yet moved on to the next phase.

Pierce has been having violent mood swings, and wants to stop the drug treatment he's getting from Nesic, but Nesic talks him out of it. After the latest treatment - which involves sticking a giant needle into the back of his head - Pierce has another mood swing and goes AWOL from the Air Force base to visit his family, but soon demonstrates his newfound predisposition to violence with his wife.

Marley SheltonMeanwhile, Sacha has also gone AWOL, which is even more problematic in that Sacha was locked up in a cage and it should be harder for him to escape. Sacha is found dead, along with a mangled animal control officer. But Hood and Young quickly deduce that this is another frame job, that Sacha is being blamed for attacking the animal control officer but really had been killed elsewhere. Hood takes Sacha's body back to the lab for an autopsy, which prominently features him holding up the chimp's brain for all of us to see. "Congratulations, Hood, you've got me staring at monkey brains," Rachel notes. Hood determines that Sacha's amygdala has been enlarged. Among other things, it's the part of the brain that controls fight-or-flight reactions. Enlarging this part of the brain would give somebody an uncontrolled, instinctive impulse to fight when feeling threatened.

Knowing that Nesic is keeping secrets from them, Hood and Young sneak into his lab one night. They figure out that one of Nesic's test subjects is no chimp, but a human, and they also quickly suss out that it's probably the Air Force sergeant who just went AWOL after demonstrating some erratic behavior. Rachel and Jacob know that they need to find Pierce before he does something really dangerous. Fortunately, Pierce is lucid enough when he's not dealing with immediate perceived threats to know that something is terribly wrong with him, so he has left his family out of the danger and gone into hiding. A couple of drug dealers have the ill fortune of finding his favorite spot of seclusion, though, and Pierce messes them up when they threaten him. Pierce then steals their truck and heads into town, breaking into a pharmacy to look for painkillers.

It's here at the pharmacy that Rachel and Jacob track him down. Hood reminds Young that they have to appear nonthreatening, which means that Rachel shouldn't be waving her gun around like she likes to do all the time. It doesn't really work; Rachel tries a shouty approach anyway. Hood backs her away and calmly approaches Pierce to reason with him and talk him down, and it's a success. Pierce, in turn, thanks Hood by handing over a copy of DVD surveillance of what really went down at Nesic's lab originally. It was Pierce who smashed up the lab, trying to put a stop to what was being done to him, and we're treated to an unfortunately comical scene of the super-human fighting a gaggle of angry super-chimps.

Pierce will be rehabilitated, while Nesic is going to go to jail, with his research career over. But first, Hood has to confront Nesic and try to figure out exactly what he was doing. Hood argues that Nesic was attempting to strip soldiers of their humanity by turning them into machines with no real decision-making or conscience, but Nesic beams that that is exactly what he wanted to do. "Sounds like a heroic advance to me," he smiles. Oh, crazy talk. But even though Nesic is discredited, the research isn't really ending with him. DARPA is just going to continue the process without him.

The Government Link Tank

  • CBS may not know what they're doing with Eleventh Hour yet, which is too bad because the show is engendering a lot more insightful commentary around the web than pretty much anything that could be put in its place. The scientific community has been doing some really interesting discussions of the show and the science within it. Discover Magazine provides additional background information on some of the touchy science issues in each episode, and is definitely worth checking out.
  • The National Academy of Sciences has launched the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a new initiative to connect writers and producers of movies and TV with scientists who can help provide accuracy in scientific storytelling. In effect, the NAS is recognizing the pivotal role that shows like this have a chance in playing when it comes to teaching the American public about science, and they want to work with TV and movie producers to get things right.

What did you think? The viewing totals may be consistent, but how consistent is the quality of the show? Is it generally solid, or are some episodes far stronger and weaker in your estimation? Are you starting to feel better about the continuing increase in the chemistry between the two leads? If adult chimps can be five times stronger than humans, why isn't all this DARPA technology going into an army of super-chimps? And can you believe that Hood discussed the 1986 World Series without ever mentioning the words "Bill Buckner"?