May 16, 2005
In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.Be Careful Out There
Pythagoras Ain't Got Nothin' On Us:
Is Numb3rs changing the face of the cop show?
I have... some questions. And some gripes to get out of the way, a factoring out of the bad to get to the x-factors of good.
|The songs aren't light and fluffy, but the convergence of grinding, acidy guitar with the bright, bitter lyrics are meant to convey a certain dichotomy of emotion, not play like a cereal slogan for investigative procedure.|
Not that I mind a little Who with my crime, but the driving guitar licks seem like a taunting parody to the darker themes explored in these shows. The songs aren't light and fluffy, but the convergence of grinding, acidy guitar with the bright, bitter lyrics are meant to convey a certain dichotomy of emotion, not play like a cereal slogan for investigative procedure.
In that vein, who told the Scott brothers that using Talking Headsas theme music was more ironic? Granted, these days, David Byrne is slightly cooler than Pete Townshend, but still. OK, OK, I get it. "Once in a Lifetime" is a reflection of both the mathematical complexities that shape our physical world, and the emotional complexities faced by the Eppes boys. But I want my bittersweet rock 'n' roll safely back where it belongs: in my CD player! Even if it is accompanied by cool title graphics featuring a run of science's "who's who."
Second, really, who made the call on the title cute? I hate — really hate — that it's Numb3rs, not Numbers. It's like Se7en. I hate that too, although I like the movie and as punishment, we call it Sven. But I'm a word purist despite my predilection for typos and it's a word, not a pictogram. I'm one of those people who insists upon ordering a medium coffee at Starbucks instead of a grande, because really, that's just stupid. It's not grande, it's regular, average, the middle ground of coffee cup sizes. But I digress.
Charlie's drive to provide answers, his focus on offering up his aid and his intelligence to these weekly causes, his intensity of focus, pulls in the viewer. Charlie's smarter than your average bear, even your average genetically mutated genius bear, but sadly, smart has not always been played as sexy on network TV, but here the intelligence is allowed to act as a lure, something as shiny and sexy as the actors warm eyes and warmer smile.
Much of the appeal comes from the curiosity factor. Charlie interprets the world around him through numbers, and much like Dana Scully, he doesn't believe there are answers out there his numbers can't provide and he's determined to prove this. While it's a trope, it's also a well-developed facet of the character. He understands why math works, is awed and fascinated by the answers it provides and is far more confused by the complexities of human beings, by things ruled by chaos or chance — romance, love, family, golf, but he's also opening himself up to those things.
Charlie finds joy in mathematics, but he also finds solace, uses them as a retreat, a place to hide emotionally and conceptually. He's not smug about his skills, lacks the quipped enhanced explanation offered by the CSIs; instead, he shows the numbers in action, ready to rock.
I also like the math geek sidekicks. I like that Peter MacNicol as Dr. Larry Fleinhardt gets to be quirky/smart/appealing in a show that involves no dancing babies. And I really like Charlie's grad student/assistant, Amita Ramanujan (Navi Rawat) She's beautiful and brainy and obviously extremely competent. She's less of a chaotic math freak than Charlie or Larry, and her competence and quiet affection for Charlie adds not only a nice element of potential romance, but also a meeting of the minds.
My personal language geek side likes that the show is introducing the word algorithm into the cultural vocabulary. Algorithm. Say it with me. Al-go-rithm. See, isn't it sexy? Using an established, complex pattern of equations to project a theory and establish a set of guidelines. It's just a nice idea. Well, that's my understanding of an algorithm. Actually, it's just using a series of steps over and over again to find a solution. It's police work boiled down to its most basic level.
|Taking math out of the groan-and-bear-it realm of high school algebra and geometry, showing that we do use mathematical relationships in everyday life is a great way to convince the casual viewer to appreciate the discipline, but the show also offers a deeper exploration of what theoretical and practical mathematics can do.|
Charlie's struggle, and his appeal, also lies in the way he takes this gift, this thing that sets him apart from his family, from most of society and yearns to find a human face in it, human, flawed possibilities that discomfit him, but open up his understanding of his work and his life. In some ways, the show is not just about using math to solve crime in a way that reminds me as much of The Bloodhound Gang as of CSI, but also about the moral ramifications of our sciences, our knowledge. The strength of the show lies far more in its interpersonal relationships than it does in the mysteries, which tend to either be fun and wildly convoluted, or sort of needlessly drawn out and kind of boring.
Numb3rs isn't reinventing anything, mystery or procedural-wise. CSI, Without A Trace, Medium, Cold Case, etc., all have established hooks around which to solve mysteries. Numb3rs isn't unique in this. What it does well is to show how something theoretical can be applied to the practical, how theory and patterning exist in everyday life. It's a reflection of our cultural assumptions, a preview of personal behavior.
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