October 13, 2006

When TV Gets the Math Wrong

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Numb3rs is an appropriate title for this show but unfortunately, it is mediocre, lost amidst the hundreds of other crime shows infiltrating the CBS and NBC networks. Essentially, it is just a number itself with no special redeeming qualities, stranded in a sea of other numbers (shows).
The third season opening of Numb3rs starts off as a special two-episode premiere, which almost makes it seem like you’re watching a movie; but the lack of R-rated effects suggests otherwise. You end up feeling like you’re watching a low-budget B-grade cable movie on a late Saturday night when you have nothing to do and, at the end, sense that you’ve wasted your time. Both episodes revolve around a 30-year-old teacher Crystal Hoyle (Kim Dickens) and her 17-year-old high school boyfriend, Buck Winters (David Gallagher) as they embark on a violent crime spree on the West Coast, killing and robbing innocent people at random areas until they reach Los Angeles. The second episode ends with Winters getting caught, and the police department finding out the real reason why Hoyle went through all that she did. Hoyle apparently ran away from home at age 15, got involved with a married man, became pregnant, was forced to give her baby up for a black market adoption, got into drugs, got off the drugs after being arrested for possession, went to Texas, cleaned up her act and became a teacher. (What a life!) This is when she became romantically involved with Winters and ran off with him because she was trying to erase her past mistakes by getting her now teenager daughter back.
Bringing Winters along seems like an ill-advised move, as he really has nothing to do with her plans, but who am I to argue with television logic? If they say it or do it on television, then it must be right! Both episodes have your obligatory kidnapping of a federal agent, the police never being able to catch Hoyle until the very end (even when she kills people in broad daylight and on busy street corners) and a shootout. Unfortunately, the plotline also resembled too much of a soap opera for me to properly enjoy it.
Numb3rs prides itself on using mathematical models to help solve crimes but the models seem pointless in the entire context of things. David Krumholtz plays Charlie, a mathematical genius and professor of applied mathematics at CalSci (based on CalTech in Pasadena, Southern California), who uses his mathematical insight to help solve the crimes. But after watching the show, I had the feeling that the police would have done fine without Charlie’s guidance. Nevertheless, the show revolves around that entire concept, and it probably makes the viewers feel better about themselves intellectually while watching it. (“Look ma! I’m watching a math show! I am SO sophisticated, smart and mature!”)
Whenever the complicated mathematical equations were introduced and explicated onscreen, however, my head started to swim and I had to slap myself to keep awake. Even the characters onscreen look bored when Charlie explains everything. One of them goes as far as to say, “Do you understand any of this?” while the other replies back, “No. Just look interested and wait for the punch line.” Smart man.
One aspect about both episodes that is interesting to note is how much Kim Dickens resembles Geena Davis (albeit a slightly trashier one) in Thelma and Louise. This is especially apparent in some of the convertible scenes, when she is driving alongside Buck, and at the police shootout at the end, when she is cornered by police cars on all sides and decides to make a run for it. Ridley Scott directed Thelma and Louise and is an executive producer for this show, so I’m sure he had some say in that particular look.
Numb3rs isn’t necessarily a bad show. It is just too similar to so many other crime shows on television, such as CSI and its millions of spinoffs that have spawned like a zombie virus. But it is doing well in ratings and is apparently the number one watched show on television Friday nights so it must be doing something right.