When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.
— W. E. B. Du Bois
For most of us, math class was a stream of undecipherable equations and ridiculous word problems. And, aside from doing our taxes and balancing our checkbooks, all with the aid of calculators, we were right to think we’d never use it. However, people like Charlie (David Krumholtz) hold a different viewpoint: everything is numbers.
Numb3rs brings this idea into the world of crime-solving. Charlie is a math genius and college professor who becomes involved in detection thanks to his brother, FBI Agent Don Eppes (Rob Morrow). When Don stops by their father’s (Judd Hirsh) house for a quick shower and change of clothes, the nosy Charlie begins looking at a map, pinpointing the locations of crimes by a serial rapist turned murderer. Excitedly, he tells Don that he can help find the elusive criminal by creating a formula. The crime scenes are not at all random, he maintains, as they are too evenly spaced. Though Charlie’s first formula fails to find the villain because a victim gives faulty information, he soon gets it right.
Perhaps the goal here is to solicit viewers’ awe at Charlie’s intellectual prowess, in the same way they have become fascinated with CSI‘s forensic science. However, CSI has a definite advantage: it offers visual demonstrations of the science: “We take put a chemical on this piece of evidence and look what happens!” Though we see Charlie scribbling furiously on his chalkboard and mathematical equations float across the screen periodically, neither Charlie nor anyone else explains what all those numbers and letters and formulas mean. Instead, we are treated to analogies: pinpointing the killer’s location is like finding a water sprinkler based on where the water droplets fall, or “random” human organization is approximated when a group of agents “randomly” locate themselves in a confined space.
Such illustrations prevent viewers from wondering, “What the hell is he talking about?” But the analogies — especially as they pile up — are also boring. Consequently, the series is split between the fast-paced world of the FBI agents and the plodding world of the mathematician hunched over his desk. Despite the show’s emphasis on “numbers” and Charlie’s mastery of them, viewers will likely be more attracted to the work of Don, David (Alimi Ballard), and Terry (Sabrina Lloyd), committed detectives racing against the clock to catch the crook du jour. The action sequences revolve around them, the cases Charlie will work on originate from their office, and the glory of catching the bad guy goes to them. In the series premiere, Charlie was allowed on the crime scene only after the bad guy was caught, which is understandable. What respectable FBI agent would take his untrained brother along for the big bust? (In fact, the second episode, “The Uncertainty Principle,” reveals what happens when Charlie is exposed to carnage, when he arrives at a crime scene, only to be completely unnerved by the bloody bodies.)
Which raises the question: why is Charlie here? He doesn’t get involved in the action, only generates equations that are truly unexciting. He’s the “hook,” the element that producers can point at to say, “Look, our show isn’t like all the other crime dramas on tv.” For the first two episodes, the drama focused on Charlie getting too emotionally involved in the cases. If Charlie’s actual work isn’t going to build tension, maybe his tantrums and floor-pacing will. Whether he will get so engaged in every case is yet to be seen. He’s unable to commit to other areas of his life: his career and “scholarly obligations” to be the genius mathematician; his relationship with his graduate assistant, Amita (Navi Rawat), who is betrothed to a man in India; and his friendship with his geeky best friend and fellow professor, Larry (Peter MacNicol), whom he tends to let down, by missing classes or canceling office hours.
Charlie’s uncertainty here might assure viewers that he is a “regular guy.” The first time we see him, he’s racing his high-tech derby race car. It is immediately clear that Charlie is not the nerd that Larry is; he’s athletic, boyish, and straight. Numb3rs casts all of the Eppes men in this slightly offbeat but familiar mold: David is an adept and persistent field agent, and, as played by Hirsh, dad is rumpled and wise. Fortunately, Krumholtz brings to Charlie a complexity only hinted at in the script. Even aside from his striking good looks, he works beyond the stereotype of the math nerd. His terse delivery of dialogue makes Charlie seem occasionally unreasonable, while at other points, he projects humility, particularly when he interacts with Amita. Krumholtz is even convincing when scribbling numerals and signs (though it is Caltech doctoral student David Grynkiewicz’s hand viewers see pumping out equations on the chalkboard).
The latest in the current trend of crime dramas that twist the traditional detective story, Numb3rs recalls that trend of the ’70s, when every variation of human was cast in the role of detective (the teen Nancy Drew, the portly Cannon, the octogenarian Snoop Sisters). That variety in crime-fighters has been replaced with a variety of different tools, tricks, and gizmos. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. Which is a good way to describe Numb3rs.