Way back in the days of my rather shabby secondary school education, I absolutely despised maths. I hated its strict black and white logic, its terminal dullness, and the fact that there's only so much fun a man can have juggling numbers back and forth. It stands to reason then, that I'm an absolute mathematical cretin. I can't for one second claim to be able to comprehend any of the mathematical jargon spouted frequently in Numb3rs, to vouch for its authenticity, accuracy, or practicality. Mercifully though, this is a series which balances this phenomenal use of high end mathematics within a practical and much more accessible construction. There's only a couple of characters in the series that even pretend to be able to successfully navigate the perils of such an academic path, while the rest of the show's protagonists stumble through the theory pretty much in the dark as much as the rest of us mere mortals. Which is reassuring for me at least.
The series stars Rob Morrow (previously better known on these shores as Dr. Joel Fleischman from “Northern Exposure”) and David Krumholtz as two crime fighting brothers with a difference, Don and Charlie Eppes. Don works as a Special Agent for the FBI's Los Angeles office. Streetwise and practical, Don is the complete opposite of younger brother Charlie, a quirky and expressive character whom works as a tenure professor at a local university. Charlie however, is a prodigious maths genius, and when crimes get too much for Don's traditional methods of detection to crack, Charlie steps in to conjure up complex probability equations and formulas to help his brother bring felons to justice.
The selling point of Numb3rs is that it's a police show with a difference. It has a high concept novel approach to the format by taking the age old buddy cop format and putting a twist on it. Instead of pairing the hard bitten street cop with an esoteric quirky sidekick, here we pair said cop with an esoteric quirky mathematical genius sibling. So far so Rain Man, but Numb3rs succeeds because it's very adept at managing the conventional and unconventional aspects of its construction in a way that broaches something fresh and original, but also tried and tested. There really should be something for everyone here.
Typically the show plays out almost like a more personable mathematically equivalent of CSI, with a touch of 24-style action thrown in the mix. Now whilst many people find the meticulous science of CSI revelatory I must admit to finding it somewhat too calculating and methodical in its exposition to really ever connect with the show. Numb3rs takes the same concept of developing a systematic complex field and analysing its usage within the confines of its genre, but it does so in an altogether more amiable and accessible way. There is a great complexity and minute detail to much of the logic displayed in the show, but the handling of the material is so deft and well judged that this never becomes a hindrance. Despite its rather heavy subject, Numb3rs never fails to engage and entertain, even if you can't pretend to comprehend what in the hell Charlie is babbling on about most of the time. Interestingly, the only times the episodes really stumble is when the makers feel that they have to interject some humour to enliven the hard academia of the subtext. Whilst the mathematical machismo never really feels unsteady, some of the self conscious comedy written for Peter MacNicol as bumbling academic Dr. Larry Fleinhardt, or the occasional misstepped attempt at familial humour between Don, Charlie and their father Alan (a nevertheless great Judd Hirsch) does seem a little forced and at the mercy of convention at times.
Whilst Numb3rs pioneers a novel approach to the format, it's still a TV cop show at heart, and thank goodness it's a great one at that. Behind the boffins, the theory and the algorithms beats the heart of a good old police actioner where kidnaps, shootouts and high speed chases are the order of the day. If the thought of Krumholtz and MacNicol procrastinating over a blackboard isn't your cup of Earl Grey, then Rob Morrow booting down doors with an automatic weapon certainly should be. Of course he's certainly no Jack Bauer or Vic Mackey in the no nonsense law enforcement stakes, but there's still plenty of well staged high-adrenaline cops 'n robbers stuff here to be enjoyed.
If there's one potential fault I would label at Numb3rs, is that I would certainly question the feasibility of the longevity of the concept. Whilst this first season is undoubtedly great television, there's no denying that the show, although engaging, is formulaic to a degree. Most episodes centre around the same concept of Morrow doggedly out to get his man, Krumholtz being sensitive and focused on conjuring up some mathematical solution to the crime of the week, and the other characters filling in their requisite positions in the script (Hirsch = economical family subplot, MacNicol = quirky light relief, Sabrina Lloyd = potential love interest and so forth). These stock characteristics may not look as obvious when watching on a weekly basis, but back to back viewing of the episodes really reveals how inherently and stringently formulaic they are. Of course this is television, and the same could be said of a whole selection of classic shows over the years, but it will be interesting to see just what legs Numb3rs has in the long run, once the novelty of it's concept has worn off.
Numb3rs is a great show, and one that succeeds because of it's skill in handling two distinct topics, academia and action, and weaving them so professionally into one satisfying whole. This is a cop show that satisfies and engages on two entirely different levels, both for the adrenaline action hounds, and those who prefer a more sedate and thoughtful approach. With the introduction of PPV TV channels in America and the larger budgets they bring, known stars joining cast lists, and big names becoming involved (brothers Ridley and Tony Scott produce here) television is fast becoming the new cinema. And with shows of this calibre being produced, who could argue against it?