January 29, 2005

TV: Numb3rs

Oy, enough with the cutesy numbers-instead-of-letters spelling, already.

When the crime-show craze ends, CBS is going to be in big trouble, but as long as the shows are so popular, you can't blame a network for cranking them out. And based on the first two episodes, this is a reasonably entertaining example of the format.

Rob Morrow stars as FBI agent Don Eppes, who frequently calls on his math-genius brother Charlie (David Krumholtz) to help him solve cases. The supporting cast includes Judd Hirsch as their father, Alan; Sabrina Lloyd as Don's partner, Terry Lake; and Peter McNicol as Charlie's eccentric mentor, Larry Fleinhardt.

The relationship between the Eppes brothers is interesting (and it's nice to see TV relatives who actually look like they could be related). Don genuinely values his younger brother's genius and assistance, but also resents him; growing up the brother of a genius meant never getting a lot of parental attention. Charlie enjoys being able to contribute (even if it takes time and attention away from the academic work he should be doing), but tends to feel intensely guilty if his equations don't work perfectly to solve cases.

I'm a bit worried that the show will go a bit too heavily into the old cliche that genius (especially mathematical genius; see also the recent Broadway hit Proof) sits right next to insanity, and I hope that Charlie's moments of instability won't become too prominent a part of the show.

I'm still not quite adjusted to the sight of Morrow as a gun-toting lawman, but he's fine in the role. Hirsch and Lloyd haven't yet been given much to do, and McNicol's umpteenth variation on the sweetly befuddled eccentric is already growing a bit tiresome.

Krumholtz, though, is terrific, giving a more subtle performance than you'd expect from this kind of show; you get a real sense of how stressful it must be to have people always asking you to generate genius-type results on demand.

The show has its share of CSI-influenced graphics; at least once or twice per episode, we see Charlie working at the chalkboard while equations float across the screen. Those are the show's weakest moments; to be fair, they're its most difficult moments. How do you make a guy working on abstract math dramatically interesting? It may not be possible, and Numb3rs wisely keeps those moments to a minimum.

The danger is that the show will fall into a formula: open with crime; Charlie generates crime-solving equation that should work, but doesn't quite; Don browbeats Charlie to figure out why; Charlie makes conceptual breakthrough twelve minutes before the show ends; bad guy is caught.
But the Law & Order and CSI franchises are pretty formulaic, which hasn't slowed them down at all. Perhaps the familiarity of it all is part of the appeal, and all Numb3rs needs to do is generate enough subtle variations on its own formula. I can't say I'll make a point of watching every week -- I'm not a particular fan of crime dramas in general -- but if I've got nothing else to do on a Friday night, I'd be willing to check it out.

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