Tilting At Windmills: NUMB3RS
Published: February 9th, 2024
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: NUMB3RS

“We just want people to better understand the world they live in.” Cheryl Heuton

Proving once again that, culturally, I am as out-of-touch as a hermit living in a cave, it took me 14 years to discover what is now one of my all-time favorite television shows. I am talking about NUMB3RS, created by former newspaper reporter Cheryl Heuton and her husband Nicholas Falacci (how cool is it to be married to the guy you work with!), which ran for six seasons, from 2005 to 2010.

Early episodes of NUMB3RS open with a voice-over narration by Professor Charles Eppes, a brilliant mathematician who consults with the FBI:

“We all use math every day. To predict weather, to tell time, to handle money. Math is more than formulas and equations. It’s logic; it’s rationality. It’s using your mind to solve the biggest mysteries we know.”

After this intro, the crime-solving begins. But before I tell you more about the series, let me talk a little about reruns.

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As a child, I spent hours in front of the TV, absorbed by movies produced 20 or 30 years earlier for theatrical release, being broadcast for the first time on television. As I got older and was struggling to make my way as a writer, I missed truly excellent first-run television shows, and continued to miss them in reruns.

However, I recently discovered Perry Mason, Ironside, Columbo, and Monk – shows with captivating characters, great writing, intriguing concepts, and absorbing plots – on satellite TV, cable TV, via downloads, streaming, pay per view, in library collections, on YouTube, and I’m sure also in innumerable other places I’ve never heard of.

As to NUMB3RS, it was the objective of Cheryl Heuton and Nicholas Falacci to create a series that would celebrate the intellect and inspire viewers to think logically. Specifically, a show that would focus on mathematics.

In order to stay true to their goals, they brought in real mathematicians to consultant on each episode, and as a testament to their success, their series received the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science in 2005, and the National Science Board’s Public Service Award in 2007.

“I love the way math works,” Heuton stated. “The logic and the thinking, and I love finding ways to explain it.”

But NUMB3RS doesn’t just challenge us to think, it also tells really good stories and introduces us to three sets of intriguing and likeable characters. Most important are Senior FBI Agent Don Eppes (Rob Morrow); his previously mentioned brother, mathematical genius, Professor Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz); and their usually warm and fuzzy but sometimes self-righteous (he was an anti-war activist in the 1960s) father, Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch).

In the pilot episode, Agent Eppes, stymied by how a serial rapist is targeting victims, calls upon Charlie to tap into mathematical theories, axioms, principles, and hypotheses for help. This is the first time that the often-squabbling siblings (Don was always the cool older brother, and Charlie the nuisance younger brother nerd) have worked together on a case, and the results are exhilarating.

Agent Eppes’ subordinates are likeable, intelligent, honorable, and supportive of each other. More than co-workers, they are also friends. His team consists of two field agents, David Sinclair (Alimi Ballard) and Colby Granger (Dylan Bruno), a forensic psychologist, Megan Reeves (Diane Farr), and, depending on the season, a couple of attractive female field agents as love interests for Agent Eppes, each of whom is intelligent and has a well-developed personality.

Rob Morrow, who had previously starred as an annoyingly self-absorbed doctor in the TV series Northern Exposure, does a complete character turnabout as Agent Eppes, so intent upon doing his job perfectly that he often fails to recognize when, instead of taking every burden upon himself, he should be delegating responsibilities. Cast in the old-fashioned strong-silent hero mode, Eppes is passionate about presenting an impassive façade to his teammates, and when we are treated to one of his elusive smiles, we feel as if we have been given a rare and precious benediction.

Although reluctant to make a romantic commitment, Agent Eppes is deeply devoted to his family, and even though he has his own apartment, after a horrific day of chasing criminals, he often comes “home” to the craftsman-style house (practically a member of the cast) where he and his brother grew up, and where his father and Charlie still live.

The third tier of characters essential to the solution of each week’s mystery (blackmail, extortion, murder, terrorism, bank robbery, art forgery, election tampering, etc.) are Charlie Eppes’ colleagues at CalSci. These include Professor Larry Fleinhardt (Peter MacNicol), a loveable and eccentric theoretical physicist who only eats white food, lives in a steam tunnel under the university, and mentored Charlie when he first attended Princeton at age 14, and Charlie’s beautiful fiancée, also a mathematician, Professor Amita Ramanujan (Navi Rawat).

In a world that has descended to such sub-human levels of anti-intellectualism that scientists are afraid even to define the sexes, watching NUMB3RS is as refreshing as a cold glass of lemonade on a soppy, sloppy, sweaty, hot, and humid summer day.

All of which aside, as with every good bit of writing, what matters most are the stories (riveting), the characters (we care very much about them!), and an elusive factor we don’t often see mentioned nowadays: that when watching NUMB3RS, instead of feeling embarrassed and degraded by what we see, we are entertained, charmed, challenged, and uplifted, because ... Oh Joy! ... we have been encouraged to engage our brains!

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Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2024. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com