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Strength in ‘Numb3rs’?
January 13, 2005
In the pilot for “Numb3rs,” the manhunt for a serial killer is blown wide open ... by a lawn sprinkler.
The premise of this new crime drama from CBS has math genius Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz) devising algorithms to help his FBI agent brother (Rob Morrow) catch villains. In the pilot, Charlie uses the sweeping motion of a sprinkler as a metaphor to explain how a mathematical formula can help pinpoint where a killer lives or works. The sprinkler – shot in stop-motion and overlaid with special effects – becomes a visual motif for Charlie’s approach to problem solving.
Charlie is hardly a typical TV crime-fighter, but then “Numb3rs” wasn’t originally intended to be a cop show. The writers, the husband-and-wife team of Nicolas Falacci and Cheryl Heuton, spent several years doing research on physicist Richard Feynman and virtuoso mathematicians in hopes of developing a dramatic series a la “A Beautiful Mind.” But television, they learned, has a tough time separating itself from time-tested genres.

“It really wasn’t about finding a new way to do a crime show,” Heuton said. “But in the current network environment, you’ve got a better shot at getting your show on the air with that kind of angle.”

Charlie isn’t alone: Crime-fighters with far-fetched skills are popping up all over the TV dial these days – especially now, as television enters its January-to-March midseason, when networks try to correct the programming mistakes they made in September.

Hoping to jazz up the cop genre, networks are unleashing dramas starring detectives armed with far more than a .38-caliber revolver and a hunch. In addition to “Numb3rs,” which starts Jan. 23, there’s ABC’s “Blind Justice” (arriving March 8), in which a blind NYPD detective (Ron Eldard from “Men Behaving Badly”) cracks cases with his heightened non-visual senses. The show is executive-produced by Steven Bochco, whose resume includes two cop classics, “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.” And Jan. 3, NBC introduced “Medium,” with Patricia Arquette as a thirtysomething lawyer whose abilities to communicate with the dead enable authorities to reconstruct crimes.

The trend has more to do with network economics than the latest wrinkles in criminology. As Falacci put it, “I think everyone is looking for a new variation on what’s been done so far” on crime shows.

With “CSI” clones multiplying, producers have to work hard to make their cops stand out. The procedural cop drama is far and away the most popular format on network television, with 12 prime-time series devoted to the formula. Now in its 15th season, NBC’s “Law & Order” is one of the longest-running scripted series in history, although its ratings have tapered. This season, CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” is the No.1 program (tied with ABC’s “Desperate Housewives”) among the young adults sought by advertisers. “Law & Order” and “CSI” have bred two successful spinoffs.

But the networks have paid a price for the ubiquity of cop shows – which has arisen, incidentally, during an era in which real-life crime stats are mostly falling. As murder rates soar during TV’s evening hours, writers have found it increasingly difficult to make an impression on jaded viewers. One possible solution is the hero with a special hook. In TV parlance, this is what’s known as a “promotable” device, which can be hammered home in ads for the show.

“It’s always good to look for the next generation, the next incarnation,” said ABC prime-time entertainment chief Stephen McPherson. As a result, he said, the “standard crime show” – that well-worn precinct where gruff, workaholic FBI agents and local cops track down killers within a tight four-act formula – is probably on the way out.

That doesn’t necessarily mean viewers will cotton to crime-fighting clairvoyants and math geniuses, though. A thin line separates an intriguing hook from a mere gimmick that audiences reject. “Blind Justice” isn’t even the first series to make use of a blind detective: In the early ’70s, James Franciscus starred as “Longstreet,” an investigator permanently blinded by crooks he was tracking.

The experiment failed, and the program was canceled after the 1971-72 season.

That kind of history already has some TV analysts downbeat on the latest cop-with-a-twist shows.

“Typically, I don’t think these kinds of things work,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president at Horizon Media in New York.

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