"We all use math every day. To forecast weather, to tell time, to handle money. We also use math to analyze crime, reveal patterns, predict behavior. Using numbers, we can solve the biggest mysteries we know."
A Crime and Punishment Series revolving around an Odd Couple of crime-solving brothers. Don Eppes (Rob Morrow) heads a team of FBI investigators called on to solve the exceptionally sensitive and baffling crimes that happen in Los Angeles about once a week. To solve these highly complex crimes, he invariably turns to his brother, Charlie (David Krumholtz), a college professor and mathematical prodigy, who applies pure mathematics to the task of solving crimes.Ultimately, math conquers all, though on the way, Charlie usually faces a crisis of faith stemming from the fact that while he's a mathematical genius, he is emotionally immature, with only a very slight understanding of human motivation. Balance is restored via the assistance of his father Alan (Judd Hirsch) and physicist colleague Larry (Peter MacNicol). Larry generally advises him to steer clear of messy human-interaction problems, while Alan nudges him toward a better understanding of human nature.In general, the mathematics underwriting the solutions is sound, and explained in such a way as to remain at least a little accessible to viewers. During seasons 1 to 2, the writers were fairly good at keeping each episode theme-focused to illustrate a few related concepts or particular branch of mathematics, allowing them to give the math at least some decent coverage in depth. Unfortunately, as episode number climbed (especially in Season 4), the math degenerated into magical solution generators. The creators gave the series a minor retool around the midpoint of Season 5, now the math has been mostly relegated to a side show, and more personal drama are being pushed in front; most of the episodes in season 6 feature almost no math at all.The show finished its sixth and final season in 2010.The show's storylines are supposedly inspired by actual cases.
This series provides examples of:
Absent-Minded Professor: Both Charlie and Dr Larry Fleinhardt are prone to this. Charlie gets better as the series progresses, but Larry is often prone to being so deep in contemplation of either physics, math or philosophy that he forgets what's going on around him.
Larry: Let me ask one thing. When we met just now, was I coming out or going in to the library?
Charlie: Coming out.
Larry: [sighs] My memory is a memory. All right. [starts back inside]
Alternate Reality Game: Chain Factor, an addictive little Flash game which went rather deeper, including clues scattered throughout one episode, online sites, and the Los Angeles subways to unlock various power-ups.
Ambiguously Jewish: The Eppes family were this for the first couple of seasons; the third season episode "Provenance" established them as non-observant Jews.
Author Filibuster: In "Money for Nothing," the plot stops dead in its tracks for five minutes so Charlie and a guest star can lecture Colby on the wonders of microcredit.
Awesomeness by Analysis: Avoided, wherein the super-brain Charlie Eppes tries, among other things, golf and sniping, and learns that knowing the maths simply isn't enough. It requires some kind of instinct or gut feeling to get it right. But the Aesop the whole way through the series is one of synthesizing math with the everyday skills of the FBI... Or something.
The Aesop is that you should synthesize academic knowledge with experience (because in scientific terms, that's what a gut feeling is); neither is sufficient alone.
They also try to coach the basketball team by using geometry-based strategies. It fails utterly and they eventually just hire two pros to join the team.
Charlie is pretty good at shooting, though. In the Season 1 sniper episode (the first time he fires a gun), his first shot is wide of the mark, but he improves quickly. In Season 4, he does an FBI training course and fails at every task apart from the target practice at the end. It's because he can slow down and think about it as a problem.
He was, however, worried about ruining his brother's reputation. The hole in the target is quite large, possibly bigger than it should be, and there does appear to be a noticeable lack of holes in any of the other targets. Did Charlie get the others to shoot his target?
Charlie seems to labor under the delusion that understanding a mathematical task confers the physical ability to accomplish it.
Badass Bookworm: As of Season 5, Charlie can SO kick ass. One FBI training course and BAM!, he has a gun.
This is subverted. Yes, he can target shoot, but isn't much in a fight still.
Batman Gambit: Charlie proved to be pretty good at this in episodes such as "Prime Suspect" and "Primacy". His strategies for trapping criminals include working out their plan so could predict their course of action and set everything up so that to the criminal it seems everything is going according to plan up until the point the trap is sprung.
Beeping Computers: Most user interfaces seem to make an unusual amount of beeping, whining, and chirps as the user scrolls and clicks.
At the end of "Growin' Up", Nikki and Colby remind David about one more piece of paperwork that needs catching up: his physical training. They bring out one of the counterfeit primers from the "Sneakerhead" episode the season before.
Catch Phrase: "Everything is numbers." Or, perhaps, "everything is numb3rs."
Continuity Nod: One episode mentioned a gang called the 18th Street Mexicali, a rival of the gang one of the suspects belonged to. Two episodes later, the gang is mentioned again as a gang that a record label executive—and the father of the kid kidnapped in the episode—is connected to.
Couch Gag: Each episode opens with a grid-patterned screen, each quadrant of which displays the number of something — suspects, dollars, crimes per day, people, whatever — relevant to its plot.
Covert Distress Code: In one episode, a rookie agent on once went undercover to catch a group of people kidnapping ATM users and was given the distress code "Mexico" to use if the operation starts to go south. It does, but she's too stubborn to use the word, believing that she can salvage the operation on her own. Don berates her for this later and assigns her to answering telephones.
Criminal Mind Games: The episode "The Janus List". Supposedly, the point of the exercise was to give the FBI a list of double agents, but the character who had the list made it all but impossible for the FBI to find it. Justified Trope because this also hid the list from double (triple?)-agent Colby Granger — but yeah, routes much more direct were available.
A lot of episodes of NUMB3RS do this. Usually the clues require advanced mathematics to unravel, since the show's Aesop is that "Maths are useful and mathematicians are like superheroes — with maths."
Disproportionate Retribution: The kindly rec center owner who set off more than a half-dozen "chain reaction" gang shootings after a stray bullet killed his daughter, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people, including innocent bystanders and children. Unsurprisingly, he's Driven to Suicide.
The Dog Was the Mastermind: In "Structural Corruption", the mastermind behind the defective building cover-up turns out to be Cole's secretary.
Also, in "Sacrifice", the killer is Scott, the victim's assistant.
E = MC Hammer: Averted. The network actually hired professors to teach Krumholtz the math he needed to know.
Empty Cop Threat: Not every episode, but on occasion. In the episode "Toxic," a private security contractor was found going through the files of a journalist the FBI was visiting. After confirming his credentials, and after the journalist declined to press charges, Sinclair let the contractor off with a warning that if they ever caught him near their investigation again, he would charge him with obstruction of justice personally. When the contractor was caught there again, Sinclair didn't charge him — he did something more drastic.
Actually, it was Edgerton who did something more drastic.
Another episode uses the trope: A man hires private security to find his stolen loot. The FBI is also on the case as people were kidnapped during the theft. The private security guys barge in as the FBI is about to arrest the kidnappers, which allows them to escape. Don immediately has both men arrested as accessory to the kidnappers, and warns their employer that if he sees any more of his employees following FBI agents around, he'll have him arrested under the same charges.
Epic Fail: In the episode featuring the hacker on the run from various criminal groups, the Israeli hacker/arms-dealer gets cornered by an FBI agent while said Israeli hacker's muscle is elsewhere. The hacker's eyes dart over to the glass window and the viewer just knows he is going to try and make a break for it—but does not expect for the break to fail so spectacularly, as the hacker's body (appropriate for his specialty, and thus not made like a linebacker's) bounces off the window not once, not twice, but three times. He is caught, obviously, no doubt wondering why the breakaway glass didn't break away, like in the movies.
Another example would be the villain of the Season 5 finale: a very intelligent cult leader who has a bit of a god complex and whose followers are only women. He's played by James Callis. There are few differences.
External Combustion: Takes out potential witnesses in "Democracy" and "Pay to Play"; another almost gets killed in "Blowback," but the bomb goes off too soon.
Fake Defector: Colby Granger turns out to have been a triple agent for several years. This causes a fair bit of drama and angst, since the rest of the cast find out about the "defector" part well before they find out about the "fake".
FBI Agent: Half the main cast is one. For all the series, Special Agents Don Eppes and David Sinclair. For some seasons, Special Agents Terri Lake (Season 1), Colby Granger (Seasons 2 — 6) Megan Reeves (Seasons 2 — 4), Liz Warner (3 — 6) and Nikki Betancourt (5 — 6), plus frequent guest star Ian Edgerton.
There is also another nerdy character that plays Fantasy Baseball, Oswald Kittner. Played by Jay Baruchel, who is a real life friend of David Krumholtz, according to the DVD commentary on that episode.
Genre Savvy: The role of math in hostage negotiations is not immediately obvious, but Charlie knows the score in "Chinese Box":
Hollywood Nerd: All over the place, but Charlie is the most prominent.
Hot Teacher/Hot for Teacher: Amita is young, brilliant, and attractive, and typically wears flattering casual clothes while teaching. She's also dating and eventually marries her thesis professor Charlie.
How We Got Here: "Blowback" begins with a montage of scenes from late in the episode, then skips back to the beginning of the case.
Idiot Ball: The FBI has an unlimited supply of those.
YMMV on this. Charlie is more of a face for the real life technicians and consultants that would really be used by the FBI. The techniques tend to be rather standard, Charlie is just Mr. Exposition about how the techniques work. And having him as a university professor is fancier than an official FBI analyst.
One wonders, how often did the FBI catch criminals before Charlie started helping them? An episode illustrates the FBI's helplessness brilliantly. A man is accused of shooting an FBI negotiator during a face-off with the FBI. He flees after saying he's innocent He really is, and the FBI has been hunting him for months. It's repeatedly mentioned that every cop in the county wants to catch the guy, because he's a suspected cop killer. The bullet that killed the officer flew out of his body, and yet, despite the zeal with which the FBI wants to catch the guy and have him condemned, no one tried to find the bullet that killed their officer, if only to reinforce their case against the guy once they catch him. The bullet is lodged in a tree, with a prominent bullet hole, so it's not like finding it is hard (in fact, once the protagonists decide to look for it, they find it in a few hours) The bullet does prove the guy's innocence, but since no cop knew that, it still wouldn't explain why they never tried to look for it.
The idiot ball on that one is played with. The thing is, the house was surrounded by police who were intent on watching the house. They knew there was an armed man inside and they were prepared for that man to fire on them. No one expects a drug company to sell him a tainted vaccine, then when the government catches on to the tainted beef to then hire a sniper to frame the man for murdering a hostage negotiator. Every one at the site, faulty witnesses as they may be, would testify to the fact that they were watching the house at the time of the shot and that the armed man was inside. When they are cops at the scene of the crime negotiating with a man who has threatened to shoot them and then someone gets shot, it's kind of justified to think the same man is shooting. Plus, they had the bullet that was inside the negotiator. They just neglected to make sure that the trajectories were right. Probably because they were storming the building and taking him to cover. Later, they do actually just haul the Idiot Ball around. See the next reference for this episode.
In the same episode, it's mentioned how surprising it is to the FBI's expert manhunter that the fugitive never tried to leave his home county, despite it being in his best interest to do so and avoid the intense police presence searching for him. The cops repeatedly found the campsite where he stayed, but just after he's just vacated it. Yet it takes Charlie and his math to reveal the obvious: The man's sticking around his home county because he goes to visit his wife once in a while. Said wife still resides in their home, where the shooting took place. That's right. The FBI, and their expert tracker, NEVER considered that a fugitive who remains near his home might be visiting his family on a regular basis.
In another episode, they ask an interviewee if she knows anything about pot. After denying it, she mentions that she doesn't know anything about pot farms. They treat it like a Suspiciously Specific Denial.
Garden variety Idiot Ball that seems to occur just about every episode: agents, usually David & Colby, approach a guy to ask him a few questions, identify themselves from about fifty feet away, guy then looks around nervously and bolts in the opposite direction, leading to a foot chase. These are experienced FBI agents? You'd think they'd have learned by now.
A more proper Idiot Ball is with Millie's reaction to the consulting that her professors do. Given the government contracts that could bring in, that seems like something that they should encourage.
If Jesus Then Aliens: This trope seems to crop up with distressing regularity. Every few episodes, Charlie is challenged to move beyond the empirical world to a matter of faith, only the matter of faith in question is something completely outside the normal debate of science vs. religion, and yet Larry's right there urging Charlie to consider that it might possibly be true. After all, even scientists don't pretend that they can know everything, right?
More like Larry's just weird that way. If anything, his entire character exists to pointedly avert the Straw Atheist scientist stereotype while other scientists (like Charlie) take a more traditional view.
Actually, it's more that Larry is a physicist whose focus is on Quantum Mechanics in subatomic theory where the observation of a particle changes its nature and the reality of a subject of inquiry can be both existent and non-existent concurrently depending on the parameters of study. Hence, he spends most of his time theorizing on things that change when he observes them. Spending a career on that requires an existential trust in both stable and unstable influences that are constantly interchangeable. I.e., he has to have faith in stuff that isn't there because half the time when he finds it is there, it actually isn't.
Instant Marksman Just Squeeze Trigger: Both downplayed and somewhat justified in "Sniper Zero". Charlie's bullet ballistics number-crunching keeps failing to give him the whole picture of how the suspect sniper operates, so he resolves to learn what shooting a gun feels like. After struggling with a rifle at the shooting range for a while, Don gives him a few of the usual pointers: relax his hands, shoot in-between breaths, etc. Charlie's next shot, while not sharpshooter material, is a lot better, and his final prediction on the sniper's nest location is off by only a few feet.
Insufferable Genius: Charlie can on occasion be this. Just enough times to give him human faults.
Lady of War : Megan. Amita in the episode Primacy, and other episodes. Also Liz.
Layman's Terms: Once an episode Charlie or one of his colleagues references an obscure mathematical concept that can be used to help solve a case, then creates an analogy to make it understandable. The team has come to expect them and basically ignore the math and wait for the analogy. See Just Smile and Nod.
This predictable behavior is lampshaded at one point when the agent prompts him for the analogy: "Imagine..."
Occasionally inverted by Larry for laughs, who takes everyday situations and complicate it by adding cosmological terms.
Mr. Fanservice: Charlie and Colby. While the former appeals to fans of cuter Pretty Boys and the latter to fans of Hunks. The producers are clearly aware of Charlie's attractiveness, exploit it and often makes him emote and Colby has his own fair share of angst, particularly when it comes to the army. Colby also has a thing for getting into the water and let's not forget the Ho Yay.
Never Suicide: One case is set off by an apparent suicide, which Charlie is convinced was a murder because the kid discovered a big, expensive secret. He did, but it really was suicide because he was already suffering from depression and then nobody would listen to him any other way.
This episode was Very Loosely Based on a True Story. In 1978, an engineering student discovered a very serious flaw in the Citigroup Centre building in New York, that could cause it to collapse in winds over 70mph. In the real world, he told the architect, who very quickly realized that he was right, and the architect, builder, and owners of the building undertook immediate action to correct the problem. They also informed the city of the problem, and they made evacuation plans for the area surrounding the building (though they still kept it a secret from the public) and started watching the weather very carefully, until the problem was fixed.
Parental Marriage Veto: Subverted. Amita and Charlie are both very worried that Amita's parents won't approve of Charlie because he's not Indian, but when they finally actually meet Charlie, they are immediately won over.
Real Time: The third season episode "One Hour," in which, while Don talks with his therapist (who has made him turn off his cell phone), the rest of the team has just one hour to crack a case.
Red Shirt: Averted. In one episode, a squad infiltrates a hidden marijuana farm, with several no-named agents. After having specifically stated that those kinds of farms are booby-trapped, it results in an anticlimax where several are disarmed, and nobody gets hurt.
Running Gag: A popular one in the later seasons is that whenever the FBI field agents go to a potential suspect, and the suspects run, the agents tend to treat it more as an annoyance than an actual worry that the suspect might get away.
Colby has cottoned to this to the point of Genre Savvy.
Smart People Play Chess: It isn't enough that Charlie Eppes could multiply four-digit numbers in his head when he was three, graduated from high school and entered Princeton at 13, completed his bachelors degree in three years and is a multiple Ph.D. No, just so we'll know he's really smart, he regularly beats his father and his former academic advisor (both portrayed as above-average intelligence) at chess, too.
Justified. Chess is a proponent of game theory with a zero-sum outcome in which all information is available and possible moves are restricted based on previous moves. Hence it really comes down to a calculation of possible outcomes weighed against a target outcome. The reason why mathematicians tend to be good at chess is because chess is based in a very specific form of game theory. Why does Charlie always play and always win? Because he's Good with Numbers, chess is about as close as game theory gets to pure mathematics, and he's a mathematician. Although considering that most of his maths are about statistical models and application it would probably be more appropriate for him to be playing black jack.
It's been stated that the only way to have a reasonable chance of beating Charlie at chess was for two people to play against at once while also have a distraction.
Which Dr Fleinhart did to the point of being banned from casinos, making him doubly smart!
Smurfette Principle: At least early on in the series. The cast is mostly male with one female FBI agent at a time (Terri first, then Megan takes her place) and Amita. This is then subverted in Season 3 when they add Liz, but Amita is still the only female character who lasted the whole series.
That's more a case of Real Life Writes the Plot as the actresses who played Terry and Megan both left the show for personal reasons.
Spanner in the Works: The killer acts as a villainous version of this for Charlie in the pilot episode: He develops an equation that is meant to identify the killer's home based on the locations of his previous offenses and it would have done exactly that if not for the fact that the killer happened to move out of the identified area a few weeks earlier.
The Spock: Dr Fleinhart. Charlie doesn't qualify, as he emotes just fine.
Cold Sniper Edgerton also has a habit of doing this, but then, he is a sniper. He made a surprise appearance at the end of Season 6, then asked why he wasn't invited to Charlie and Amita's wedding that was planned in one day.
Stealth Pun: Possibly the name Eppes constitutes one. Amita: "Charlie, wonderful news! You are now father of an... Eppesilon!" (Don't Explain the Joke mode: Famous mathematician Erdös was known for calling children Epsilons. It's derived from the letter epsilon being standard use for the arbitrarily small quantity in the definition for the continuity of a function.)
Viewers Are Morons: Okay true, there are cases where really sophisticated math are used in the show. "Self Organized Criticality" and "Cake Cutting Algorithm" are some major examples and most people would require analogies to understand them. But the analogies don't stop there. The producers pretty much use analogies for everything that would even be common sense. Even a simple task such as trial and error.
Virtual Danger Denial: A Playful Hacker cheerfully pisses off a number of powerful agencies online, legal and illegal, and is in total denial that they could come after him in real life.
Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Neighborhood Watch types who got hold of Don's gun used it to kill a pair of drug dealers who sold to schoolchildren, a serial drunk driver who ran down two people, and to intimidate a vicious neighbor who turned out to be an escaped murderer.
The scientist who intentionally infected people with Spanish Flu to prove that his vaccine would be superior to the one the government chose in the event of an actual outbreak.
Wham Line: From the Season 3 finale, "The Janus List". The entire episode has been about getting a list of double agents, not because they were seeking the list itself, but because it's author is setting of bombs in a roundabout way, to make Charlie and Don prove they were worthy to receive the list. Lo and behold, they figure out the clues and listen to the list...
Recording of Janus List: "Colby Granger, FBI, also working for the Chinese."