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My husband and I watched the pilot of the television show “Numb3rs” last night. It’s about two brothers: the older one works for the FBI, while the younger one is a math whiz and a youthful prof at an eminent university. The younger one sees the entire world as numbers, and ends up helping out the older brother in solving a serial killer case by analyzing the data according to the application of mathematical principles.

My kind of show. I love geeky premises that involve the application some specialized skills that others don’t have and require the characters to think through the problem before acting upon it. I also love it when a show sets itself the challenge of being bound by certain concepts or principles that have to be obeyed as part of the crime solving process.

Except it rarely works that way. Numb3rs is a case in point. To disclaim: I’m not a math person. Nonetheless, even I had a bit of a problem with the solution to the pilot (warning: spoilers in the next two paragraphs. Skip them if you don’t want to know specifics about the pilot).

The approach to tracking down the serial killer involved looking at the seemingly random areas where the victims were picked up. The sleuths assumed that because he chose those areas, they probably weren’t random at all, but were about avoiding getting too close to where he lived, on the no defecating in bed principle. So, they plotted a likeliest area where said killer might sleep, based on the scatter points on the map. This allowed them to detect a false data point. They also made the necessary queries and performed the requisite stalker-DNA tests, but when these turned up nothing, the math whiz re-ran the numbers with the same data points, on the basis of two points of origin rather than one (home and work, rather than home). The workplace was added to the data already in place about the likely residential area and they continued searching.

Even as a non-mathy type, I felt like this required some explanation. Surely if you’re looking at the same data points, and you run them through a calculation based on one point of origin, and then another calculation based on two points of origin, you’d end up with three different spots? My husband seemed to feel this was problematic as well (he’s more of a math type and has a fascinating affinity for numbers) and had a few other issues with the mathy stuff.

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It made me think: should I just suspend disbelief and substitute the word “magic” for “math” in shows like this, or should I feel annoyed that they promised some actual science as part of the show’s premise, but then didn’t abide by its principles?

See, I don’t care about realism if it’s fake science. Anyone who feels that the flux capacitor or Trek tech should be based on actual science rather than sciency sounding sleight of hand may be missing the point. In those shows, the implausible device or plot enabler is about allowing them to get on with the story (e.g. the transporter beam, which allows the plot to keep moving rather than requiring many hours’ passage between finding a planet and the away team arriving on the surface, as well as other made up tech that gets around other cumbersome “how do we get them there?” questions).

That doesn’t bother me so long as there are consistently applied limitations on the device that allows for it to traverse some otherwise difficult gap in logistics while not becoming a deus ex machina of infinite power.

BUT, if a show takes on an actual science as the enabling paradigm, should it stick to its principles?

I’m less decided on that. In many instances, if the show is original, well-plotted and otherwise tight, I’m inclined to grant it a little–or a lot of–latitude on the science side of things. For instance, I found the first season of “Prison Break” compelling (the subsequent seasons were okay. As well, after S1, it was less about Michael as civil engineer, and more about Michael as a chessmaster type who is engineering and planning their next moves in a series of intractable-seeming puzzle-traps).

But in S1, civil/structural engineering was the “magic”. The science of it was often patently absurd. A quick example is the episode where Michael uses his tattoo of a devil’s head, traced on paper, and then projected against a particular wall, to drill holes in the wall, while missing pipes that could cause catastrophic explosions. But, there seems to be no notation about how large the projection needs to be, so the pipes and correct drill points could be anywhere on the wall. Nonetheless, it was a compelling episode with lots of tension and many closeups of Michael looking all cerebral and intense–so who gives a crap about how big the projection needs to be?!

The law shows are sort of similar. There, it’s not science, but a set of principles and ideas crafted by humans–given that, the law as magic (i.e. unexplained, task-specific, problem-solver) isn’t as bothersome. It doesn’t feel too crazy that by scouring the case law, the character might find the precise case they need in order to win a fantastic victory for their client. For the show to be good (rather than the obscure case basically being the deus ex machina), the lawyer will still have to think through some genuinely clever application of the principles or do something similarly cool with the made up information.

That usually works for me. Plus, it’s also not too far from reality. Even in law school and as a summer student (as opposed to actual practice), I’ll have been doing long searches, scouring the case law to look for something that will support or advance our position, and have stumbled upon just the right thing, or even some other case that undermines some other part of the other side’s position. It’s an exciting moment, and not unlike the television version, where the escalating and percussive musical cues start and the character gets all agitated and ready to burst into court with an eleventh hour breakthrough (though obviously that last part never happens).

Then there are the in-between-y shows like The Mentalist, Sherlock (the new BBC tv series–not the film), and Talk to Me. Here, the keen observation skills of the main character, and their abilities to draw accurate inferences from what they see, allows for the cracking of the case. Many of the inferences are dubious at best (e.g. Sherlock deduces from the ways in which Watson’s phone is damaged that whoever gave it to Watson was an alcoholic. The kind of damage around the charger input on the phone that he uses for making his inference doesn’t lead to the inevitable conclusion that the person is habitually drunk. I don’t really drink, but have scratches around there because the input plugs are often annoying and finicky and I’m often thinking of other things while I’m plugging in so I miss the teeny tiny connector sometimes).

But, in those cases, perhaps we can make allowances for the idea that there’s more at work than just the stated inferences. If the person is exceptionally observant and intuitive, maybe other inferences they’ve made, that they aren’t even in a position to articulate, allow for such conclusions. Possible.

So–what about those shows where it’s supposed to be science–and the consistency of scientific principle and paradigm–that’s the key which unlocks the correct answers? Are the creators setting themselves an unreasonably high standard, if they wish to sustain a lengthy series in which math solves crimes? Or are they assuming that there’s the same kind of viewer complicity I’ve mentioned above–“we’ll give you math-like trappings and an entertaining show if you’ll agree not to examine the actual math too closely.”

Maybe the episode just wasn’t compelling enough to allow me to shrug off the inconsistencies (too much sleight of hand and not enough plot twists or shots of Michael Scofield looking intense). All the same, in such shows, the science seems to me to be part of the fundamental premise. I’ll give Numb3rs another chance, but now they’ve awakened my critical faculties, and that’s never a good sign.

“Everything is mathematics” says the math whiz brother several times in the episode. It feels like a promise. So then, why does his math look an awful lot like magic instead?

(Note: This applies to books as well–and by extension, to plotting and working out logistics at the story planning stage. These are questions to ask yourself when you’re thinking about how characters in your stories are going to Get Things Done, esp. if you’re writing thrillers/suspense involving expert knowledge on the part of your protag, or speculative fiction that involves special technologies or abilities.)

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