For more photos from the set of Numb3rs, click 'View Photos' at left
Andy Black doesn't set an alarm. His mind, bubbling with mathematics, wakes him before the sun rises over Pasadena. Ignoring six days' worth of red stubble, he drives to work in a 2003 Acura that looks, inside and out, brand-new. It's a short drive to the spacious academic office where he works. There's no one else in the building yet, which suits Black just fine; later, when the place fills up, people will be incessantly bugging him with math questions. He gets right to work, striding to a blackboard and briskly chalking a maze of arbitrage equations. The math is perfect.
At 32, Black is younger than his colleagues, but they rely on his mathematical prowess. Questions on conjoint analysis, orbifold supersymmetry or Dijkstra's algorithm? Andy's their man. On the precision of his blackboard equations rest their reputations. Possibly their jobs.
But here's the thing: Black doesn't really understand the equations. He's copying the squiggles off a sheet of paper. And the office? It's on a soundstage; the blackboard is part of a set. Black's colleagues are the writers of Numb3rs, a television show about a genius who uses math to help his FBI-agent brother solve crimes. Black is the writing staff's researcher. Now in its third season, Numb3rs airs on CBS, Friday nights at 10. Eleven million people tune in each week, enough viewers for the show to reliably triumph in its time slot, even over Law & Order, which moved into the neighborhood this year.
Just in the past few seasons, this
science-in-drama formula has flooded prime time, in the forensic-detective CSI troika, the medical-misanthropy fest House, the terror-tech showcase 24, the forensic-anthropology skein Bones, to name a few. Most of the shows enjoy even larger audiences than Numb3rs. For the studios, the marriage of science and drama has become a notably fertile one.
Still, science and drama are tense bedfellows. Warm emotion chafes cool constraint. Infinite possibility muddies precision. Left unchecked, most writers will wantonly sacrifice scientific accuracy for dramatic heat. Yet, counterintuitively enough for a medium long derided as the "boob tube," the accuracy actually seems to matter to viewers, so much so that shows hire researchers whose entire job is to help maintain scientific verisimilitude. Like good marriage counselors, they listen to the story's dramatic needs, explore the factual science, and work to find common ground. A man who lets his beard run wild but keeps a crumbless car-who melds chaotic creativity with precise discipline-is, it turns out, the perfect sort of man for the job.
ER + CSI = $$$$
This season, on the big four networks alone, there are at least 15 successful prime-time dramas in which science, medicine or technology play a defining role. That's unprecedented. Across all 10 seasons of the 1990s, the networks mustered only 10 science-based shows.
If you conduct an epidemiological investigation into this outbreak, searching for Patient Zero, you will find yourself in a hospital ward in 1994, when ER made its debut. The anchor to NBC's erstwhile must-see Thursday lineup has been on the air for so long, and its conventions have become so commonplace, that it's easy to forget just how groundbreaking it was when it first aired.