It is astonishing to me that a television show that stars Rob Morrow, Sabrina Lloyd, David Krumholtz and Judd Hirsch, four of the most interesting and attractive and amusing actors television has ever beamed into a living room, would turn out to be a show that -- on the basis of its pilot, at least -- I would not ever care to watch again. (And there's Peter MacNicol lurking around the corners, as well.) But "Numb3rs," which premieres Sunday night on CBS before settling into its regular Friday slot, is that show. Most surprising, perhaps, given the natural strengths of the cast (whose combined resume includes "Northern Exposure," "Sports Night," "Slums of Beverly Hills" and "Taxi") is that it is not a comedy, or even funny in passing.
"Numb3rs" (not pronounced "Numbthreers," though well might you think so) claims one more hour of CBS prime time for forensic drama, joining "Cold Case," "NCIS," "Without a Trace," and "CSI" one, two and three in positing a chilly, sexy world of crime and death. The twist here is that FBI agent Morrow has for a kid brother math genius Krumholtz, who uses his beautiful mind to help Morrow crack the tough nuts. (Hirsch is their father -- the three are well-mated -- and Lloyd is Morrow's sidekick.) According to network copywriters, the show has been "inspired by actual cases," though not (like NBC's "The Medium") by an actual person, and adds terms like "variables," "anomaly" and "predictive analysis" to the usual talk of lividity and ligature marks.
It's a decent enough premise. Math is indeed a helpful science, which police need just in order to be able to say things like, "This makes victim number four" (addition) or "Crime is down .03245%" (division, decimals) or "You have no chance of getting away, so come out with your hands up" (probability). I'm all for egghead heroes, and Krumholtz is offered as grade A jumbo. "You have abilities," his physicist friend MacNicol tells him. "You could be helping define the nature of reality." Though absent-minded in the classic professorial manner, Krumholtz is no math nerd -- he's a math babe, with a hot almost-girlfriend who runs her hand lovingly over his blackboard-filling complicated equations. (He's her thesis advisor, so it's all platonic so far.)
Pulling levers behind the curtain here are executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott, whose names, as directors, are individually attached to many popular, sometimes good movies, including "Blade Runner" and "Gladiator" (Ridley) as well as "Top Gun" and "Crimson Tide" (Tony). Life's small moments are largely missing from their films, as is humor of any but a brutal sort. Their previous forays into television include the rapidly canceled "AFP: American Fighter Pilot," a reality show that lasted two episodes in 2002, and the soft-core horror anthology "The Hunger," a 1997 cable series that took its name and tone from Tony's gauzy vampire film and suffered from a similar surfeit of atmosphere.
The atmosphere is thick here too, and not with smog. Set in Los Angeles, "Numb3rs" might if nothing else obviate the need for "CSI: L.A.," which would be worth at least a quick thank-you note. It's a slick production in which the city looks very good, almost juicy, in a fashion-shoot kind of way. But in spite of map-accurate street names and neighborhoods, it's an unreal city, made for cardboard heroes and nasty stick-figure villains. On the loose in the first episode is the cleverly named "L.A. Rapist," who likes to brand his victims and has started to turn his hand to murder. All are stumped until the random patterns of falling drops of water from a backyard sprinkler start the wheels turning in Krumholtz's superior noggin.
The trick will be to keep the series from turning into one illustrated word problem after another. But the bigger problem is that the production is bound by the decadent conventions of this dismayingly successful form, in which character is merely suggested, special effects get more love than conversation, flashes of violence substitute for drama and nothing of real interest is proposed. I was not surprised at all to see the series get underway with the naked corpse of a good-looking young woman, left among the weeds -- "CSI: New York" set off in just the same way.
On the other hand, this is a great cast -- beyond the promise of a steady paycheck, and the chance to work with one another, I can't imagine what brought them here, but here they are -- and given time and flexibility, television shows often mold themselves to the actors' strengths. I wouldn't want to guess the odds.
When: Premieres 7 p.m. Sunday (after football). Regular time will be 10 p.m. Fridays.
Ratings: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for violence)
Rob Morrow...Don Eppes
David Krumholtz...Charlie Eppes
Judd Hirsch...Alan Eppes
Peter MacNichol...Larry Fleinhardt
Executive producers Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Brooke Kennedy and Alex Gansa. Creators Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci.