Numb3rs

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"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 themed 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.

Tropes used in Numb3rs include:


  • 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]
Charlie: [yells] Larry, you were coming out!

  • Action Girl: Megan Reeves.
    • Arguably Liz Warner as well.
      • And to be fair Nikki Betancourt was never an liabilty on this front.
  • Actor Allusion: At one point, Alan Eppes appears to have been involved in an act of civil disobedience gone horribly wrong as a younger man. He wasn't, but actor Judd Hirsh played a similar role in Sidney Lumet's Running On Empty.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Briefly holds Amita hostage and turned out to be fake.
  • 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.
  • Always Gets His Man
  • Awesomeness By Analysis: Avoided, wherein the super-brain Charlie Epps 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 maths with the everyday skills of the FBI... Or something.
    • The Aesop is that you should synthesize experience 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 series 4 he does an FBI training course and 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.
  • Badass Bookworm: As of Season 5, Charlie can SO kick ass. One FBI training course and BAM!, he has a gun.
  • Bald Black Leader Guy: David Sinclair. Although not technically a leader, he is Don's second-in-command.
  • Beeping Computers: Most user interfaces seem to make an unusual amount of beeping, whining, and chirps as the user scrolls and clicks.
  • Big Brother Instinct : Don toward Charlie. Amusingly, big brother Don also works for "Big Brother". But then in this case, Big Brother is also your friend.
    • Don also acts like a big brother to the entire team. And the other members of the team often treat Charlie like a little brother.
  • Bro Yay: Don and Charlie.
  • Cast the Expert: Bill Nye as a scientist.
  • Character Development: A very good amount of it, and not always in predictable directions (looking' at you, Fleinhardt). Probably more so than most other Police Procedural shows.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Dr Larry Fleinhardt
  • Cold Sniper: Agent Edgerton
  • 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.
  • Criminal Mind Games: The episode "The Janus List" took this to ridiculous extremes. Supposedly, the whole 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. To be fair, 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."
      • Considering the number of criminals that also used advanced math to concoct near-perfect crimes that pass through the show, Fridge Logic who imply that the inadvertent secondary Aesop of the series is "Math will make you into supervillains, P.S. avoid Fields Medal winners like the plague."
      • This Troper wonders why they didn't give a recurring supermath villain for several shows, to give Charlie a match. But perhaps that would have ended up silly unless handled well. Still.
  • Defective Detective: Charlie, a mathematical genius who uses his talents to help his FBI agent brother solve crimes, he has emotional difficulties to the point that he locks himself in the garage to work on unsolvable problems when he can't deal with life.
    • It is questionable whether this qualifies. That is really no different then the sort of moodiness a lot of people feel. He just expresses it with math because that happens to be what he knows. It is certainly not a crippling disorder.
    • Moreover, working on unsolvable problems is his legitimate day-job: he's not doing it just to sulk. Plenty of folks use work as a distraction when they're upset.
  • Did Not Do the Research: Explaining IRC.
    • True for just about every computer science description in the entire show. The Turing Test is incorrectly explained in two different episodes, one of which involves Amita "delivering" the test to a computer. [1] The show also makes typical use of Magic Computers, and anything computer-ish at all needs Charlie or Amita to explain it (incorrectly), even though the FBI really should employ IT and CS staff of its own (egregiously, Amita acts like leetspeek is a dead language that needs to be deciphered. While it can be hard to read, the title of the show is in leet).
      • And what was with all that "silicon-based lifeform" stuff? Since when is intelligence even a component of life, let alone its only feature?
      • When it shows none of the prerequisites for life (i.e. respiration (anaerobic or aerobic), growth, reproduction), most philosophers fall back on the argument of intellect. The only prevailing quality that can count as life in an inorganic structure is intelligence or the ability to create an original thought process (or the programming equivalent), so this is probably not that far stretched (depending on your definition of life). Also the Turing Test thing wasn't so bad. They very awkwardly handwaved the idea saying it was a "modified version" and barely skimped on the boundary parameters but it sorta holds up (you just have to rewrite the book on bias though...)
    • While the equations specifically shown on screen for more than a split second are usually relevant, often the ones flying in the background of explanations aren't. See the above IRC video for a perfect example--online chatting is being compared to a drug trade; no mathematical equation [2] would really be relevant there, yet thousands of symbols and numbers fly around in the background. Sometimes the math is wrong too, and even when it's right, it's often an overcomplicated or unnecessary introduction.
  • Did the Research: In a TV Guide Channel interview, it was stated that David Krumholtz was actually taught the math that Charlie would need to know, as opposed to simply being taught the lines. Math professors were even brought in.
  • 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
  • E=MC Hammer: Averted.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • Everybody Hates Mathematics: Played with, inverted, and subverted. Several characters, including lead Charlie Epps, love math, and those who don't love math are dependent on those who do.
    • Hell by the sixth season some of the FBI actually explain the math with Charlie grinning like a proud teacher.
  • Expy: Bill Nye. Played by Bill Nye.
    • 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.
  • A Father Big Brother To His Men: Don seems more like a big brother to his men than a father. Maybe it's just less age difference. But the same applies.
  • Five-Man Band:
  • Friendly Enemy: Charlie Eppes and Marshall Penfield, in the fifth season story "Frienemies."
  • Game of Nerds: Dr. Fleinhardt is a Dodgers fan.
    • 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.
  • Good Parents: Alan
  • Gentleman and a Scholar : Charlie and Larry in different ways. Amita too.
  • Good with Numbers: Charlie of course.
  • Hollywood Nerd: All over the place, but Charlie is the most prominent.
  • Idiot Ball: The FBI has an unlimited supply of those.
    • 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.
      • 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 a 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.
  • I'd Tell You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You : Played straight by Charlie in Assassin (Ssn.2, Ep.5)
  • 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 he finds it is there, it actually isn't.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: In one episode, a movie star's friends are being blackmailed, and the secret is this trope.
  • 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.
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Charlie solves crimes with mathematics!
  • Ivy League for Everyone
  • I Want Grandkids: Alan takes the proactive approach, giving solid relationship advice to Don and Charlie.
  • Just Smile and Nod: The FBI gang do this when Charlie explain some very complicated math theories.
  • Knight Templar Big Brother: Don... He has gotten better about it over the years though.
  • 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.
    • This predictable behavior is lampshaded at one point when the agent prompts him for the analogy: "Imagine..."
  • Letters 2 Numbers
  • Measuring the Marigolds: Subverted by Charlie in that he appreciates the beauty of the world, he just sees it in the way math can help describe it.
  • Monty Hall Problem
  • Murder.Com: "Killer Chat"
  • 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 to correct the problem immediately. 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.
  • Nice Jewish Boy : Charlie, though non-observant.
  • Non-Action Guy: Charlie
  • Ominously Open Door: Quite a few times, even made the reference that names the trope.
  • Omnidisciplinary Mathematician: While far less egregious than other cases, Charlie is an expert at far more fields of math than is realistic, even for a genius like him.
  • Papa Wolf: Do not try to hurt any of Don's team. And DO NOT try to hurt Charlie.
  • Parental Abandonment: Not quite, but Amita's parents are always too busy to see her.
  • Perp Sweating
  • Phlebotinum Analogy
  • Pregnant Hostage: "Backscatter"
  • The Professor : Larry and Charlie. Especially Charlie who is incredibly smart and was once a Teen Genius.
  • 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.
  • Ripped from the Headlines
    • In Calculated Risk (Season 2, Episode 4) it sounded like they were reading directly from Enron's wikipedia page.
    • Sniper Zero (Season 1, Episode 9) seemed to be all about the Beltway Sniper Attacks.
  • 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.
  • Russian Roulette - Used as a way to make money from very desperate gamblers and really sick viewers. The organizers even gave the players nicknames and everything; unfortunately for them it was rigged.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: In one episode, a psychic predicts the killers' next move and goes there with his camera. The killers are there, along with their big truck. He doesn't get better either.
  • Shipper on Deck - Nikki seems to be this with David and Colby. She's made several comments about the two of them in a relationship.
  • Sibling Team: Don and Charlie.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Don is more "Jock-like" and Charlie is more "Geek-like".
  • 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.
      • Which Dr Fleinhart did to the point of being banned from casinos, making him doubly smart!
  • The Spock: Dr Fleinhart. Charlie doesn't qualify, as he emotes just fine.
    • This Troper thought Charlie was something of a Tin Man and Fleinhart's wide ranging and sometimes mystical temperament made him The Philosopher.
  • Shorter Means Smarter: Charlie.
  • Stealth Hi Bye: The specialty of mysterious government Agent Floyd (minus the "Bye" part), to the annoyance of Amita: "Stop materializing out of thin air!"
    • 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.
  • The Stoic: Don
  • The Storyteller : Charlie Eppes teaches math with stories. He would be great to have as one's professor.
    • Larry indicates that he gets amazing class evaluations.
  • The Strategist: Charlie would probably qualify with his ability to mathematically predict the moves of evildoers.
  • Straw Vulcan: usually averted
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Twice and both times it has been the female FBI team member.
    • Not sure about Terri, but Diane Farr (Megan) was pregnant with twins at the time she left.
  • Teacher-Student Romance: Charlie and Amita. He's only her thesis advisor! Really!
    • Less weird in that since Charlie was a child prodigy, they're about the same age.
  • Team Dad : Don
  • Theme Serial Killer: A serial killer whose victims had the same names as the 12 apostles and killed them in the way each apostle died.
    • Not only that but the locations of their deaths were consistent with a map of the last significant events of Jesus's life.
  • Treacherous Advisor: The one encouraging the team is usually the Big Bad, and, if so, usually gets caught. So don't help the police, because helping the police will always result in a Stable Time Loop that corrupts you into being a Big Bad that will get caught for the crime that you help the police to solve.
  • Walking the Earth : Larry is always doing this or wanting to.
    • Except when he went into space.
  • 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. I suppose there are worse people who could've gotten hold of it, but it still made Don very uncomfortable.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Charlie and Amita.
    • Though this has progressed to "they do". They are now married.
  • Writer on Board: the eco sub-arc, the season finale about treatment of minorities from "risky" areas of the world.
  • You Fail Mathematics Forever: Zigzagged like crazy.
  1. The Turing test proves that a computer is realistically emulating human conversation by having a neutral observer communicate with a human and a computer, not knowing which is which, and determining if the observer is able to distinguish between the two. Amita, by sitting in front of the computer and asking it questions, would therefore be unable to determine if the computer passed, since she already knows whether or not she is talking with a computer. Further, there's not a predefined list of questions for it. Oh, and a computer capable of passing the Turing test would be a spectacular feat, even if that's all it was able to do. In the episode, it's pretty much shrugged off once it's revealed the computer was designed specifically to pass the test, and has no "intelligence" of its own.
  2. If the boundaries of relevance are stretched a lot, when the box of drugs is thrown from one ship to the other, the physics equations for two dimensional motion of a projectile make sense