While in my fevered state*, I’ve been re-watching a procedural I used to watch called Numb3rs. The basic premise is about an FBI agent (Don Eppes, played by Rob Morrow) who reluctantly at first and then eagerly uses the math abilities of his genius brother (Charlie Eppes, played by David Krumholz), while both being clucked over by their caring, but somewhat neurotic father (Alan Eppes, played by the eminent Judd Hirsch). Charlie lives with his father, and Don is always hanging around the house. All the episodes end with a family or non-work-related scene, and I remember the creators saying the choice was deliberate as a way to balance the horrors of the FBI scenes. I really liked the math aspect of the show, and I was able to ignore the ludicrous premise. Look, I don’t care that Charlie already consulted with the NSA and had the highest level of security clearance. The premise is still ridiculous. But, as an aficionado of procedurals, I know that leaps of faith have to be taken and to accept a show on its own premises.
I loved the nerdier take on a procedural, and the relationship between the brothers and the father felt real-ish to me. Larry (played by Peter Nichols) is a delightful eccentric cosmic physicist, and sometimes flirts with being a stereotypical absentminded professor. Nichols performance elevates the role past that, however, and fleshes it out into an interesting person, but I could see it falling flat in the hands of a lessor actor. You may notice that I haven’t mentioned any female characters yet, and there’s a reason for that. The female characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out and often seem to be appendages to the male characters, unfortunately. Plus, one of my biggest gripes is that all the girlfriends of the main characters (save Alan, but more on that in a bit) are hotties, whereas both Charlie and Larry are…not. I don’t think Don is hot, but he’s good-looking and charming, and he has a nice bod.
It’s not as simple as the female characters are bad, however. They’re not. They’re good on paper, and I like many of them in and of themselves, but in the whole gestalt, they paint a broader picture of subtle sexism, both intentional (meaning, trying to highlight sexism) and not (reinforcing societal stereotypes of heteronormative gender roles). First, is Navi Rawat as Amita Ramanujan. In the first season, Charlie is her adviser, but it’s clear that there’s chemistry between them. Mostly because they stare longingly at each other. Navi Rawat is insanely hot, by the way. Is it inappropriate that an adviser and advisee have a romantic relationship? Of course it is. But, they hold off until afterwards, so technically, it’s fine. Amita has her own life, but most of it is takes a backseat to her helping Charlie do his brilliant work. She’s a low-key manic pixie girlfriend, and she’s portrayed as every nerd’s wet dream. Incredibly hot and insanely smart, plus she has no problems with Charlie being consumed by his math and being a flake. She’s the ultimate Cool Girlfriend, and the few times she raises concerns, she’s easily fobbed off. Any outburst by Charlie is swept under the rug with the excuse that Charlie is a genius, so we can’t expect him to react like a normal human being.
As annoying as that is, however, it’s not as bad as Megan Reeves (Diane Farr), the FBI profiler. She’s also very good-looking, and she falls instantly for Larry. She’s expressive and outgoing, whereas he’s philosophical and introverted. And eccentric. Now, I can buy the pairing with difficulty, but when he starts freaking out because she’s interfering with his work by being way too electric and spontaneous, she tells him she understands, and they work out a schedule that makes him feel comfortable. It’s played out in a very cute way, but it makes her yet another Cool Girlfriend who doesn’t complain about anything in her relationship. Sigh. I like Megan as a character, and she’s not too terrible with the psych stuff,** but the relationship stuff is irritating–and I like that she and Larry are a couple.
Moving on to Don. He’s a ladies man, and he hasn’t met a female hot coworker that he hasn’t banged. All the hot ladies who aren’t already taken just can’t wait to get into his pants. The profiler from the first season (past relationship, and retroactively best relationship. I like to think they would have revisited the relationship if the actress hadn’t quit the show after one season). In the following seasons, there are in no particular order: two prosecuting attorneys past and present, two FBI agents past and present, and an ATF agent (past). The way the show handled his relationship with the FBI agent (Liz Warner, played by Aya Sumika, who is also incredibly gorgeous, of course) is criminal, pun intended. Or rather, the way they ended it. Once again, she’s the Cool Girlfriend who disappears with little fuss and no muss. I actually like his relationship with prosecutor (Robin Brooks, played by Michelle Nolden), but there’s still too much of her acquiescing to him for my taste.
Look. Any one of the relationships would be fine-ish on their own. But, taken together, the inescapable message is that a woman’s biggest value in a relationship is how chill she is with putting up with shit from her boyfriend. I know that’s probably not what the creators intended (one of whom is a woman), but it’s the message that blares out to me. It’s a modern take on the Superwoman myth. A woman has to be hot AND smart AND capable, but not demanding in any way. Some may argue that Millie Finch (Kathy Najimy) doesn’t fit into that stereotype, but she does. She’s beautiful, smart, capable, but she never makes too many demands on Alan. I really like her character, but I’d like her even more if she had a few outliers in her personality. She’s pretty much Megan Reeves, but the academic version. In fact, they both even use ‘ladies’ to denigrate men (once each). Now, I can barely buy it from Megan given that she’s with the FBI, but from Millie? Nope. It just shows me that the female characters are pretty much interchangeable.
Another problem I have is with the character of Charlie. In the first season, he was awkward and nervous, and he was unsure how he fit on the team. He was the little brother trying to please his older brother, and it felt right (as much as the contrived situation could feel right). But, as the series goes on, he becomes more arrogant, whiny, and demanding. He rolls his eyes at other people’s suggestions, and he’s always sure he’s right. Of course, he usually is, which makes it even more irritating. By they fourth or fifth season, I want to bop him in the nose. Plus, there are plenty of times when the ‘he’s a genius so he can’t help acting like a jerk’ excuse gets trotted out. It gets really old after a while.
Charlie has seemed to regress the further the series has gone (six seasons). It’s annoying as hell when he gets that smug grin on his face after butting into a conversation and correcting other people. In fact, the episode I’m watching now has Amita and Larry griping about that very thing. So, yes, they do address it nominally, but then nothing really changes. He says something about being on the right track, Amita snaps, ‘Your track’, and he says, “This time.” Then goes on to say how hard it was to be suspended from the FBI (long story. Don’t ask) and to cut him some slack. Except, he does it all the damn time. Ugh. Don, on the other hand, does grow over the years, in fits and starts. However, he goes on this ridiculous search for religion (ridiculous because it’s clearly crammed in for shock value). Side note: One thing I find hilarious about network procedurals is the lack of swearing. A cop leaning menacingly into a suspect’s face, and then says, “Quit screwing with me!” Or, in this case, there are several scenes in a strip club, and all the women are in bras and panties. I’ve seen more skin at the beach!
In addition, the cases themselves always wrap up too neatly. I know that’s a pitfall of procedurals in general, however, because you have to condense everything into one hour. It’s hard to show complexity and layers in forty-one minutes or so. In a novel, you can write pages and pages of background to establish personalities, motives, opportunities, etc. You can introduce a character in chapter one and then not mention him again until chapter fourteen or fifteen. You can’t do that with TV, especially in less than an hour. There was a show, Murder One, that focused on one case throughout the whole season. I watched it many moons ago, so I don’t remember the details, but I found it thoroughly engrossing. The individual cases of each episode were pretty trash, thuogh. Oh, I also watched it on discs so I didn’t have to wait a week between each episode–that really helped with the flow. I also have to say that Daniel Benzali as Teddy Hoffman, a prominent defense attorney, is really what made the series. His commanding presence really brought everything together, and he was the main reason I watched. I know because I tried to watch the second series, but I just couldn’t get into it. I love me some Anthony LaPaglia, but he just didn’t have the same gravitas.
Characters on procedurals tend to be stereotypes or rather representations. They have two or three sentences to establish who they are, so, yeah, what you see is pretty much what you’re going to get. The loud-mouthed neck-waggling black woman is that way because she came up HARD, yo. The nerdy white dude who’s awkward is also a mega-genius! The plucky Latina from El Paso sympathizes with not being able to escape the past! There are no surprises, and the storylines are usually straightforward. I mean, there are twists, of course, and they get more ridiculous as the years go by, but it still can’t be as nuanced as a novel is.
That’s a trap of most procedurals–crime really isn’t that interesting in general. The specifics, I mean. So, you have to get more and more outre in order to distinguish a case. I feel like the first two seasons were the strongest, then it went downhill in season three once they introduced Colby’s (Dylan Bruno) friend, Dwayne Carter (Shawn Hatosy). He’s a good actor, and I actually liked the character, but the whole thing was ludicrous. Actually, it started with the two-parter at the beginning of the year. It’s all a downhill slide from there. It’s so weird. I like the characters. Most of the guest actors are top rate. The chemistry among the team members is real. And yet, the writing is sub-par. Really, if it weren’t for the characters, I would write the whole show off as a loss.
Side note: I love the four stats they give at the start of each episode. It’s gimmicky, but it’s fun.
Anyway, I’d love to write a procedural and see if I could do a better job. I don’t know if it’s possible, but it’d be a hoot to try.
*Metaphorical! I don’t get fevers. Interesting note, my base temperature is roughly 97 degrees. I’ve asked my doctor if that means I have a legit temperature when I reach 99 degrees, but she’s never really had a good answer for me.
**One of my biggest pet peeves in media–the egregious portrayals of psychologists/psychiatrists. The main psychiatrist in this show, Bunk, er, William Bradford (the amazing Wendell Pierce) is an exception. He’s pretty cool, even if the psych aspect is pop psych/psych-lite. I just like the portrayal by Pierce as no-nonsense and in-your-face while still being chill. Plus, that voice….