Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

28 Dec 2008, 15:24 p.m.

Square One TV Paean

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2008 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

If you ask geeks what influenced them in their formative years, the responses cluster around some well-known loci: Star Trek, great science teachers and permissive school computer labs, a particular BBS, LEGO, authority figures who let them obsess.

If you ask fans of sketch comedy how they got to love it so much, you hear about Monty Python, SNL, skits with siblings and friends from the same block, camcorders, Mel Brooks, and stuff I'm too much of a philistine to know about.

It turns out a single TV show got to me on both those counts. Square One TV.

When I was in elementary school in Pennsylvania - so I couldn't have been eight yet -- I remember turning on the TV and seeing a girl explaining to detectives that their radius was all wrong. The gorilla could have traveled 30 miles an hour, yes, but only for a few minutes at a time. For longer durations, he only could have gone five miles an hour. She took their compass and drew a new circle on the map, a smaller one, one they could brute-force search or narrow down further with heuristics.

They didn't say it like that, of course. Mathnet (a Dragnet filk with detectives who made heavy use of geometry, algebra, probability, and pattern-matching) explained whatever it needed to, but never with grownup jargon.

I realized that when I found Square One TV clips on YouTube, years after I gave up Square One so I could watch Star Trek: The Next Generation just as religiously. [Obligatory ephemeral links to S1TV clips.] I wince a little watching those old low-budget sketches -- think fake 24 pilot from 1994. But the songs and Mathnet hold up well.

Watching all these old skits reminds me: Others describe S1TV as a sketch comedy show about math. It is! And I didn't realize it until last year because I didn't think about the sketches as much as I thought about Mathnet.

S1TV's sketches were inventive and wacky, with big old filks and parodies and off-the-wall references in every episode. "Angle Dance" parodies a slew of new-wave pop; comedy sketches include an offhand Gettysburg Address quote and an actor suggesting, "I could internalize more." Mathnet was more superficially staid, with its Dragnet procedural plots and dialogue, but check out the over-the-top snobs in Monterey Bay.

My favorite Mathnet story arc, starring ingenue actress Eve Addams in a production of "Anything Went," ended with a five-minute song-and-dance version of the classic parlor scene. My sister and I memorized that song. Audio available here; video seemingly vanished. Listening now, Leonard says the rhymes are ridiculously bad ("rally by/alibi") even by the standards of Broadway musical. So be warned.

Square One TV was wacky. And sometimes it broke the fourth wall, as in asking: "45% of this show is over now. What percentage of it is left to go?" Zany and referential in a way I didn't notice in Sesame Street, because I was too young to catch it. Square One prepped me for Animaniacs.

Sometimes Square One TV was mean, meaner than I expected or expect from a kids' show, which raised the stakes and drew me in. The Mathman segments include a lot of sad endings: Mathman just not thinking long enough before saying yes, or Mathman ranting so much about math use that he ran out of time and got eaten. The sketch "Common Multiple Man" isn't very kind to its title character, and the songs "Less Than Zero" and "Ghost of a Chance" aren't about the loser winning in the end. As a kid, I found "Ghost of a Chance" haunting (ha), partly because I'd expected all along that the pizza delivery guy would triumph.

Happy Dog the Happy Dog would be pleased.

Sometimes the math was hard or uncomfortable! No one explains in the "Oops!" on fractions how you should actually add fractions with dissimilar denominators; the character just demonstrates a mistake and then fixes it. There's a similar moment when someone figures out the area of a triangle. And some questions, like about the percentage of the show remaining, an announcer asks you and doesn't answer.

Most profoundly, sometimes the lesson wasn't just about math, but about assumptions and problem-solving. Mathcourt skits review how people get real-world statistics wrong. In every episode, the Mathnet detectives fail, get stuck, backtrack, estimate, revise (as in the gorilla speed scene). They often play "What Do We Know" to systematically review their situation and come up with new leads. Change Your Point Of View is exemplary in this respect.

It's nice that the show depicted black men and women as architects, Archimedes, a Roman sax player, science teacher Ms. Snodgrass, head of computing Debbie, and so on, although police chief James Earl Jones was probably a no-brainer. And Kate Monday is the female cop providing the missing link between Cagney/Lacey and Dana Scully. She's a sensible, tough but sensitive detective who keeps her kooky partner grounded. Monday's also the reason I want to wear ties with my suits.

I learned about math as a means to an end, about problem-solving as a fluid process, about what kinds of humor I liked, about recursion and breaking the fourth wall. And I learned math too. So awesome. I wish it were all on Hulu or DVD so I could foist it on people, and so Nandini and I could watch it together again.


28 Dec 2008, 16:27 p.m.

Incredibly ancillary note: according to YouTube comments, I am not the only person who found Larry Cedar cute. He also appeared in an Eggo commercial. Joe Howard, who played George Frankly, was a minor presidential candidate/singer/songwriter in an episode of West Wing.