The disturbing moral lessons of Numb(three)rs and Medium

My fandom for actor Peter MacNicol ensured that I would tune in to Numb(three)rs when it premiered some six years back. I found the show to be a passable procedural, barely worth mentioning, let alone remembering. Still, the inertia of fiction kept me watching for the next few seasons, even as I began to grow unsettled by the show’s lacklustre storytelling, terribly-used science, and its habit of borrowing its plots rather shamelessly from other shows and popular films.

This came to a head at the beginning of season five, when an episode so closely remade the plot of a film that the writers’ arrogance triggered a kind of reflexive disgust in me, and I haven’t watched an episode since (save for the time Gregg Henry was on, because hey, Gregg Henry).

Thinking back I can’t imagine the episode was as bad as I remember, but its obviousness was just too much to bear. If you don’t believe me, just check out ‘Blowback’, or as I call it: “The Numb(three)rs theatre players present: LA Confidential - The TV Show!”.

So I’m a little out of touch with the recent storylines, such as why MacNicol looks like a caveman and lives in Judd Hirsch’s garage, but familiar enough with the show that when I discovered that there was a new episode that both ripped off the plot of a movie (Sleepers this time) and had a terrible moral lesson to offer, I was eager to tune in.

Man, does this show not disappoint with the awfulness. The plot, rather quickly, is that a group of boys were molested as children, and then one of them killed himself. The other two were being interviewed by a reporter (the sister of the dead one) on a rooftop parking garage when a shot rings out, executing one of them.

At this point you may wonder why they were meeting on a parking garage rooftop, with the wind that interferes with sound and the terrible lighting and all. The answer? Because only if the meeting was on a rooftop could a sniper shoot at them. This suggests that the reporter who set up the interview must be behind the sniping, but that turns out to not be the case. Due to bad writing.

Now it’s time to play the game that must be played with every episode of Numb(three)rs: Why is the FBI working on this case? (Spoiler alert – there’s basically never a good reason)

This time they actually try to come up with an explanation – White Agent (of the interchangeable White Agent/Black Agent team that Joel Morrow works with) was present at the interview/shooting. Why was he there? Because the agent on the original molestation case from ’85 had died, and the press needed a quote!

Of course that doesn’t give them jurisdiction on the case – it’s still just a murder that FBI agents witnessed – but hey, at least they were trying, right?

So let’s zip through the plot, shall we? The fourth molestation victim was the sniper, who killed victim number 2 because he was going to testify to the police. Why was he going to do that? It seems that the molester had disappeared some twenty years earlier after serving just six years-

Okay, hold on a second… if he’d been charged with child molestation, the six years would make sense – states are kind of stupid about those sentences – but the show explains that the FBI is involved because the molester (Alan Ruck!) was charged with kidnapping three children and brutally raping them.

Crimes which tend to carry a much harsher punishment.

But let’s move on. After Ruck was sprung the four boys beat him to within an inch of his life and raped him with a baseball bat. I know what you’re thinking: Good for them. The problem is that one of the kids kept a videotape of the crime, and that kid (the suicide one) felt guilty about the vicious beating, guilty enough to let Ruck know about the tape, which Ruck wanted to use to blackmail the four kids, threatening them with a scandal and rape prosecution.

This is what the second molestation victim was going to confess to the cops about, which victim four killed him to prevent. Which raises the question: What were they afraid of? One of the victims grew up to be a high-powered lawyer, which means that he must have at least some passing familiarity with the criminal code – they beat a man very badly 19 years earlier. 19. He didn’t go to the hospital and never told anyone about the beating, meaning that the only way to prove it even happened was the tape, on which no one’s face appears. Krumholtz offers some pseudoscientific falderol suggesting that he can tell who was involved in the beating based on the length of shadows, but that’s so far into the depths of junk reasoning that it would be taken seriously in a courtroom.

More importantly, though, this whole threat is predicated on the idea of a being DA willing to charge four men for a non-fatal crime they committed against a child molester twenty years earlier. On what planet would that ever happen?

Right at the end of the episode, after all the victims are dead or in jail (victim three killed himself rather than being taken in) and the molester gets away scot free, the reporter questions Morrow about the moral of the story. He explains that it’s a hopeful story because suicide victim had saved Ruck’s life after the beating all those years ago, and “Every time you save a life you save the whole world.”

Except for the three people who are now dead because a child molester lived. Think about that for a second – a guy brutally rapes four children. When they’re a little older they decide they’re disgusted by the fact that their upcoming lifetime of nightmares and post-traumatic stress was only worth six years of Ruck’s life, and attempt to try to beat him to death. An act, I would argue, that few people could argue with the motives of, and few would suggest punishment for. One of them chickens out and saves the guy’s life, which sets forth a chain of events that leads to nearly all of those victims dying.

And this is supposed to be a good result. When compared to the other idea – kill a child molester, and four people go on to live long and happy lives.

What the hell is wrong with you, Numb(three)rs?

Hey, and speaking of murdering child molesters, let’s take a look at this week’s Medium, which has the most sickening message I think I’ve ever seen on the show – and this is a show that argued that it’s better to let a mass murderer kill 10-50 innocent people before the law stops them than to kill them first, saving all those lives.

Because it’s not our place to interfere with the natural order of things.

Except that’s what the Medium does every GD week.

Okay, I’m not here to complain about last year’s terrible Kurtwood Smith episode, that’s been taken care of already.

I’m here to talk about this week’s terrible Laura Prepon episode.

So Allison gets mugged, and it leads her to Laura’s female-empowerment-themed self defense class. Laura explains that after she was brutally beaten, raped, and left for dead three years ago it was only by become an ass-kicking machine that she was able to resume living her life.

Allison begins having dreams about Laura being attacked, naturally she misinterprets them because she’s not a very bright person. This episode’s cheating with the misleading dream sequences is more egregious than usual, however, with Laura’s attacker making nebulous statements about her not struggling, when all he should be saying is ‘I’m an undercover cop, and you’re under arrest!’

That’s right, Laura’s been going to the sex offender registry and beating rapists and child molesters to death. I know what you’re thinking – good for her. Except this time she made a boo-boo, and accidentally killed a cop who’d been put on the list to help his cover as he tried to get a paroled rapist (David Cubitt’s evil brother) to admit to a brutal rape he recently committed.

This really ought to be a thorny moral situation – no, she was trying to do a good thing, but wound up not doing enough research and it led to tragedy! Should she turn herself in, or continue helping the world by killing rapists and child molesters?

The show doesn’t take that tack, though – no, instead Allison climbs back onto her moral high horse and claims that all of Prepon’s murders were immoral and deserve punishment. Worse yet, she’s so disgusted by the whole idea of women taking revenge on men that she quits the women’s self defense course. Okay, to be fair, that’s subtext, but it’s pretty close to the surface.

Allison does quit the course, and doesn’t show any other signs of wanting to learn self-defense, which makes it seem as if the show is ending with a pro-rapist, anti-women’s self defense message.

How else can we read the ending, where Allison has a vision of Prepon murdering Cubitt’s evil brother, and quickly calls Cubit, hoping that he can rescue this evil rapist (who drugged and raped a 15-year-old in one of Allison’s in-no-way-misleadingest visions) from a heroic vigilante.

Luckily Cubitt has a little more sense than Allison, and lets Prepon murder the evil brother before taking her in, reinforcing Cubitt’s role as the most interesting and morally centered character on the show.

So Medium was especially despicable this week, and you know what’s worse? It wasn’t even coherently written from a plot standpoint.

Let’s think about Prepon’s accidental murder of a cop for a second. This requires her to be a vigilante who does no research whatsoever – taking the website as canon without checking newspapers or police records of the original crime – which doesn’t really mesh with her well-thought-out plans for kidnapping, murdering, and disposing of rapists’ corpses. And then there’s the bigger question of how she found the undercover cop at all. Yes, the website would have listed his ‘current address’, but there’s no way that would be A: The cop’s real address, or B: a rented apartment where the cop was living for the case.

We’re not talking about a five-year operation to take down the Jersey mob here. The extent of the cop’s undercover assignment was to go to weekly group therapy with the evil brother and try to get him to talk afterwards. It’s not like he wasn’t doing his day-job policing at the same time. So, what, did Prepon just run into him at the grocery store after having memorized every rapist’s face in the entire registry?

Damn you, Medium – why can’t you get anything right?


Bedazzled Crone said...

Great analysis of what I think of as the backlash against allowing victims of heinous crimes some kind of justice (haven't watched SVU in years because of it). However, I don't think that Medium is done with this - I suspect that Allison is going to "save" Cubitt from making a "big mistake". That would be more in keeping with the show's "moral universe".

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I didn't watch Numb3rs, so I can't comment on that, but about Medium, I think you're totally off base. Obviously we were watching two different shows. The writers were not condoning vigilantism or anything else, but merely presenting a scenario and maybe asking us to examine ourselves and our morals. It's a television show, for cryin' out loud. But I digress. You've missed the whole point. The fact was that both Kira and Paul were remorseless and had no intention of changing or stopping. But anyway, based on your comments and the undisguised vitriol in your post, it's obvious that you dislike the show with a passion (especially given your hatred of the Kurtwood Smith episode), so why do you even watch it? Just so you can trash it afterwards. Do you really think so much of yourself that you think people care that much about your opinion? If you have that much animosity that the only reason you watch, or listen to, or read something, is so that you can trash it afterwards, then you need help. You're not watching to get anything out of a show, much less enjoyment, but rather looking for an excuse to shoot off your mouth and criticize something, as if someone really wants to hear it. Get over yourself.

Vardulon said...

Just so I can be absolutely clear what's happening here: You're on the internet, vitriolically complaining about my habit of going onto the internet and complaining vitriolically about Medium?

That's seriously happening right now?