Puzzles in Pop Culture: Square One TV

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we’re jumping into the Wayback Machine and looking back at the math-fueled equivalent of Sesame Street: Square One TV!

[The intro to Square One TV, looking more than a little dated these days.]

This PBS show ran from 1987 to 1994 (although reruns took over in 1992), airing five days a week and featuring all sorts of math-themed programming. Armed with a small recurring group of actors, the writers and producers of Square One TV offered many clever (if slightly cheesy) ideas for presenting different mathematical concepts to its intended audience.

Whether they were explaining pie charts and percentages with a game show parody or employing math-related magic tricks with the aid of magician Harry Blackstone, Jr., the sketches were simple enough for younger viewers, but funny enough for older viewers.

In addition to musical parodies performed by the cast, several famous musicians contributed to the show as well. “Weird Al” Yankovic, Bobby McFerrin, The Fat Boys, and Kid ‘n’ Play were among the guests helped explain fractions, tessellations, and other topics.

[One of the many math-themed songs featured on the show.]

Two of the most famous recurring segments on Square One TV were Mathman and Mathcourt. (Sensing a theme here?)

Mathman was a Pac-Man ripoff who would eat his way around an arcade grid until he reached a number or a question mark (depending on this particular segment’s subject).

For instance, if he came to a question mark and it revealed “3 > 2”, he could eat the ratio, because it’s mathematically correct, and then move onward. But if he ate the ratio “3 < 2”, he would be pursued by Mr. Glitch, the tornado antagonist of the game. (The announcer would always introduce Mr. Glitch with an unflattering adjective like contemptible, inconsiderate, devious, reckless, insidious, inflated, ill-tempered, shallow, or surreptitious.)

Mathcourt, on the other hand, gave us a word problem in the form of a court case, leaving the less-than-impressed district attorney and judge to establish whether the accused (usually someone much savvier at math than them) was correct or incorrect. As a sucker for The People’s Court-style shenanigans, this recurring segment was a personal favorite of mine.

But from a puzzle-solving standpoint, MathNet was easily the puzzliest part of the program. Detectives George Frankly and Kate Tuesday would use math to solve baffling crimes. Whether it was a missing house, a parrot theft, or a Broadway performer’s kidnapping, George and Kate could rely on math to help them save the day.

These segments were told in five parts (one per day for a full week), using the Dragnet formula to tackle all sorts of mathematical concepts, from the Fibonacci sequence to calculating angles of reflection and refraction.

These were essentially word problems, logic problems, and other puzzles involving logic or deduction, but with a criminal twist. Think more Law & Order: LCD than Law & Order: SVU.

Granted, given all the robberies and kidnappings the MathNet team faced, these segments weren’t aiming as young or as silly as much of Square One TV‘s usual fare, but they are easily the most fondly remembered aspect of the show for fans and casual viewers alike.

Given the topic of Tuesday’s post — the value of recreational math — it seemed only fitting to use today’s post to discuss one of the best examples of math-made-fun in television history.

Square One TV may not have been nearly as successful or as long-lasting as its Muppet-friendly counterpart, but its legacy lives on in the hearts and memories of many puzzlers these days.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The West Wing

In previous editions of Puzzles in Pop Culture, I’ve recapped classic episodes of M*A*S*H and MacGyver, as well as the numerous puzzly plotlines that’ve been featured on The Simpsons over the years.

But when it comes to erudite, hilarious references to solving crosswords, you’d be hard-pressed to find sharper puzzle-infused dialogue than the moments featured in episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s landmark political drama The West Wing.

Set in the West Wing of the White House, the show focused on the lives of the president and his advisors and staffers as they navigated political situations at home and abroad. To this day it’s a regular feature on most reviewers’ lists of the top television shows of all-time.

And in a show noted for sparkling wit and all kinds of intellectual wordplay, it’s hardly a surprise that the New York Times Crossword was referenced in the very first episode.

In the video below, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is frustrated with the Times for misspelling the name of Muammar Qaddafi, and his attempts to contact the editor of the Times Crossword and get it corrected are stymied at every turn:

The White House staff’s dubious relationship with crosswords is revisited in the season 3 episode Dead Irish Writers. This time around, as the president’s wife Abbey prepares for both a birthday party and a potential ruling on her medical license, the President busies himself with a crossword in his own inimitable style:

Beyond the spirited humor of both scenes, there’s a marvelous undercurrent of how smart people react when their intellectual superiority is challenged. Leo responds by trying to correct what he sees as an egregious error, while the President bends the rules to suit his own expectations.

In addition to being a wonderful launchpad for the show’s signature rapid-fire banter, it’s a simple and effective way of shedding light on how each character views the world and his role in it. (With writing and direction this layered and engaging, it’s easy to see how The West Wing earned an astounding 26 Emmy Awards!)

Even as subplots in a much-larger narrative, these puzzles added color and personality to scenes that took us inside the minds of these characters. Pretty impressive for crosswords that are only mentioned briefly.

Puzzles… is there anything they can’t do? =)

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I’ve got a five-letter word for you…

Last week, Eric posted a link to an article chronicling the top ten works of fiction to prominently feature crossword puzzles.

While the Guardian’s countdown included some choice entries — mentioning not only The West Wing but another show near and dear to the heart of yours truly — there’s one glaring omission from their otherwise impressive listing.

M*A*S*H. More specifically, the season 5 episode entitled “38 Across,” which aired on January 11, 1977.

Now, for those of you who’ve never known a world without the Internet, I’ll explain. 

(*gasp* I know! A world without the Internet! Think of it! Heaven is chock full of people who’ve never known Facebook!)

M*A*S*H centered around a mobile army surgical hospital (mad acronym skills at work here) and the trials and tribulations endured by those stationed in Korea during the war.

Some of M*A*S*H’s best episodes came from the medical staff’s desperate need to alleviate boredom at all costs during their downtime, and in “38 Across,” Hawkeye becomes fixated on completing the New York Times Crossword.

Stymied by a single clue — the Yiddish word for bedbug — he goes as far as to contact an old naval buddy, Lt. Tippy Brooks. In his fervor to solve the puzzle, he says it’s an emergency.

This comes back to bite Hawkeye and his chums when Tippy arrives, with his commanding officer Admiral Cox in tow, expecting a medical emergency, not a linguistic one.

(Click here for a terrific plot synopsis of the episode.)

It’s a very funny episode that plays nicely with a classic sitcom trope — the big misunderstanding. (The title is also a clever inside reference to the 38th Parallel, the line crossed by invading Communist forces, igniting the Korean War.)

Considering how beloved M*A*S*H was, and still is, I was surprised this episode didn’t make The Guardian’s cut.

Alas, no top ten list is perfect. (Just ask David Letterman.)

Oh! For the curious readers, the answer was “vantz.” (The fact that Hawkeye never once mentions the Down words crossing the entry makes me think puzzles aren’t exactly his forte. *laughs*)

And there you have it! All is well with the puzzle world once more. Hope you enjoyed this post, and as always, keep calm, puzzle on, and I’ll catch you next time.