Nostalgia Time: Square One TV
By Chris Chan (@GKCfan)
There are some TV shows that can make a terrific impact on impressionable young people. Square One TV was one such series. From 1987 to 1992, children (and also teens and adults) could tune in on weekday afternoons to watch a series that presented various mathematical principles through sketch comedy, songs, animated shorts, magic tricks, game shows, and a serial mystery. The goal of Square One was twofold: to teach young people math and to have a great time doing it.
Square One was divided into two parts. The sketches (anywhere between three and perhaps ten per show) usually lasted between ten and twenty minutes, depending on the episode. A terrific ensemble cast including Larry Cedar, Cynthia Darlow, Beverly Mickins, Arthur Howard, Cris Franco, Reg E. Cathey, and Luisa Leschin always gave every skit their all. Popular musicians could sing a math-themed song, a classic sitcom could be parodied with a math-themed twist, local children might participate in one of several game shows (stressing estimation, Family Feud-style questions, quick arithmetic, or answers to complex problems), and video games might teach important principles. Another classic recurring sketch was the animated Dirk Niblick of the Math Brigade, where a good-hearted local mathematician helped his friends and neighbors with all sorts of problems. It was all in good fun, and the cast was never hesitant to let a little goofiness (maybe a lot) permeate the proceedings.
Much as I enjoyed the sketches, my favorite part was by far the Dragnet parody Mathnet, where a pair of police detectives solved a diverse collection of crimes using– you guessed it– math. Each Mathnet mystery would be told in five parts, one per day, Monday through Friday. The detectives were George Frankly (the inimitable Joe Howard), who was partnered with Kate Monday (Beverly Leech) for the first three seasons, and then with Pat Tuesday (Toni Di Buono) for the last two. The series started in Los Angeles, with Debbie Williams (Mary Watson) as a computer expert and James Earl Jones as Chief Thad Green. Midway through season three, the action moved to New York City, and undercover cop Benny Pill (Bari K. Willerford) and Captain Joe Grecco (Emilio Del Pozo) joined the team.
Mathnet always managed to hit the right balance between humor, education, and genuine fair-play mystery. The balance between the straight-edged, all-business Kate and Pat, and the genial and often silly George was perfect. The tone changed a bit over the course of the series, as the deliberate parody of the distinct Dragnet staccato dialogue was dropped, but throughout each of the thirty mysteries, viewers learned how to look at problems logically and to use a wide variety of approaches to solve problems.
My favorite episodes include “The Mystery of the Maltese Pigeon,” where the Hammett tale is good-heartedly parodied; “The Trial of George Frankly,” where the beloved detective is framed for a bank robbery; “The Case of the Galling Stones,” where Pat Tuesday is wrongly accused of a jewel robbery, “The Case of the Missing Air,” where the Mathnetters solve a case revolving around a cancelled crime show and faked television ratings; and the series’ two most delightful entries in a collection full of gems, “The View From the Rear Terrace,” which parodied Rear Window in a case involving pranked banks and explosives; and “The Case of the Mystery Weekend,” which combined Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Clue at an isolated mansion.
The topics covered were diverse, because as the show often stressed, mathematics was more than just addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The show took all sorts of mathematical principles and made them entertaining. Fractions, geometry, combinatorics, patterns, the history of math, practical applications of math, logical thinking, creative and imaginative approaches to problems, graphs and charts, probability, prime numbers, how to proofread mathematical work for errors, alphanumeric codes, the laws of motion, the relationship between math and music, deduction and rational elimination, and obscure facts.
Why did the show work so well? Part of this was that the cast knew that what is learned with pleasure is never forgotten. The actors all knew how to be gleefully silly, but none of them ever crossed the line into talking down to their audience. The goals were simple. Make the principles clear and easy to understand, and also fun to watch. Few textbooks could manage this feat. (When some of my classmates struggled to remember which part of a fraction was the numerator and which was the denominator, I remembered the lines of the song “My numerator’s up, up, up! / My denominator’s down, down, down!”– the “u” in “numerator” stood for “up” and the “d” in “denominator” for “down.”) The writing was clever, and also showed true affection for the source material it invariably parodied. Best of all was the cast, who always seemed to be projecting genuine joy of performance, especially Joe Howard, who always filled the character of George Frankly with a warm, wry good-naturedness.
Like Ducktales, the humor was geared at multiple levels, since even the brightest youngsters would be unaware of the references to Anything Goes, Casablanca, Fawlty Towers, I Love Lucy, and hundreds of other classic movies, TV shows, books, and other cultural references. Watching the show from an adult perspective, it’s amazing how many one-liners that went over my head as a child are suddenly understandable and much more funny.
Unfortunately, Square One was cancelled after five seasons. The series would air repeats midway through the mid-1990’s before vanishing altogether. Some episodes aired on the Noggin TV channel, several complete Mathnet mysteries were released on VHS for use in classrooms, and a handful of sketches were incorporated into the short-lived program Math Talk, which interspersed the classic material with some discussions of mathematical principles, hosted by a cartoon newscaster and parrot.
It’s unclear why the show was cancelled, although decades after the Mathnet detectives solved their final case, Joe Howard mentioned in an interview that the series could have continued for a long time, but that there were differing creative visions and political clashes at PBS, and the management decided to defund Square One and to funnel the money into Ghostwriter.
Thirty years after Square One first aired, it’s amazing how well the show holds up for a contemporary audience. The show remains an unparalleled blend of entertainment and information, and from personal experience I can attest that the show not only helped me succeed in math class throughout middle school and into high school, but that it also instilled a permanent love of mathematics in me as well.
Alas, it seems as if the powers that be have no interest whatsoever in releasing the series to a new generation. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve sent numerous emails and letters to PBS and the Children’s Television Workshop if they will ever re-air old episodes, or better yet, release the series on DVD, but I have never received a single response. I also wrote to a company that had been releasing classic educational programs on DVD, only to receive a rather snippy response informing me that Square One was far too dated (too “eighties” was, I believe, his exact wording) to justify saving for posterity. This didn’t make much sense to me, especially since the company had released DVD’s of other programs that were two decades older than Square One, but the company spokesperson had no interest in continuing the conversation with me.
It seems as if PBS is willing to take some of its best programming and lock it away in a vault where no one will ever see it again. The classic educational game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? seems to be in the same boat (an article on that show will be forthcoming in the near future). Perhaps there’s some sort of licensing problem with the music, I don’t know, but the informational content of Square One is still solid and of use to current generations of young people. Surely the math students of today would benefit from the showing being placed on some streaming service and licensed for classrooms and home study. The need to get young people interested in mathematics is a constant refrain in educational circles– why not use every tool at the public’s disposal? (If anybody from Sesame Workshop has anything to say about this, please get in touch with me.)
If we want our nation’s young people to develop a genuine love for learning and to inspire creativity, we need more shows like Square One that push the principles of education as entertainment. Square One deserves a re-release, and perhaps even a revival. It’s far too valuable a teaching tool to be forgotten.