For several years in the late ’80s, right around my third-grade year, the highlight of my day was the final 5 to 10 minutes of a TV show about math. That’s when Square One Television, which aired on PBS in the afternoons, would play the latest segment of Mathnet, the short, serialized math “mystery” program that capped each episode. A spoof of Dragnet — a show with which I had vague familiarity, if not comprehension, due to hours of Nick at Nite — Mathnet featured two detectives, George Frankly and Kate Monday (who was replaced in Season 4 by...wait for it...Pat Tuesday), either solving math mysteries or solving mysteries using math.
Some of the storylines were ripped from the headlines, Law & Order style; I recall the sense of dread I felt watching a missing child episode, if not the actual plot. And I remember there was an episode about a stolen painting (or was it a stolen fortune, hidden behind a painting?) that was solved using a parrot and the Fibonacci sequence, which, thanks to Mathnet, I and hundreds of thousands of others still know by heart.
Every Monday through Thursday, there was a note at the end of each Mathnet segment: “TO BE CONTINUED.” I’d miss each Thursday episode for piano lessons and think longingly of the day when I’d totally understand how the narrative arrived at the Friday conclusion. But the way it was serialized didn’t feel manipulative, the way so much of today’s binge-stimulating television does. It felt like I was in on a secret — and waiting for the weekly culmination was at once quietly agonizing but incredibly satisfying.
Square One, which was created by the Children’s Television Workshop and aired across the nation on PBS from 1987 to 1992, wasn’t as long-running as Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and has never been the same kind of ubiquitous cultural touchstone. But like the best children’s television, it implanted itself — and its attitude — into millions of children’s minds. That attitude was pretty simple: Math is weird, and cool, and filled with secrets, and fun. I loved Square One then, and I love it now, because it took math — something most kids are conditioned to think is boring, and confusing — and used it to teach me that knowledge, and curiosity, will always be cool.
The show was 30 minutes long and, like Sesame Street (which was mostly targeted to younger, preschool-age kids), consisted of a series of skits, cartoons, and ongoing, loosely serialized narratives. It featured a small yet diverse cast of actors, many of whom would go on to star in other, non-kid-oriented shows (which had the effect, at least on this kid and her brother, of blowing our minds). And it excelled at enthralling young people while cleverly invoking cultural references that only made sense to our parents.
The music video for “The Mathematics of Love” — intended to introduce audiences to Roman numerals — imagines a doo-wop group in ancient Rome, led by a Long Island–style crooner; “8% of My Love” is sung by a Springsteenian lothario named “Juan Cougar,” “Angle Dance” is a pitch-perfect New Wave pastiche, preceded by a very serious content warning: “The following song includes graphic descriptions of acute and obtuse angles. Viewers who may be offended by this subject matter should not view this program.” No matter what age you were, these songs were catchy as hell; I suspect that for me and a sizable percentage of other people born in the US between 1978 and 1985, the honkey-tonk multiplication banger “Nine Nine Nine” will be embedded in our brains until the end of time.
All of it was all extremely dorky but deeply, deeply delightful — even now, revisiting clips as an adult. Mathman, a Pac-Man-inspired miniseries within the larger show, was created by Jim Thurman, best known as a joke writer for Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, and Bob Hope — which honestly explains a lot. Mathcourt was a takeoff on the newly popular genre of reality court television, à la Judge Judy, and the sketch Late Afternoon With David Numberman was inspired by, well, I think you can guess. But Mathnet, of course, was the part I loved most of all.
I was stultifyingly bored in elementary school, to the point that I’d fantasize about ways to fake sick, even though I was only allowed to stay home if I was bleeding or barfing — so bored I was overjoyed when I got the chicken pox. I was stuck in the limbo of wanting some sort of challenge and refusing to disobey the teacher in any way: All I wanted to do was read ahead while the rest of the class was reading aloud, but I was too scared of getting caught. But with math, I could go ahead. I could whiz through the multiplication tests at my own pace, and then go play the computer game Number Munchers for as long as I wanted, which — along with Bagel Bites and obsessively rereading The Baby-Sitters Club Super Specials — was one of the few things I found as satisfying as Mathnet.
I don’t want to say Mathnet made math seem sexy, the word adults now regularly employ to describe how banal things are made alluring (even though I suspect a full 75% of its audience had a crush on Kate Monday at some point in their childhood). But Mathnet positioned math as something beguiling, wily, and surprising. It validated all the parts of me that were stymied and left to atrophy at school, and let me revel in everything I didn’t know yet, but one day could.
I think we remember children’s shows most fondly when they activate something that becomes an orienting beacon, however faint, for the rest of our lives. I spent years as a mathlete, wielding math tricks far more sophisticated than anything I’d ever seen on Mathnet, placing in competitions where I was often one of the only girls. Even when I was mortified to be seen in our team’s math pun sweatshirts, I loved the math itself. I’ve forgotten how to do most of it now, but that joy I found in discovering new ways of understanding the world? It’s still there, dorky and pure, just like Square One. ●