Thursday, May 22, 2008

Review of Numb3rs, Season 4, Episode 18 "When Worlds Collide"

This is my third review of a TV crime drama episode (spoiler alert) which featured Muslims. After confessing that I'm a sucker for TV crime dramas, I want to highlight some features of these portrayals of Muslims. For reference's sake, my previous two reviews were of 1st season episodes of Bones and The Closer.

Episode 18 of Season 4 of Numb3rs, "When Worlds Collide," begins with the abduction of two members of a Pakistani relief organization, the Pakistan International Fund (PIF), which the CIA has been investigating for providing support to extremists. One of Charlie Eppes's colleagues at the University, Phil Sanjrani, is a professor of Pakistani origin whom the FBI arrests shortly after the abductions. Charlie Eppes asks his FBI officer brother Don Eppes to release Professor Sanjrani, at which point Agent Eppes informs Professor Eppes that Dr. Sanjrani has e-mailed instructions for a bio-weapon to Pakistan. In the course of the investigation, Professor Eppes's mathematical calculations based on National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping focuses the investigation on the organization's leader, Hammad Mazari. A kidnapping attempt of a third member of the PIF ends in the killing of one of the kidnappers, who turns out to be ex-Irish Republican Army. It turns out that the leader of the PIF is in fact an ex-IRA member who stole Hammad Mazari's identity and misused the organization's money to smuggle weapons. At the end of the episode, Dr. Sanjrani is still not released, and Professor Eppes presents himself to the FBI for arrest because he e-mailed the remainder of Dr. Sanjrani's research to universities in Pakistan.

One of the good points of this episode is the opening sequence showing Asha Rafiq (the wife of one of the kidnapped members of the PIF, played by Meera Simhan) having a relatively healthy banter with her two children. In other words, it's a "normal", well-adjusted suburban home. She's not threatening her daughter for talking with boys.

I was curious how a Pakistani got the name Sanjrani. A GoodSearch search revealed to me that Sanjrani is in fact a name which Pakistanis could have, so points for accuracy.

The episode is not the first where an initial investigation based on suspicions of terrorist activity leads to the discussion of much more mundane crime. However, this episode breaks ground in that the lead character, Charlie Eppes, sacrifices himself in protest of the arrest of the Muslim character, and that the episode in multiple scenes exposes the flaws of the domestic front of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Charlie Eppes articulately states throughout the episode his belief that bias is driving the investigation. He asks if the FBI will arrest everyone who works in Dr. Sanjrani's field of agricultural genetics. In one case he ties the lead FBI investigator, Agent Fraley, to Ayman al-Zawahiri through Agent Fraley's sister, who studied pharmacy at the University of Maryland with a professor who had been Ayman al-Zawahiri's roommate at the University of Cairo.

In true Kafkaesque fashion, when Agent Freeley is questioning Dr. Sanjrani, he tells him that he is under arrest for transmitting "restricted" research abroad. When Dr. Sanjrani protests that he did not know it was "restricted", the investigator tells him that the restrictions were "classified." For more information the influence of the GWOT on the exchange of scientific ideas, read the Committee on a New Government-University Partnership for Science and Security, National Research Council report entitled Science and Security in a Post 9/11 World: A Report Based on Regional Discussions Between the Science and Security Communities.

Another pro-civil liberty scene is when agents Sinclair and Granger meet with a CIA contact and ask if the CIA abducted the two PIF members. The CIA agent denied involvement, and when Granger asked who else might have abducted them, the CIA agent replied, "The FBI." So the show implicitly admits that federal government agencies may be involved in domestic kidnappings.

Another accurate blow to the "guilt by association" methodology of GWOT is current agencies' inability to accurately identify people. Thus, Dr. Sanjrani's college roommate shares the name of an al-Qaida member and cannot escape suspicion.

Lastly, Dr. Eppes tells the FBI the whole investigation is a case of "Devils and Angels," where all the data have been interpreted depending on one's initial predisposition.

All these comments in praise of the episode's defense of civil liberties does not mean it was a great story line. How did the Irish terrorist Sean O'Hanahan earn the trust of the Pakistani NGO? Did he speak Urdu or Punjabi? And I think this is a common problem with "terrorist" dramas. Because 99% of the whole GWOT is bad fiction, I imagine it's really hard to write a good fictional portrayal of a crime drama involving terrorism.

Of course, the strength of the series has always been the interaction between Charles and Donald and their father, Alan, played by Judd Hirsch.

Episode recap at
Episode page at

When I think about police dramas' portrayals of Muslim, I think a lot of the worst aspects are found in the first season of new series. I’ve followed Bones and The Closer, and they both have avoided similar stereotypes since their first seasons. It’s as if writers fall back on stereotypes when they’re still feeling out their characters and they feel the characters can’t fill a story by themselves. Frantic to fill a 42-minute TV episode and meet a deadline, the writers pull out their stereotypes, be they related to Muslims or Colombians or (the good old days) East European blonde terrorists!

P.S. Report on Terrorism and Drug War in TV Dramas 


Rains said...

Nice review about a nice tv show!!!! I love this show because "three of Hollywood's most under-appreciated actors are in this show". and all has done their role very well. you can also watch this show from here. so go ahead and Download Numb3rs for free!!!!

Unknown said...

The show revolves around Special Agent Don Eppes and his team of highly-trained fellow FBI agents as they solve various crimes plaguing their city of Los Angeles.I like to watch Numb3rs episodes again and again.