Review: Numb3rs – Growin’ Up (2010, US)

Note: The entire storyline of this episode from the last complete season is discussed below

For the second time in Numb3rs history, a child abuse storyline has had a supporting character in a running B-plot, except for this time, he’s back rather than leaving and the wedding of two other characters also pads out the episode.

However, the teaser is all about the abuse of three boys, trial and conviction of a multiple offender and presented in a schlocky true-crime manner as the main supporting guest character is a journalist and brother of one of the victims, that went on to commit suicide. There’s also time for some action in the teaser too as season six of Numb3rs racked up the gunplay to balance out the talky number-crunching and keep ratings high.

In between all of this, we see the survivors grown-up, one of whom is a high flying lawyer, the other an author and the third a fellow army veteran with the lawyer and now his chief of staff and mutual friend of the whole group. You expect to be wrong-footed by the plot of this episode – and writer Robert David Port, doesn’t bother, as the script gets too concerned with the math wizard’s wedding plans and the NASA guy’s extended return from space to give the A plot even a third of the screen time.

Having the paedophile (well played against his normal comedic typecasting by Alan Ruck) and two of the three survivors as ex-military feels like a red herring until it points to method, if not the motive, for the shooting at the start. The math-wizard’s piece to camera explanation is also dealt with very quickly and any more of his calculations are more about aping CSI with forensics. Along with plots B and C there’s the usual comedy cutaways with Judd Hirsch as the brothers’ father and the brothers themselves get to bond over a compulsory polygraph.

The writer does make a few realistic, if understated, points about CSA – the shame felt by one victim and the fear of his parents finding out about his having been abused, the morality of dramatizing CSA events in some show-within-a-show irony (that isn’t lost on survivors when watching), the potential for recidivism of the offender and the perp’s follow-through into blackmail following his release from prison. The inference of Stockholm’s syndrome for one victim is also possible in real life, but thankfully less commonplace than the inferred by the script. The same goes for direct revenge taken by older survivors descending into abuse of its own. The sister of the suicide victim provides the exposition regarding her brother and the counter evidence of the revenge attack whilst the offender’s ex-cellmate provides the “voice of conscience” about how offenders should be left alone after their time is served.

What’s irritating is the notion that, as the suicide’s sister calls it, “doing something so you were so ashamed of you just couldn’t tell anybody” but as the writer knows, this could also be referring to the CSA itself – it’s frankly patronizing unrealistic bullshit to say that seeing your perp get the crap kicked out of him would finally tip your drug-medicated self over the edge into suicide out of guilt and get you to keep the evidence that would convict a supposedly close-knit group of victims bound by two sets of experiences. The ending that results in another suicide so the final survivor in jail for murder – but not of the offender – and the offender himself returning to prison for blackmail and having the story redefined by the lead suicide’s reporter sister as one “with no heroes” just points to the voyeuristic exploitation of the issues.

The problem apart from the largely exploitative voyeuristic BS main storyline is that this is the episode before the end of season six so those other distracting cutaway plots were in the process of being resolved due to the potential risk of cancellation of the show – this led to the slick writing taking preference over realism beyond the subtle ciphers of the undeclared victim. Maybe it’s a reflection of the character but it’s racially convenient that Alimi Ballard’s character is the moral centre that puts his foot in it when trying to build bridges with the lawyer survivor’s deeper interrogation.

The episode is a car-crash in its main plot despite the slick writing and it’s a shame that when addressing male survivors, the writer opted for simplistic 1980s assumption of direct revenge rather than the more intricate plotting of offender attacks back in season 3’s “Killer Chat” regarding female victims- even after the child victims & families in the flashback history decided to go through a trial rather than just taking the revenge.

It’s a shame that two British film directors with Hollywood pedigree have opted to serve up such garbage on TV as Executive Producers which panders to myths and unrealistic stereotypes. “Growin’ Up” indirectly apologizes for the child sexual abuse in question in making out the greater degree of guilt at revenge taken and recorded than abuse endured, resulting in suicide. Whilst Ruck’s performance makes the offender seem like a regular guy which is needed for the stranger danger sledgehammer the American public is battered with endlessly, it’s the writing that gives Ruck’s character too much sympathy when attempting balance.

Even so, if the wedding storyline and comedy cutaways matter more than getting child abuse right because it might not be as entertaining, then the plug should be pulled on Numb3rs at its natural end in the final season six episode and it’s a shame that unlike The Bill and ER, it couldn’t pull off a useful episode about male child abuse before its end and unlike the Mentalist, it couldn’t incorporate it into its own format in an effective way without trivializing the issue.

– CBG

Episode Tracking: TV.com

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