Why the Numbers Game is TV’s Greatest Trope
227, 2 Broke Girls, 21 Jump Street, the list of classic TV shows deploying numbers is endless. The same goes for some of our best-loved films, such as Se7en, 2 Fast 2 Furious and 8mm, to name just a few. Moving beyond just the title of the film, numbers, mathematics and figures have played a central role in the plots of a whole host of award-winning films, and continue to do so to this day. The reasons for this are multiple and range from savvy marketing techniques to more in-depth ways in which numbers work as an engaging plot device.
Numbers play a central role in both modern and ancient culture, and their use as a plot device in film goes back to the dawn of the silver screen. Numbers help to provide logic and grounding to our often chaotic lives, with people using numeric “rules” such as “bad things come in threes”, “unlucky 13” or the “rule of fives” to attempt to explain the unexplainable through hard logic and math. It’s a theme that continues to fascinate all of us but one that remains relatively untapped in the world of modern television. While numeric themes on film are well-worn, there have been few shows on Netflix which explore it in their own plots. With online streaming services like Netflix set to capture a 72% market share in the production of all new TV in the next couple of years, we thought we’d make the case for bringing numbers into a new generation of upcoming TV shows, with some ideas to help get those directors and producers started.
A History of Numbers
Since the invention of mathematics, we have relied on numbers to explain aspects of our life that go beyond the classroom and the realm of science. Research from the Smithsonian Institute explains that ever since math became popularized thousands of years ago, societies have been keen to rely on the cold, hard logic presented by mathematical realities in order to explain what we cannot know. Numbers have historically been used to rationalize quotas for human sacrifices, determine whether or not to go to war with a neighbour, pursue of romantic love interest, or even when to release a new album, as Fetty Wap did with his Lucky Number Seven mixtape last year. What this means is that numbers and their importance in our daily lives make for highly watchable on-screen drama.
Numbers on Film
As mentioned, numbers on film are hardly a revolutionary concept and popular culture websites like Ranker have published lists of hundreds of their audience’s favourite numbers-based films. Directors have long leant on numbers as a plot device, with recent films like the 2009 sci-fi epic Knowing being centered entirely on the significance of numbers and digits in every major event in human history, and where this is leading us. Lots of films tend to link the revealing nature of mathematical discovery with prophecy and fortelling the future, which the online casino site Betway explains is a driver of culture in pretty much every country in the world. Films like the Da Vinci Code, Pi, and National Treasure all borrow from these cultural tropes to make gripping, blockbuster films that have collectively grossed billions, and the potential for the TV market to do the same is huge.
What Future TV Could Look Like
While there are indeed some hit Netflix TV shows with numbers in the title, such as 13 Reasons Why and the bleak dystopia 3%, few shows have tapped into our fascination with numerical rules and structures. Going beyond the trope of prophecy and conspiracies involving numbers, there is plenty of solid TV potential for classic numbers rules. Imagine a “bad things come in threes” TV show where the cast have to figure out who the next victim would be in a sequence of three, just as people do with celebrities in the real world. Or a show revolving around the number 8, considered to be the luckiest number in Chinese culture. Even existing hit TV shows like Empire could spice up their plot lines, perhaps with references to the infamous “27 Club” fate that befalls troubled young celebrities. The possibilities are endless and, if you’re a numbers geek like we are, then they’re pretty exciting.
Do you have any ideas for a numbers-based TV show? Let us know in the comments!