For a certain generation, the most iconic detectives in history aren't Sherlock Holmes and Watson — they're Kate Monday and George Frankly.
From 1987 to 1992, a segment called "Mathnet" was the best reason to watch PBS's math program Square One. It had amazing jokes, incredible acting, and, if there was time, even a little mathematics.
The only problem is that most of the show's viewers were too young to realize just how amazing it was. Fortunately, now we're all old enough to uncover the backstage drama (like why Pat Tuesday replaced Kate Monday), comprehend the amazing references, and discover which show may have put "Mathnet" off the air.
As you uncover these "Mathnet" mysteries, try to be guided by the show's famous motto: "To cogitate and to solve."
1) "Mathnet" was originally criticized for being too fluffy
"Mathnet" debuted as a part of Square One 1987, which was Children's Television Workshop's (CTW) attempt to make math fun for kids. Square One included skits, lessons, and even raps about math. "Mathnet" closed out the show with a single-camera-style mystery in the style of Dragnet, but with absurd humor and simple math lessons woven into the plot.
For example, in "The Case of the Willing Parrot," the intrepid detectives chased after a silent film star's fortune. Using the Fibonacci sequence, they decoded the pattern of tiles outside Fatty's home to figure out where his fortune was hidden. The key to a safe deposit box was hidden behind the tile that broke the pattern.
The show's pedigree didn't shield "Mathnet" from criticism. After seeing the show in 1987, one critic snarked that "there is virtually no math in 'Mathnet.'" It was true that there weren't a lot of calculations, but executive producer David Connell fiercely defended the show, saying that "closer to the heart of math is the ability to think and solve problems."
2) The show's Dragnet parody was precise and layered
It's obvious that "Mathnet" references the classic TV and radio show Dragnet. Monday and Frankly were mathematicians who used math to solve minor crimes for helpless kids and old ladies. It was funny enough when Joe Friday was rewritten as Kate Monday and, later, Pat Tuesday, but the references didn't stop there.
First, the show always began with a monotone opening:
The story you are about to see is a fib, but it's short. The names have been made up, but the problems are real.
That was followed by the lead detective's voiceover, which, depending on the season, was some variation of this staccato monologue:
My partner is George Frankly. My boss is Thad Green. Head of our computer division is Debbie Williams. My name is Monday, I'm a mathematician.
Monday and Tuesday were competent and serious while George was the punchline. Together, they managed to use basic arithmetic, geometry, and simple algebra to solve crimes.
The Dragnet style didn't stop with obvious references to the original series. This snippet of dialogue from the pilot episode includes a joke, but it also features the distinctive ping-pong dialogue style of Dragnet:
Monday: We've got a problem, George. Baseball.
Frankly: I love baseball, Kate. Martha and I, we went to Dodgers stadium just last night, Kate.
Monday: The Dodgers played in Cincinnati last night, George.
Frankly: Yeah, no trouble parking. You wanna go with us, Martha and me, to a Dodger game, Kate, no trouble parking.
In case you weren't counting, the main characters said each other's names five times. Joe Friday would be proud.
3) "Mathnet" didn't just parody Dragnet — it referenced all of old Hollywood
The Dragnet homages were abundant, but they weren't the only Easter eggs in "Mathnet." Old Hollywood got references, too. As Michael J. Hayde notes in his history of Dragnet, "Mathnet" loved to name-check classic movies and TV.
Character names included Archie Leach (Cary Grant's real name), Benny Pill (a reference to Benny Hill), and a silent film star named Roscoe "Fatty" Tissue (a tribute to Fatty Arbuckle). There were also allusions to Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and other classic Hollywood films.
4) "Mathnet" had a big impact on kids
From the beginning, "Mathnet" was the most popular part of Square One.
As CTW president Joan Ganz said, it "knocks the socks off 12-year-olds." There have been plenty of fans who can testify to "Mathnet's" educational help, from the "angle of reflection" problems featured in the pilot episode to the multiplication and division in "The Mystery of the Maltese Pigeon." In another episode, "The Problem of the Missing Monkey," the detectives figured out how to use a map's scale to determine the distance between two points.
That math helped kids in other ways, too. In June 10, 1998, the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighted Jimmy Hoke, who managed to win a University of Idaho contest featuring weekly math problems. Jimmy was a "Mathnet" addict who said the show helped him win the prize — a brand new computer. Hoke's mom gave a plausible reason why Jimmy won: "He's probably the only child who dressed up as George Frankly for Halloween."
5) You can visit where "Mathnet" was filmed — it's now a police museum
When "Mathnet" was being filmed in Los Angeles, it wasn't shot just anywhere. The cast was lucky enough to film in an old police station.
The station is now a museum, but it's shown up in quite a few TV and film productions, including Parks and Recreation.
6) George Frankly was originally set to be a generic "man in baseball cap" — but he aced the audition
"Mathnet" superfan Maia Weinstock tracked down most of the show's cast for interviews, which are filled with great trivia. Actor Joe Howard revealed that his role as George Frankly wasn't originally a sure bet.
The casting director actually wanted Howard to read for "man in the baseball cap," but his audition was so strong that he was immediately chosen to play George Frankly. That was with stiff competition, too — Howard says Phil Hartman also auditioned for the role.
It's a good thing Howard pulled it off, because he came to define the role of the buffoonish yet well-meaning detective. It also meant we got to see his dancing:
7) Behind-the-scenes drama is the reason Pat Tuesday replaced Kate Monday
"Mathnet" fans have always wondered why Kate Monday was replaced by Pat Tuesday two seasons in. Now we know: in 2012, Beverly Leech, who played Kate Monday, revealed just why her character left the show.
In 1990, "Mathnet" moved from LA to New York. Leech guesses that budgetary concerns and proximity to the show's writers motivated the move. But it also meant a cast shake-up: Though Joe Howard made the transition to New York, Leech couldn't go because of personal and financial reasons. So she was replaced.
It was an amicable, but difficult, breakup. Leech said, "The producer and I both cried on the phone. ... But CTW/PBS did what they had to do to meet their budget, and I did what I had to do to meet mine."
8) Beverly Leech, Joe Howard, and Toni Di Buono are all character actors you've probably seen elsewhere
As a kid, the world of "Mathnet" seemed real. But as adults, we know that dedicated character actors gave the show most of its distinctive flavor.
James Earl Jones was a big get to play boss Thad Green, but less notable names showed up, as well. In "The Case of the Parking Meter Massacre," you'll spot Wayne Knight, best known as Newman from Seinfeld, playing the fishy Mr. Pickwick (an allusion to The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens). Similar to Newman's scheme on Seinfeld to recycle aluminum cans in different states, Pickwick had his own Newman-esque plan to resell stolen parking meters to small municipalities in neighboring states.
The stars of the show have frequently appeared in other shows and movies. Beverly Leech, who came to LA from Paris, Texas, studied acting under the legendary Stella Adler, and she's been on shows like Rizzoli & Isles and Mad Men.
Joe Howard was in Grumpy Old Men and Anger Management, along with a slew of other projects (he seems to be frequently cast as a priest). His son is an actor as well and recently played a Ninja Turtle.
Being on "Mathnet" meant the stars had to be careful what roles they took outside of the hit show. In the November 12, 1991, edition of the Columbus Dispatch, Di Buono said that "as far as the kids are concerned, I'm Pat Tuesday." She was willing to act in commercials, but she only did a voiceover for Miller Ultralite beer because she didn't want kids to see Pat Tuesday's face.
9) Ghostwriter may have killed "Mathnet"
It's tough to know exactly why CTW axed "Mathnet," but both Howard and Di Buono blame Ghostwriter for sapping CTW's budget. Ghostwriter, which premiered in 1992, centered on a gang of friends who used the help of a ghost to solve crimes. Academically, it favored words over numbers.
When CTW changed hands, the new management was interested in promoting their own pet project. "The first thing these new people brought in was this show called Ghostwriter," Howard said, "and they spent a fortune developing it — I mean, a fortune. They could have done five 'Mathnets.' But they wanted to do their own thing. And you know, it was really a shame."