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The formula for 'Numb3rs' doesn't always add up

''Numb3rs" is strained, and not just because the title reaches a little 2 far 2 B distinc2ive. CBS and executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott have wrenched their figurative backs trying to construct an entire series around a math genius who uses algebra to solve crimes. You can practically hear them groaning with effort as they milk the action potential out of a brainstorming nerd banging his chalk against a blackboard la ''A Beautiful Mind."

Then again, I was once skeptical that CBS and another movie-world heavyweight, Jerry Bruckheimer, could build a series out of holey cadavers and brain pudding. Now, of course, ''CSI" is the biggest franchise on TV, with more than enough blood and guts to fill three weekly shows. Perhaps the makers of ''Numb3rs," including creators Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci, are actually teeming with murder plots that can be reduced to numbers without numbing us out along the way. The show premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Channel 4, before taking its regular Friday night perch.

While most of today's crime shows feature emotionally contained co-workers who occasionally dabble in personal relationships, ''Numb3rs," like NBC's ''Medium," takes a warmer, homier approach with its cast if not its concept. It revolves around two brothers, an FBI agent and an academic, who spend a lot of time passionately dissecting murder cases with their retired father. Fortunately, they are a trio of strong, offbeat actors who actually look as though they could be related. The series is set on the sunny streets of Los Angeles, but they bring an appealingly moody, New York flavor.

Rob Morrow from ''Northern Exposure" returns to network series TV as Agent Don Eppes, who recruits younger brother Charlie for help with difficult cases. David Krumholtz, who has a penchant for playing geeky neurotics, is the single-minded Charlie, who believes that mathematical thinking can trace and even predict human behavior. Their father, Alan, is played by Judd Hirsch. In the premiere, Charlie helps Don pursue a rapist-murderer who brands his victims. Using intense calculations and a map, he works to figure out where the perp is, since no one can say who the perp is.

The guy-heavy cast also includes Peter MacNicol from ''Ally McBeal" as a university physicist who tries to keep Charlie's mind on math, and Anthony Heald from ''Boston Public" as an FBI boss who's resistant to Charlie's ideas. It doesn't exactly balance the scales to have Sabrina Lloyd from ''Sports Night" on hand as Don's partner. She comes off like a little girl playing a deep after-school game of Nancy Drew. But then, there's no reason the cast of every single crime series must be as precisely diverse as ''CSI," with a requisite quotient of strong women. That approach to TV might be too mathematical, even for a show called ''Numb3rs."

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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