Square One TV was, by far, one of the single greatest memories of my childhood television, um, career?
On January 26, 1987, Mathman, a fantastic parody of Pac-man, suddenly accosted viewers when Square One TV premiered on PBS. Mathman, as we all should recall, could eat numbers that fit certain conditions, as in this premiere episode #101, Mathman could only eat “multiples of three, multiples of three…” and feared the Evil Mr. Glitch, he would eat Mathman when the Pac-manesque mouth was wrong. Square One TV’s purpose was a television avenue, designed for upper elementary kids, to teach math using proven techniques from Sesame Street combined with excellent writing, cast, and guest appearances. Square One became known for a number of regular segments during these half-hour episodes spanning 1987 – 1992, as well as a most popular closing segment: Mathnet.
The little mouth that started it all; Mathman could eat numbers, a la Pac-man, based on certain rules (multiples of three, divisible by four, etc). His arch nemesis, The Evil Mr. Glitch, would eat him when he was wrong.
A great segment, essentially, was a parody of MTV. These segments were music about a math topic such as Tessellation (set on a beach a la Beach Blanket Bingo) and, a personal favorite, Probability, “don’t you mess with me…”, where kids are lost in a haunted house and a brilliant guest star appearance by Vincent Price makes for an excellent “video”. Other videos include Prime Time, by The Jets, Draw a Map, One Billion is Big, by The Fat Boys, Angle Dance, in memory of the Safety Dance, Super Spy, and Jenny Didn’t Call.
Actual kids, from the New York City area, played Square One TV’s game. Some of the more popular games, namely “But Who’s Counting?”, involved placing numbers in an addition or subtraction equation to create the highest or lowest possible result. The hosts, from the stock cast of Square One TV, always overacted the part and kept the audience interested in not just thinking about the game but with perfectly interjected humor.
Square One TV’s “commercials”, in the sense that Saturday Night Live ran commercials, were short, but great segments in which math situations were solved in a very commercial setting. In episode #101, the premiere, a “commercial”, titled “Oops!”, aired where a subtraction error caused bedlam.
Dirk was a cartoon detective, reminiscent of The Pink Panther, who solved crimes nearly on accident. Dirk’s segments still involved math but were much more “bumbling” and accidental than the real gem: Mathnet.
If you are reading this, with any memory of Square One TV, you certainly remember its prized ending segment: Mathnet. This is the original “Numbers”. This segment was an essential extra show, based on Dragnet, where two detectives, Kate Monday (Beverly Leech) and George Frankly (Joe Howard), solved crimes in LA, for the first two seasons, and then in New York City using, what else, math! Monday would setup the crime and suspects and close up on Friday with the solution, resolution, and sometimes even a hint of suspense. In 1991 Kate Monday was replaced with Pat Tuesday (Toni DiBuono). The cast for Mathnet has some familiar faces but, most importantly, was Chief Thad Green (1987-1988, 1991) played by Darth Vader himself: James Earl Jones. Mathnet cast was rounded out by Mary Watson as Debbie Williams, Bari K. Willerford as Benny Pill, and Emilio Del Pozo as Captain Joe Grecco. Mathnet was, quite easily, the icing on the cake.
The cast and crew of Square One TV made it what it was. Writers Jim Thurman and David Connell headed up the writing of Square One TV, lent their pens to The Electric Company, and were the co-creators of Mathnet. The cast appeared on the show in a sort of sketch show style where each segment had various cast members but there were no crossovers between the Mathnet cast and the stock cast.
- Reginald E. Cathey – Mr. Cathey is quite memorable from the HBO series “OZ” and as Lt. Velasquez in 2003’s S.W.A.T., but most notable are his roles as “coroner”, “shotgun cop”, and “reporter”. In other words: he’s in many films, though in the background such as Se7en, What About Bob? (Howie, the Good Morning America director for the fans of the movie as I am), The Mask, and Clear and Present Danger.
- Larry Cedar – Though Mr. Cedar appeared in the 1990s in many smaller parts, he most recently is notable by his voice. Since 2003 he has been credited with voices from at least seven video games including three from the Tony Hawk Pro Skater/Underground series as well as Everquest II being credit there with fourteen named voices and many other various voices.
- Cynthia Darlow – Again, like most Square One TV cast members, Ms. Darlow found her niche, though not movies or video games, but a recurring guest on various Law & Order episodes.
- Cris Franco – Mr. Franco did not get a lot of momentum to his career though tried with a voice character role on “God, the Devil, and Bob” in 2000.
- Arthur Howard – Mr. Howard has since vanished from the entertainment industry.
- Luisa Leschin – Ms. Leschin gets around in the entertainment industry. Aside from smaller parts in films, she has had many voice over roles, wrote and co-produced “George Lopez”, and appeared on a number of TV shows including a recurring role on “Beverly Hills, 90210” as Anna Rodriguez.
- Beverly Mickins – Ms. Mickins’ biggest “comeback” was on “Judging Amy” as Sadie Bauer.
Square One TV released their goals in the Mathnet Mysteries Teacher's Guide (copyright 1991 Children’s Television Workshop). These goals were provided as a curriculum guide and, as an educator, were not only on task but succeeded at a decent rate. In a content analysis written by Joel Schneider and published on ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) finds that, out of the three following goals, 81% of the episodes met or exceeded the first goal, 58% met or exceeded the second goal, and an amazing 90% of the episodes met or exceeded the third goal.
- Goal One: To promote positive attitudes toward and enthusiasm for mathematics
- Goal Two: To encourage the use and application of problem-solving processes
- Goal Three: To present sound mathematical content in an interesting, accessible, and meaningful manner
University of Michigan fans rejoice! A hidden fact, though not well hidden, was Square One TV’s love for the Wolverines. Mathman wore a Wolverines helmet, Dirk, the detective, was a Michigan fan, estimates in a third season episode were based on the Michigan stadium, and many more examples. The executive producer, David Connell, and senior producer, Jim Thurman, both graduated from the University of Michigan.
The future of Square One TV was, unfortunately, dimmer and dimmer as time progressed. PBS lost rights to the show after three years. Later, Noggin’ picked up the show, aired it quite regularly, but later dropped it citing a lack of content and missing the station’s focus group: preschool. If anyone, ever has a chance, this show certainly deserves another look. A fantastic find lost over the ages.