Devlin's Angle

July/August 2000

How to sell soap

The studio boss looked at the fresh and eager faces seated around the long conference table at Plato Television Studios. Jabbing his long, fat cigar toward them to punch home each point, he began:

"You guys are the best series scriptwriters in town. I've invited you here today to offer you the chance of a lifetime: to work on the best television series the world has ever seen. Here's the outline of what I have in mind."

He glanced at the young woman sitting at the far end of the table by the slide projector. "Alice, can you give us the first slide, please?"

Alice dimmed the lights and switched on the projector. The studio boss continued in the half light:

"There are these two families, you see: the Points and the Lines. Basically, the series is about what these two families do, and the relationship between them. One of the great things about this idea is that I've set it up so the series is going to be really cheap to make. As you can see on the slide, we don't need to hire any actors for the Points, because the Points have no parts."

The studio boss used his cigar to gesture toward the words on the screen at the first sentence, which read:

Points have no parts.
"The idea," he continued, "is to use digital special effects to represent the Points. Those computer graphics guys are cheap these days - every time the aerospace industry downsizes or a computer company is bought out by Microsoft, another thousand of them are thrown out of work and we can pick them up for a song."

There was an audible sigh of relief around the room as each of the eleven scriptwriters realized how easily it could have been them to be forced to change careers in mid-life, but for the fortunate accident that they had flunked Algebra 2 at high school and studied English Lit. instead.

"We'll also save a ton of money on the Lines," the studio boss beamed, obviously pleased at his ingenuity. "My idea is that a Line has no breadth. That means we don't need trained actors. We can use more of those out-of-work schmucks from aerospace." All eyes turned to the second item written on the slide, as the studio boss jabbed at it with his cigar. It read:

A Line has no breadth.
"Now, you guys are the best, so I'm going to give you a lot of freedom on this project," the boss growled. All you have to do is stick to five guiding principles for the way I want the series to go. Next slide Alice."

Everyone looked as the next slide appeared on the screen.

"I'll give you each a copy of this," said the studio boss, "but let me summarize the five points you can see."

"Item one. You can have a Line that connects any two Points. That should be clear enough."

"Number two. You can continue any Line as long as you want. No problem there, either. Hell, they do that in lots of long running series."

"The next one might need a bit of explaining. As you can see, what is says is 'Any Point can be the center of a Circle of any size.' My idea is that each episode can center around a particular person in the Point family. That episode will concentrate on the circle of friends of that person. Some weeks, it might be a small circle, other weeks a really big one - since the circle will be made up of Points, it doesn't make any difference to the budget."

There was a chorus of appreciation around the table as the scriptwriters began to see the potential of the studio boss's overall idea to keep the budget down.

"Next one: 'All right angles are the same.' Every series has to have an angle. You all learned that in Television 101. You also know that some angles are right for the intended audience, some are wrong. In my series, there's just one right angle. All other angles are wrong, and anyone who tries to introduce one will be off the show faster than I can say 'soap.' Understood?"

The studio boss looked around, daring anyone to respond to his challenge. No one did. The thought of all those unemployed former aerospace workers was still fresh in their minds, and they did not want to join them in the line for unemployment benefit.

"I'm not entirely sure I need the fifth guideline," said the studio boss, who was clearly enjoying showing off the genius of his new idea. "It might be superfluous, given the other four. But I put it down just to be sure. It's a bit hard to follow - I'll get Alice to work on the text. But what it boils down to in simple terms is this: If one of you sets it up so that two of the Lines are not supposed to meet, then no matter who else takes over the storyline in a later episode, those two Lines are still not going to meet. Ever! Capisce?"

Everyone nodded. The boss leant back in his chair and chewed on his cigar.

"That's it. Any questions?"

There was silence for a moment, then a young woman half way along the table raised her hand. "I think it's a great concept," she began. "but I've got one question."

"Fire away," replied the studio boss.

"How long do you expect this to run? Thirteen weeks? Fifty-two? Or are you planning on something that goes on for years, like As the World Turns or General Hospital?"

The studio boss chuckled. "Little lady, I don't think you've quite got the message as far as my overall concept is concerned." He gestured toward the five guiding principles on the screen. "This idea is so insanely great, it has so much potential, it's going to change the world. Believe me, once it catches on and we get enough sponsors, this baby is going to run for thousands of years. Or my name's not Euclid."

The above is taken intact from Devlin's new book The Math Gene: How Mathematical Ability Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip, to be published by Basic Books in August. The UK edition, The Maths Gene: Why Everybody Has It But Most People Don't Use It, was published in the UK in April by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.
Keith Devlin ( is Dean of Science at Saint Mary's College of California, in Moraga, California, and a Senior Researcher at Stanford University.