If your heart skips a little beat when you hear the words “Turtle Power,” “Toontown,” or “Do it, Rockapella,” you may have gotten your elementary edutainment from a little show called Square One Television. For some of us, it came on every day after school, right before Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and taught us everything from prime numbers to the Fibonacci sequence via comedy sketches, fake game shows, and (oh, yes) music videos. Watch and learn, children:
Originally broadcast from 1987 to 1992, Square One might seem dated and a little cringeworthy to today’s shortly-attention-spanned internet generation, but it was full of––hey, this next video has Vanessa Huxtable in it!
Another face you might recognize: Reg E. Cathey, the tall bass who has since become better known as Mayor Carcetti’s political operative Norman Wilson on The Wire and Freddy the BBQ-joint guy on House of Cards (aka real-world Game of Thrones). Here he is in an early judicial system role, which probably informed his portrayal as badass prison manager Martin Querns on Oz.
Much like its sibling program Sesame Street, Square One was able to attract the warmest stars of the era. There was even a special Square One edition of Video Jukebox, wherein we get to hear MTV’s own Downtown Julie Brown quip, “Is Math important? Bobby McFerrin thinks it is...”
Bobby McFerrin with “Wanna Be” (“You’ve Got to Know Math”):
The Fat Boys with “One Billion”—just one of three Square One joints, also including “Burger Pattern” and “Working Backwards”:
Regina with “Combo Jombo” all about “combinatorics” (a term which may not have been heard since):
The Jets: “Infinity” about what is and isn’t infinity. (Hint: “There is no end.”)
Weird Al Yankovic with the very catchy and appropriately obnoxious “Patterns.”
Like any good variety show, Square One had recurring characters like Math Man and the Dudley Do-Right-esque Dirk Niblick of the Math Brigade. But it is probably best remembered for its show-ending weekly serial, a Dragnet spoof called “Mathnet.”
“The story you’re about to see is a fib. But it’s short,” began every episode, narrated by Sgt. Pat Tuesday and her partner George Frankly, mathematicians who inexplicably got guns, uniforms, and a whole NYC office to themselves, courtesy of the U.S. government. Their motto: “To cogitate and solve.” Their seal, complete with a compass and a bunch of arithmetic symbols, is seen here with (Nerd Alert) lego versions of Sgt. Monday and George.
Fans pay special tribute to "Mathnet" on what was once a very high-tech website, where you can read archived episode descriptions of every Square One episode, including breakdowns of every "Mathnet" ever. “Warning: This page contains SPOILERS.” Don’t miss an interview with the guy who played George, plus his reel, his hopefully outdated address, and information to hire him, if you’re so inclined.
Or if bigger stars still crunch your numbers, "Mathnet" knew them when:
In “The Problem of the Missing Monkey,” Yeardley Smith plays a young, not-unlike-Lisa-Simpson animal lover, who advocates for Grunt, a gorilla accused of committing several counts of petty larceny, of course (at 20:22).
No list of ‘90s character actors would be complete without Wayne Knight, seen here as the double-talking Peter Pickwick. Spoiler alert, he turns out to be the who that done it. Or is he...? (He appears at 33:14 and bike riding at 36:13.)
And Weird Al manages to be the only Square One/"Mathnet" crossover star in “Off the Record.” Elementary kids of the ‘90s certainly have a type.
With all that star power, did Square One meet its goal of making math fun and cool...? Well, according to one 1990 educational study, which tested children on their retention after viewing Square One, “Results indicated that over half the children came to see that learning mathematics and having fun were not incompatible activities.”