Barry, don’t you lose my number

The portrait of telephones on TV is often a source of great entertainment. Everyone knows how a phone is supposed to work, but that doesn’t keep show producers from messing up in the most imaginative of ways (they are creative people after all!).

This time it’s a short scene from FX’s Tyrant (2×09) I noticed last week. I managed to forget about posting it, but fortunately the scene was repeated in this week’s recap segment so I have a second chance. Hooray!

In the scene, General Whatshisface needs the phone number of Khalil (aka Barry aka Bassam al-Fayeed), the leader of the Red Hand Brigade. The President doesn’t want to give it to him so he’s asking the first lady instead. She actually manages to get the number out of the presidential smartphone and sends it to General Whatshisface:

(c) FX
(c) FX

That’s nice of her and all – but that’s not how phone numbers look like. See, there’s a standard called E.164 defining the numbering plan for international phone numbers. Following this standard, an international phone number consists of three parts:

  • the country calling code, which can be between 1 and 3 digits long and is prefixed by a ‘+’ sign on modern phones
  • the area code, which can be anything between 1 and 5 digits long
  • the subscriber number, which is the actual phone number assigned to the line you want to call

Public phone networks around the globe have to follow these guidelines because they also have to be able to handle international calls. Thus, even in a fictional country like Abuddin a number like +555-0183 would lead absolutely nowhere because the country calling code 555 doesn’t exist. Unless they want Abuddin to have the country code +555, but that would be equally stupid since country codes starting with 5 are traditionally used for Latin America – Abuddin would likely have a country code starting with a 9 instead (+978, +990 and +997 are unassigned, for example, and could be used for that purpose). Even then the number format would be off, since at least some part of the remaining four digits ‘0183’ would then become the area code, leaving almost no room for the actual subscriber number. Since Abuddin isn’t that small, it’s hard to believe they’d only require three-digit subscriber numbers.

How this came to pass is easy to understand. In the US, there is a specific range of phone numbers assigned for fictional use: 555-0100 to 555-0199. Looking at Khalil’s supposed number 555-0183, it falls inside that exact range. Since the show is not set in the US, the prop people forgot to add a country code, instead prefixing the usual fake phone number with the ‘+’ sign for international numbers, causing me to write this incredibly detailed post on such a small matter. How dare they!

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