Ever since House showed up on our televisions in 2004, the networks decided you couldn't have a drama without an eccentric genius in the mix. So, now you have geniuses solving mysteries using math (Numb3rs), novel writing (Castle, Bones), fake psychic powers (the Mentalist, Psych) and an ability to detect lies that borders on mind reading (Lie to Me). Among others.
The key here is the characters aren't just really smart, they're incredible and borderline supernatural scientific ubermenschen who are better at their jobs than anyone has ever been at anything. You think Einstein was good at physics? If he'd been on TV in 2011, he would have actually invented faster-than-light travel by the age of 25. And he would have used it to fight crime.
But what, exactly, has this popular breed of shows been teaching us?
5Only Know Six Languages By Age 30? You're A Failure.
The first lesson TV supergeniuses have drilled into audiences is that it's possible to acquire absolute mastery in multiple fields while still young enough to be attractive to the 18-35 demographic.
A few of them are Australian enough to be attractive to every demographic.
The fact that they never return our calls just makes them sexier.
Yes, we understand that on TV everyone is sexier than in real life. But at least House gave us a 45 year-old Hugh Laurie in the lead and not, say, Daniel Radcliffe. But the rest of these shows give us people who must have graduated high school at age six. It's a universe of Doogie Howsers.
We can think of worse things.
For example, forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan from Bones is loosely based on real-life crime author Kathy Reichs. But while Reichs published her first book at 47, her fictional version has already written multiple best-selling novels by her early thirties, while also having time to complete a PhD, learn seven languages, become a skilled diver and expert shooter, and study three different forms of martial arts.
And in the world of TV, she's nothing special. Ziva David on NCIS is an espionage expert who knows nine languages and is a skilled pianist -- all at age 28. Her coworker, forensic specialist Abby Sciuto, is also in her late twenties, but has still somehow picked a PhD in chemistry, bachelor's degrees in sociology, criminology and psychology, and good knowledge of hacking and computer forensic science. FBI consultant Peter Bishop on Fringe speaks five languages, has had papers published in academic journals, and is an expert in chemistry, biology, medicine, computer programming, auto repair, and pretty much everything you can name, all before time has had a chance to ravage his boyish good looks.
In reality, this man would barely be past the beer bong stage of his life.
Yes, it's just TV fantasy, and yes, our entertainment will always involve action heroes who are impossibly strong or wise guys who are impossibly witty. What bugs us about this is the implication that if you are born with these supernatural smart people genes, time and effort become meaningless concepts.
This lets us to drag out our favorite and most often-quoted statistic: acquiring mastery in just one field takes approximately 10,000 hours, or ten years... even if you're really smart. Some shows get around this by simply saying the character has eidetic (or a "photographic") memory, but that's a skill so rare that it's doubtful that it even exists, and there is no recorded example of a single human using the ability to become a genius in every subject they touch.
Muscle memory matters less than your ability to hallucinate in shades of Math.
So it's annoying because these characters are kind of an insult to everyone who's ever actually become a genius in a field through 30 years of laborious study. They create the impression that a talented person can soak up perfect knowledge of ancient Chinese literature in six months or so, allowing them to move right on to molecular physics or Jiu Jitsu. No big deal -- in the shows they honestly don't seem to work any harder than the average Joe.
And nothing else in their life suffers -- they had time to keep themselves attractive and toned, plenty of time and energy to spare for working out, eating right and learning good fashion sense.
Any real cop who looked like this could make a better living as a gigolo.
In other words, all of the real-world scientists with bad haircuts and pocket protectors, grinding away in super-specialized fields for decads to cure diseases or study black holes, now look like lazy, slovenly assholes.
Hey, speaking of assholes...