Don't get us wrong, law enforcement is a noble profession without which we would all be profoundly screwed (or at least robbed). But, one reason we consider it noble is that at nearly every level the pay is pretty much shit.
Unless you're crooked!
And yet, in the world of TV it appears that all of the world's one-in-a-million supergeniuses have landed in this field. FBI profiling agent Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds has three PhDs, an IQ of 187, and a reading speed of 20,000 words per minute, which must come in useful whenever he wants to read Atlas Shrugged four times in his lunch break. In the space of a single episode, Reid casually rattles off facts about veterinary science, human psychology, obscure Chinese board games, biblical Hebrew, and modern Irish literature.
But even he pales in comparison to forensic artist Angela Montenegro of Bones, who developed and built a 3D volumetric display which assembles images of victims from bone fragments, apparently in her spare time. Detective Robert Goren of Law and Order: Criminal Intent speaks five languages and shows off encyclopedic knowledge at every opportunity.
In the world of TV, these geniuses aren't freakish outliers who get called in when all the normal cops are baffled -- shows like the CSIs, Criminal Minds, Bones, and Numb3rs all contain entire teams of these supergeniuses. In every case, rather than using their skills to invent fusion power or take over small countries, these human libraries of congress have relatively low-level government jobs in police departments and forensics labs.
None of them even take off to make a fortune for themselves in Vegas - not even the guys in CSI, who are already in Vegas. They all just keep toiling away as cops or salaried lab-workers.
"Wait, you mean I can make a living without spending hours locked in a room with rotting corpses?"
One, it implies that in even mid-level jobs you'll find yourself competing with someone who literally knows everything. Two, if you do find yourself around somebody with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of your field, there is no reason to respect or admire them at all -- their magic brain makes it very easy for them.
And three, our children are going to have wildly optimistic expectations of public servants. How can there ever be another terrorist attack? TSA agents can spot bad guys on sight by identifying a rare type of pollen found only in bomb-making facilities.
Hell, at this very moment, somewhere, a furious person is telling a cop, "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON'T KNOW WHO STOLE MY TELEVISON? CAN'T YOU JUST RUN A GREEN LASER OVER THE FLOOR AND TRACK HIS DNA??!?"
"TRACK HIS SEMEN, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLES!"
It's good to keep your expectations realistic.
Not since Dr McCoy hooked up with Rigelian cabernet girls on Star Trek have television characters found themselves involved in field activities so far outside of their job descriptions.
"Dammit Jim! I'm a doctor, not a dildo."
The agents on NCIS deal with assassinations, inter-departmental hacking, and Mossad agents, rather than ever investigating payroll fraud or theft of office supplies. The hospitals in Grey's Anatomy and House are strangely devoid of nurses, lab technicians and radiologists who actually do anything, allowing the doctors to perform extensive patient tests themselves and randomly take over the CAT scan whenever they feel like it. In Criminal Minds, the FBI routinely sends out its highly valuable elite profiling team to go and arrest dangerous suspects, which is a bit like using the President of the United States as a test pilot for your experimental wingless aircraft.
In other words, these professionals have unusually exhilarating, non-monotonous jobs that give them many chances to apply their nigh-infinite knowledge base. Television CSI agents have it best of all: due to what we suppose are crippling Miami budget cuts, David Caruso accompanies SWAT teams as they arrest suspects, supervises the transportation of confiscated drugs, and investigates arson crime scenes while they're still on fire.
Also, real cops can barely afford fresh crabs and crippling alcoholism. Let alone nice sunglasses.
Other CSI agents interview suspects, comfort witnesses, chase down bad guys, and talk down criminals in hostage situations. In other words, the guys performing the supposedly impartial scientific tests are the same ones who are identifying and interviewing suspects, which makes the subsequent forensic evidence about as reliably objective as a driving test administered by a neighbor whose son you ran over last week.
Again, we realize this is what Hollywood does. No, Baywatch was not a gritty documentary on the lifeguard industry, Top Gun doesn't do much to prepare you for a career in the Navy.
This, on the other hand...
But we feel like there is a difference here. After all, there such a thing as becoming a fighter pilot, and even seeing combat -- the movie just exaggerates the frequency of the excitement. A lifeguard may very well have to run sexily toward a drowning woman, and his or her coworkers may in fact have huge boobs. It's just that the real job has a lot of tedium in between the boobs and emergencies.
But the whole point of pursuing a career in a profession made up of the smartest of the smart people is that you find the boring stuff exciting. That is, you enjoy the things things that are boring to other people -- the silent, steady crawl toward discovery, the long, painful untangling of a mystery, one thread at a time, over half of your life. You know, the parts that Hollywood sweeps under the rug for fear that you'd be bored out of your skull watching it.
Not Pictured: Must-see TV.
There's nothing wrong with making genius sexy -- the scientists and teachers and analysts should be pop culture heroes. But Hollywood has done the opposite -- instead of giving us characters who are super smart yet likeable and heroic, they've given us the same old sexy rogue action heroes we've been watching since the old West days, then threw in the, "Oh, also he's a supergenius" thing as an aside, as if it's as minor as pointing out the guy can play the guitar.
We have a feeling that ten years from now a lot of kids are going to find their degree led to a lot fewer car chases than Hollywood led them to believe.
For more ridiculous lies Hollywood taught you, read 5 Movies That Totally Missed the Point of the Book only in the new Cracked.com book, You Might Be a Zombie, And Other Bad News.