5 Things TV Writers Apparently Believe About Smart People
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?
Only 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 decades to cure diseases or study black holes, now look like lazy jerks.
Hey, speaking of jerks...
It's Okay To Be A Jerk, As Long As You're Smart
A further staple of the supergenius genre is the guy who treats other people like crap, and gets away with it because of his amazing talents. It's actually hard to find a TV genius who isn't a jerk. These people are unfriendly, antisocial, or generally messed up when it comes to communicating with other humans, but avoid getting sued or shot in the face only because it turns out they're always, always right.
But never until right before the last commercial break.
Obviously Dr. Gregory House is the best example, dissing his superiors at every opportunity and regularly putting his patients' lives in danger because he's in a bad mood. That was part of what made him unique six years ago. But later, Cal Lightman from Lie To Me, Walter Bishop from Fringe, Patrick Jane from the Mentalist, and many others popped up. All of them share a similar tendency to see humanity as one giant Youtube comment thread, ripe for trolling.
Real Mentalists never have hair this nice.
First of all, let's be clear that these people make it look like being a schmuck is totally awesome. The shows pay lip service to the backlash the character gets from others (see the House storyline when a wealthy new hospital board member called for his head), but by the end of the episode or story arc, the schmuck always wins (the board member was gone a few episodes later). In the long run the genius keeps his job, continues to be treated as a superstar, has friends and gets hot girlfriends. The message is clear: when you are a genius, there are exactly zero consequences to acting this way.
So it sends this horrible message that the primary motivation to become the top dog in your field is that you will finally get to treat people like garbage.
Which is only occasionally true.
Yes, the writers always set it up so that the good the character does outweighs the bad. In real life, on the other hand, the people who think they're geniuses overwhelmingly are absolutely not. Seriously -- it's science. The more you learn about a subject, the less likely you are to consider yourself an expert (because you have actual knowledge of how much you don't know). It's the guy who has read two books on the subject and worked in the field for a year who's more likely to decide he's graduated to the league of smug, condescending know-it-alls. We have a feeling that soon the offices of the world will be full of sarcastic people because they came through on one project and now believe they're the indispensable Dr. House of their operation.
"I swear to God, Chris. If you switch us from BlackBerry to IOS our senior VP will die of polio.
Also, in the shows the antisocial characters usually have an excuse for their horrible personalities, typically a single traumatic event in their past. The Mentalist's Patrick Jane had his wife and child killed by a serial killer who he'd foolishly insulted on air. Detective Adrian Monk of Monk blames himself for his wife's murder. Criminal Minds' FBI agent Jason Gideon had a serial killer blow up six of his fellow agents. Cal Lightman blames himself for failing to prevent his mother's suicide. House has chronic leg pain.
And if you can actually get the office printer to work, you've pretty much got a blank check for anything to go wrong.
All Complex Problems Are Solved by Sudden Epiphany
Let's just put this out there: TV writers may be awesome and talented people, but they are not Nobel prize-winning, once in a generation intellectual giants. Yet, they are forced to write about such characters, people smarter than themselves. That requires some amount of guesswork about how a superhuman intellect functions, since the very plotlines of these shows involves tracking the genius character's process.
And, of course, tracking his journey.
As a result, the characters on TV virtually always solve crimes and medical mysteries using blinding flashes of realization brought on by coincidence. In House, a doctor realizes that a misdiagnosed patient is actually suffering from a light allergy after a fellow doctor taunts him with a laser pointer. Another realizes a patient is suffering from a food-stealing tapeworm only when he steals a friend's sandwich.
Meanwhile in Castle, crime author Nathan Fillion figures out the true killer of a young woman when his daughter randomly quotes a line of lyrics to him. We're meant to be amazed by the bizarre eccentricities of the genius mind, when in fact relying on this sort of answer to solve puzzles is about as intellectually responsible as trying to cure a disease using feng shui.
"...and if your cancer isn't cured in 9-to-18 months, your survivors can come back for a full refund."
This goes back to the "genius means never having to exert yourself" issue we brought up earlier. We actually remember a time when TV characters would sit down and do research in order to find an answer to their problems. Which is pretty similar to the way we solve things in real life - reading, researching, going through mounds of evidence, furtively checking Wikipedia, giving up and submitting questions to Yahoo! Answers, etc.
Even in the not-exactly-realistic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the characters solved their dilemmas in nearly every episode in the library over stacks of books. That is, real discovery is often a slow grind through theories other, smarter people came up with in the past.
By way of comparison, we're not certain if anyone involved with Supernatural has ever read a book.
Not so for the TV supergenius. The answer is always waiting right there in their head, their superhuman brain basically playing the role of a magical genie that grants instant knowledge to the blessed protagonist. They even portray the rest of the team slogging through old-fashion tests and experiments, only to arrive at a dead end until the genius character has his epiphany and rescues them.
Television didn't invent this idea -- pop culture is full of myths like the apple falling on Isaac Newton's head and giving him the idea for gravity in one sudden "Eureka!" moment. School teachers have for decades been telling kids Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but failing to mention that getting a working product took 80 years of tedious trial and error by numerous inventors.
And Tesla's electric prostate-ticker took nearly three decades to perfect.
As a result, you have people who have convinced themselves they are stupid because great ideas don't just pop into their head while they're sitting on the toilet.
Government Agencies Are Full Of Walking Supercomputers
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 nonsense.
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.
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??!?"
It's good to keep your expectations realistic.
If You're Smart, Life Is Extremely Exciting
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.
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 big steaks. 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 toward a drowning woman, and his or her coworkers may in fact have huge assets. It's just that the real job has a lot of tedium in between the dramatic 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 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 the Cracked book, You Might Be a Zombie and Other Bad News: Shocking but Utterly True Facts.