It used to be okay to be the smartest person in the room – at least on paper, real life isn’t my area of expertise. Sherlock Holmes was definitely a loner, and eccentric, no question. But when he left Baker Street, he was appropriately dressed, even, or perhaps especially, when in disguise. He knew, understood and used all the social conventions, and could converse easily with everyone and anyone, from any walk of life. He may not have been interested in women romantically, but he had no trouble interacting with them.
This facility used to be part of being the smartest person in the room. Now, we see more examples of this extremity of genius than ever before, including two versions of Holmes. It might have been CSI that started this off – what was Grissom but the smartest guy in the room? – and since then we’ve had House MD bringing in the medical side, and The Mentalist for the con artist in all of us, and this season alone we’ve got Forever, and Scorpion, plus, I believe, a couple more coming along soon.
And let’s not forget, that for as long as most of us have been alive, we’ve had Dr. Who.
I enjoy almost every single one of these programs, flaws and all. Why? Because I love smart people (I am one myself), and I love to see problems solved in intelligent ways. Yes, I know most of this is really good writing, but I love that too. However, in the main, I’m enjoying these shows while I can because I have to consider the alternative. I know the pendulum will swing the other way – perhaps sooner than we’d like – and we’ll again be inundated with programs about idiots who do nothing but mess up in ways that make viewers feel comfortable about themselves.
Aside: Is it possible that the smartest-person shows are actually, in themselves, the reaction to “reality” shows?
The problem with the smartest-person trope is that smart people can be irritating. So writers of TV shows and movies have only a couple of recourses if they’d like their show to flourish: 1) make it funny; 2) make the character broken. Or both. Every single one of the current smartest-person characters is broken, either in some social sense, or in some psychological sense, or, again, both. It is no longer acceptable, let alone admirable, to be very, very smart. Why? The simple explanation is “so that viewers can feel comfortable about themselves.”
Aside: When I think about it, that actually makes me feel a bit Uncomfortable. Can we only find characters sympathetic if we’re in some way superior to them? Is it no longer enough to say, “I can understand that guy,” must we now say, “Glad I’m not that guy?”
Recently people have been concerned about – and irritated by – the number and nature of smartest-person shows. Sociological explanations aside, TV has always been cursed by the bandwagon syndrome: “this works, let’s do it again.” A saturation point is reached, and all but the very best (or most popular, which isn’t always the same thing) of the “bandwagon” shows disappear.
We already know that TV content is not driven by what you and I would like to see – if it were, Firefly would never have been canceled, and Michael Madsen would have had a good long run as Mr. Chapel on Vengeance Unlimited. And let’s be honest, even within the genre community, everyone doesn’t always agree on what should be out there. But I think what we’re starting to get tired of here isn’t the smartest-person trope itself, but the smartest-person-is-a-psychopath trope.
There have been other ways to handle the smartest person without making him (it’s usually a him) into an arrogant or badly adjusted A-hole. It’s been pointed out that the second Dr. Who pretended to be an idiot while actually being the opposite, and most people are familiar with Columbo, even though they may not have seen the show.
When will the smartest person in the room be a woman? I suppose there’s Dr. Temperance Brennan in Bones, but she suffers from the same social awkwardness as all the men, and in fact, over the 8 or 9 seasons the show’s been on, she’s actually gotten worse I’m looking forward to seeing whether Agent Carter will turn out to be smarter than Howard Stark, or just luckier. Up to now we’ve seen competent females, but until Joan Watson, none that were brilliant, and while Elementary’s Watson is notable for being smart enough to impress Holmes, she’s still not the smartest in the room.
Except for that time she outwitted Moriarty and saved the day. Hmmm.
PS. The word “guy” has been used in its 18-century, non-gender-specific sense.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website:www.violettemalan.com.