Smart is Not Socially Apt, per Modern Media

NB: The Editor pointed out I had an unclosed bracket and offered up a Tropic Thunder comparison that was too good to pass up. Fourth paragraph. Enjoy.

For a few reasons, but mostly because we cannot stomach the idea of paying $80 for what would be about 3 channel’s worth of consumption, the male person and I do not have cable. This is not out of some holier-than-thou quest for a more wholesome home environment as much as an exercise in opportunity cost; we have Netflix and RedBox and so forth. As such, we are “discovering” TV shows that others have long and since discovered, and re-discovering ones we had mucked about with in earlier years.

Let’s face it, most TV is drivel.  Everyone has this opinion, for the most part, it’s just their definition of drivel varies. For example: I think any show featuring the Kardashians is not worth the effort it takes you to push the buttons on the remote control, never mind the time it would suck from your life to actually watch it. I’m sure there are others who would much rather watch the Kardashians than, say, 60 Minutes. You’d have to pay my father to watch a football game, but he happily watches The Daily Show. The presence of 500 channels worth of 24/7 programming means that our tastes are such that we like about 10% of it at best, but that 10% is different for each person. (For a truly excellent podcast on why you have to pay for ESPN, even though you don’t watch it, go here.)

Out of this drivel, though, comes definitive trends in programming. This year it appears to be a slough of “I’m dealing with my older parents” sitcoms, in previous years it has been the waves of Laws and Orders, NCIS, CSI; then there’s the ER/Chicago Hope/House/Scrubs medical vein (pun intended).  And within these aerie are typified characters and situations: the older, hardened cop who’s actually quite sensitive despite his drinking problem, the tougher, young female cop/lawyer who wants everybody to take her seriously, the angsty interpersonal relationships that form between coworkers (because no one on TV has the sense to NOT dip their pen in the company ink), the inevitable will-they-won’t-they that means they eventually do, after 4-5 seasons, but then it nearly immediately blows up because Someone Messed With The Formula And The Ratings Are Down So Please Fix It Now.

Into this context I bring you the recent epiphany I had, which is we apparently can’t have socially intelligent characters with high IQ’s. Let’s take two shows: The Big Bang Theory, first aired in 2007, and Bones, first aired in 2005; one is a nominal comedy with some small dramatic parts, the other is a drama with some small comedic parts. Both feature many intelligent characters, but the most intelligent (based on IQ’s indicated in exposition or comparison) are Dr. Sheldon Cooper (BBT) (IQ: 187) and Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Bones) (“my IQ is quantifiably higher than yours”, and the like) .

Social (and other) media have picked up on this (I am not suggesting anything new here) when each character has been individually investigated (e.g., tv reporter/blogger asking the writers/producers) for Asperger’s Syndrome. (Interestingly enough, NEITHER show confirms this for these characters even though the actors themselves admit to playing them that way; in BBT’s case Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper, has stated he believes Sheldon is an “Aspie” but Bill Prady and Chuck Lorre vehemently deny it). The message is muddled, but constructively: super-smart people are really socially awkward, possibly because of a “syndrome”, but we won’t confirm it because then we are Labeling People. Or, as my Editor points out, “You can’t go full genius“.

As though making a series of jokes around IQ (“I’d have to lose at least 60 IQ points to be considered smart,” Sheldon derisively mentions in one episode) is not a label of sorts.

These are not the only two shows to do this; the new Sherlock Holmes BBC series features an Aspergian Sherlock (again, as characterized by the actor playing him) (190 IQ). Numb3rs featured a brilliant mathematician (“genius-level IQ”) who was hindered, if not completely inept, at interpersonal relations. Criminal Minds also had a brilliant young person, IQ 187 (Dr. Spencer Reid) who is, you guessed it, socially awkward. Message received: we can have kinda-smart, socially normative people, but we cannot have super-smart, socially normative people.

There’s a couple of hypotheses for this: H1 is that we cannot have hyper-smart, socially normative people on TV because that would make them appear cocky, even if they weren’t actually, and that would make them a less liked character (both by their peers and by the viewers). Indeed, it is Sheldon’s awkwardness that allows his friends (even his fellow PhD’s) to feel like they can compete with, or even succeed against, him on some plane. Penny (the non-PhD, “normal” person across the hall) calls him sweetie a lot and tries to explain awkward situations to him (when he’s being earnestly lost) and snipes at him with double entendres when he’s being earnest and coming off as an ass. The other 3 characters (2 PhD’s, one ME) spend entertaining minutes trying to explain on Sheldon’s level (with whiteboards and references), discover  they can’t, and give up/go to the movies without him/let him go to the comic book store/play Xbox with him.

I think it’s really interesting to note that Dr. Brennan’s friends and coworkers take on a more protective role and do not deride or smugly note her awkwardness, they just “try to work around it”. Angela (her best friend) calls her “sweetie” rather a lot and spends time trying to explain how a social situation may be interpreted, most of the lab staff shrug their shoulders and get on with work; her love interest gets to be the Protective Male Person With A Gun and, again interestingly, a lot of time is spent on him not letting her have one (despite her declarations she’s an excellent shot. She’s so learned in other things, including a 3x black belt, that this is not implausible). Maybe if he gives her the gun she won’t need him, so let’s not let her have the gun.

I sit here, looking at as many recent TV characters as I can find, for one who is both very intelligent and also socially competent, and come up dry. Dr. House has a drug addiction and the bedside manner of a troll, of the only other two – people on Bones, one turned out to be a sociopathic cannibal and the other was English and they killed him off (Mr. Nigel-Murray. I liked him a lot.) in order to provide a reason for Bones to feel vulnerable, jump into bed with The Male Person With A Gun, and get pregnant, thus creating another twist in the “will they or won’t they” plot.

H2, and others have suggested this, is the reason our most intelligent characters must be socially awkward is we (the viewer) cannot handle the idea of someone so smart and seemingly without flaws — we will lose interest, we will want to compare ourselves to that character and we will come up lacking. We will close the book, if you will. I think it’s a good point but I don’t know that it is true for all: I would like to see what a good writer could do with an intelligent character that DIDN’T have some sort of crippling social deficit.

To be fair, we have the exact opposite on TV currently too: the Jersey Shores, the Kardashians, etc. — all full of presumably socially “current” or apt people with combined IQ’s equivalent to a bag of Doritos. Clearly someone is watching that. So I wonder what would happen if we could somehow have a brilliant Kardashian?

Hey — I like science fiction, too.

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One comment

  1. I won’t go so far as to suggest Simon Bakker’s “Patrick Jane” is a genius, but he does appear to be both intelligent -and- socially adept. Must be why I struggle to watch “The Mentalist” without wishing he’d take a bullet.

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