Shows with experts as the main characters
September 19, 2012 9:01 AM   Subscribe

In Breaking Bad, Walter White is a genius chemist. In Prison Break, Michael Scofield is a genius structural engineer. What other shows use a main character's genius in a given field like these shows do?

I know they both take liberties, but I really enjoy it. I wouldn't call it educational, but I like seeing these educated people pull something off because of their skills.
posted by dubadubowbow to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
On Numb3rs, Charlie is a general "math" genius. I think he has a specific research subfield, but as far as his actual purpose on the show, he just knows a whole lot about a whole lot of different sorts of math, physics, and statistics. His friend/professor/advisor is similarly gifted.

A handful of the characters Bones are considered top in their field, and I believe the main character is considered to be a genius-type.

Sherlock Holmes via Sherlock has deductive capabilities are shown to be effectively superhuman.

Michael on Burn Notice is a brilliant tactical engineer, but I'm not sure if he falls into straight-up "genius" category.

Kaylee on Firefly is a mechanical genius. As is Rom on Deep Space 9.
posted by griphus at 9:07 AM on September 19, 2012

I think a lot of the CSI-type shows have characters like this, especially Bones. Also, Fringe has John Noble as a genius mad scientist.
posted by amarynth at 9:07 AM on September 19, 2012

The main guy in Numb3rs is a maths genius.
posted by cerbous at 9:08 AM on September 19, 2012

posted by HuronBob at 9:11 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

In The Mentalist, Patrick Jane is a cold reader and expert in NLP/manipulation, and uses this to open suspects up and get to the bottom of cases. The back-story was that he used to be a fake psychic, but decided to 'use his powers for good' following a personal tragedy. If you're familiar with Derren Brown, who spends a lot of his shows explaining why the tricks he does work, it's interesting to watch.
posted by mippy at 9:13 AM on September 19, 2012

The main character on Suits has an eidetic memory. (And the show is well-written and funny.)
posted by kate blank at 9:14 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lie to Me focused on Dr. Cal Lightman's expertise in body language/lie detecting.

Psych similarly features a man with 'heightened observational skills'.

And of course MacGuyver was really really good at field expedient solutions.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:21 AM on September 19, 2012

Dexter is a brilliant forensic blood spatter analyst... because he's a serial killer
posted by MangyCarface at 9:31 AM on September 19, 2012

For what it's worth - I've always had the sense Walter White was a very good chemist. I'm not sure the show has presented him as a full-blown genius.
posted by davebush at 9:32 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd just thought that Walter's thing was that as a competent, trained professional in a field populated otherwise by the idiotic and insane, he appears to be a genius.
posted by Grangousier at 9:36 AM on September 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

This is a classic screenwriting trope. It's used across the board, especially in drama, to immediately make a character sympathetic.

It's especially common in main characters who aren't necessarily very likeable along traditional lines, for instance the characters you cite in your question.

It's actually pretty common in TV to get "notes" from the studio if they're worried that your main characters might look inept, because people don't like watching TV shows about losers.

If you're writing something where the main character has to be a loser (for instance My Name Is Earl), the conventional wisdom is that she needs to "save the cat". In other words, you need to show her doing stuff that frames her as an overall good and likeable person. Like saving a cat from a tree. Or more typically in stuff that isn't a huge cliche, standing up to bullies, or helping someone out of altruism. Remember that bit in Bridesmaids where Melissa McCarthy is shown driving away from the horrible bridal shower with a car full of puppies? That's a classic "save the cat" moment for a supporting character.

Or maybe you just wanted a list. Dr. House for sure.
posted by Sara C. at 9:38 AM on September 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Point taken, genius was be a strong term. Significantly better trained and more intelligent then.
posted by dubadubowbow at 9:39 AM on September 19, 2012

Vincent D'Onofrio's character on Law and Order: Criminal Intent isn't portrayed as a genius, nor more intelligent/better trained, but he always seems to have obscure knowledge at hand that helps him solve the crime. Two instances I can think of are wines and modern art. Yeah, your typical New York City cop.
posted by scratch at 9:42 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Criminal Minds has Penelope Garcia (maybe not a "genius" but is exceptional at computers/hacking) and Dr. Spencer Reid, who usually is able to connect the dots in his head right as the rest of the team has finished running around, gathering clues, interviewing people etc.

Also, NCIS has Abby, a quirky forensic tech/sciencey genius.
posted by Oliva Porphyria at 9:45 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

TVTropes: TV Genius
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:53 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The doctors on M*A*S*H (especially Hawkeye) were generally regarded to be top-notch surgeons, and at least a couple episodes showed that was the reason they got away with so much of their wacky hyjinx. "You guys are drunken idiots who break every single rule of the Army, but that was some top-notch work in there..."
posted by bondcliff at 9:57 AM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

There was a TV series called "The Magician" starring Bill Bixby. He played a wealthy and semi-retired stage magician who used his skill in the art to help people in trouble. (It wasn't very good, and it only lasted one season.)

The character Dietrich, in the show "Barney Miller", was extraordinarily well read and seemed to know everything. It was a convenience for the writers; whenever they needed some exposition, they'd have Dietrich do it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:59 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

"The Closer," which just ended (followed by spinning off the more or less identical "Major Crimes) set up Police Chief Brenda Lee Johnson as an interrogator who worked for the CIA in prior years. They stopped referring to it after a year or two; she's really a typical TV detective, but her particular skill was walking Major Crimes suspects into their own confessions, not only playing on the weaknesses of the suspect, but playing up her Southern Ingenue in the Big City (the show is set in LA) persona, and then slamming the door on the killers who fall for her charms.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:59 AM on September 19, 2012

Bones - she is a "genius" forensic anthropologist
posted by Flood at 10:00 AM on September 19, 2012

Back in the 1980s, there was a short-lived show called Probe, featuring a bona-fide physics genius, who solved crimes. I recall one episode where he worked out that the killer used ball-lighting as the murder weapon, and managed to summon same during the big gather-and-reveal scene at the end. Isaac Asimov was the science advisor to the show.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:01 AM on September 19, 2012

TVTropes: TV Genius

See also:

Guile Hero
Science Hero
Awesomeness by Analysis
posted by zamboni at 10:08 AM on September 19, 2012

posted by empath at 10:11 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Stargate: SG-1 had 4 main characters who were all experts, and 2 were geniuses-- inasmuch as nobody could have both the breadth and depth of knowledge that at least 2 of them managed. Dr. Jackson had an encyclopedic knowledge of all ancient cultures. All of them, languages (written and spoken), too. Capt. Carter was a physicist who could basically embrace and solve any technological problem, a fact that the writers were aware of when she said, in a later season, "You blow up one star and suddenly everyone expects you to walk on water!" With them was Teal'c, your basic huge commando sort who happened to have served the aliens they were fighting, and knew everything about them, and then Col. O'Neill, the special warfare veteran and expert, and generally the reason why this 4-man team (including the bookish civilian) could regularly defeat massed armies of the enemy. O'Neill was played by Richard Dean Anderson, who played the aforementioned MacGyver, and the show would riff on this from time to time.

Both Stargate Spinoffs had variations on these characters-- general genius, super plotter, medical miracle-worker, etc.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:15 AM on September 19, 2012

Current show "Perception" features a brilliant neuropsychology professor who consults with the FBI via one of his former students, on crimes in which mental perception is relevant. For color, he's also a paranoid schizophrenic who hallucinates helpful figures who challenge him to solve the mysteries.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:20 AM on September 19, 2012

Surely the ultimate answer to this question is Eureka? The whole show is populated by geniuses, errr genii...
posted by merocet at 10:21 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Getting off topic, I know, but I think OP is right to regard Walter White as a genius. When they talk about his work in Grey Matter it was definitely ground breaking research that led to a multibillion dollar company. And they are always saying something along the lines of "experts have never seen anything like it" regarding his meth. And finally, the way Gale, another highly trained scientist, idolizes him and reveres his work - I'd say all of that qualifies him at a genius level. Just my $0.02
posted by cccp47 at 10:25 AM on September 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yes, I was just thinking Eureka too. Almost every main character is a PhD, and the two exceptions are instead extremely experienced law enforcement.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:27 AM on September 19, 2012

Dr. House's genius drives the procedural elements but also informs the fundamental conflict/interest of the show.

Don Draper in Mad Men is not a genius, but he is phenomenally skilled and perceptive in an area that directly informs his work.

Pembelton on Homicide, is again, probably not a literal genius, but is also is phenomenally skilled- beyond what normal intelligence people can achieve- in an area that directly informs his work.
posted by spaltavian at 10:32 AM on September 19, 2012

Leverage. Plays on each member of the team being a genius in their specific field of expertise.
posted by blurker at 10:34 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Walter in Fringe.

also Will McAvoy in The Newsroom, more or less.
posted by spanishbombs at 10:40 AM on September 19, 2012

Significantly better trained and more intelligent then.

Life on Mars (UK). Main character gets sent back in time to 1973 (and demoted from DCI to DI). While his fellow cops are roughing up the suspects and planting evidence, he relies on forensics, procedure, psychology, smarts, and manners.
posted by feral_goldfish at 10:46 AM on September 19, 2012

Does Dr. Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory count?
posted by purplesludge at 11:16 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Pretender
posted by TheOtherGuy at 11:19 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Doogie Howser, M.D.
posted by carsonb at 11:24 AM on September 19, 2012

The 4400 has Dr. Kevin Burkhoff, who can be considered a genius in the field of neurology. Though not a main character, his discovery is a major deal in the story.

Stargate Universe has Dr. Rush and Eli as genius characters, similar to the above comment regarding SG-1. Stargate Atlantis has Dr. McKay, who is described as genius several times in the show, and John Sheppard, who is an airforce pilot, but also a math genius (and was too lazy to pursue a scientific career, despite being accepted in mensa).

In earlier seasons of NCIS, McGee was a computer/hacking genius, similar to Garcia in Criminal Minds. Haven't seen later seasons, but it seemed they downplayed it over time.

Star Trek has Rom, engineering miracle worker and Dr. Bashir (not portrayed as a genius in a particular field, but due to his backstory, he sure qualifies); both DS9. As a recurring character, Lt. Barcley, especially in Voyager.
posted by MinusCelsius at 11:30 AM on September 19, 2012

For what it's worth - I've always had the sense Walter White was a very good chemist. I'm not sure the show has presented him as a full-blown genius.

His work contributed to a team's earning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. While we haven't learned his IQ scores, it is probably safe to say that he is a genius.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:31 AM on September 19, 2012

Geez...everyone talks about Star Trek, but no one mentions SPOCK!

"Shouldnt you be working on your space-time calculations?"
"I am."
posted by Billiken at 12:41 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Jonathan Creek- expert creator of seemingly impossible magic illusions uses that knowledge to solve seemingly impossible crimes.
posted by KateViolet at 1:02 PM on September 19, 2012

posted by FlamingBore at 1:31 PM on September 19, 2012

An old one but a good one: The Professor on "Gilligan's Island". He was responsible for building all the stuff that made their lives at least a bit comfortable, like the shacks they lived in, and building a pipeline to bring in fresh water. I think if he hadn't been there, the others would all have died. I figure his Ph.D. must have been in Civil Engineering.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:07 PM on September 19, 2012

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