He used to be so cool and unpredictable. He would breeze into a complicated situation and make it simple through the razor-sharp power of his intellect. But lately, he’s gotten dull, performing the same party trick over and over. The “smartest man in the room” is overexposed lately, and he needs a vacation.
The “smartest man in the room” is a kind of wish-fulfillment for reasonably smart people, because he’s not just clever but incredibly glib. As popularized by people like Doctor Who/Sherlock writer Steven Moffat and the creators of American shows like House and Scorpion, the “smartest guy in the room” thinks quicker than everybody else but also talks rings around them, too. He’s kind of an unholy blend of super-genius and con artist.
Thanks to the popularity of Sherlock, House and a slew of other “poorly socialized, supergenius nerd” shows, the “smartest man in the room” has become part of the wallpaper. His contempt for less intelligent people, mixed with adorable social awkwardness, and his magic ability to have the right answer at every turn, have become rote.
I was thinking about this because Doctor Who is returning in a few days. And even though Peter Capaldi has breathed new life into a show that was sputtering, I’m still pretty tired of the Doctor being a dick. The Time Lord’s dickishness goes back to the 1960s, and Tom Baker’s Doctor could be a megadick sometimes, but with the new series it’s gone from being an occasional leitmotif to the show’s main theme. (And there’s a reason why everybody loves Patrick Troughton, whose Doctor often was the opposite of this trope — the Second Doctor pretended to be an idiot and slyly ran rings around people.)
And meanwhile, the new Alan Turing movie The Imitation Game takes Turing’s real-life social awkwardness and turns it into something more arrogant, as portrayed by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch. As our own Jason Shankel writes in his comparison of Imitation Game and the older Turing biopic Breaking the Code (starring Derek Jacobi), “where Cumberbatch’s Turing is an arrogant and detached cipher, disparaging the ability of others to understand his work and otherwise running afoul of office, national and personal politics, Jacobi’s Turing is an accessible and enthusiastic advocate for his ideas.”
To some extent, the Smartest Guy in the Room is an extension of the larger nerd stereotype that’s currently devouring pop culture — as viewers of countless TV shows and movies will know, nerds are brilliant at fixing anything but unable to handle even the simplest interaction or emotional nuance. Plus the insufferable self-satisfaction and contempt for dumber people (read: everyone else.) But the “Smartest Guy” adds the crucial ingredient of Always Being Right, along with brilliantly quippy dialogue, into the mix.
From Tony Stark to the army of Sherlocks, we’re obsessed with the overly articulate jerkwad — he’s a type that goes back to the original Sherlock Holmes, if not way further, but now he’s everywhere. And he’s become a nerd stereotype, who dovetails with vague and inaccurate ideas about geeks being on the autism spectrum.
Image by Jankolas/Deviant Art
Obviously some of this comes from the fact that most consumers of pop culture feel at the mercy of their increasingly incomprehensible technology and in danger of being hacked at any minute by not!North Korea. Our economy is dominated by tech firms and Wall Street computers, and we don’t know how to fix the wifi, yadda yadda.
But there’s also the fact that this stereotype — like all stereotypes — is comforting. It’s comforting to people who see themselves as “smart guys,” because these dudes are basically perfect except for a few brilliant flaws. But it’s also comforting to everyone else, because it confirms our basic sense that people who are smarter than us are messed-up individuals, who can’t communicate with other people and who are missing some basic element of humanity. We get to fantasize about being the ubersmart jerk, while also comforting ourselves with the notion that we wouldn’t really want to be that smart.
Plus there’s the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” thing — the “smartest guy” thing confirms all our silliest gender stereotypes, in a way that’s like a snuggly dryer-fresh blanket to people who feel threatened by shifting gender roles. In the world of these stories, the smartest person is always a man, and if he meets a smart woman she will wind up acknowledging his superiority. Women have greater emotional intelligence, and — as the hilarious Scorpion is keen to remind us every week — can translate from “genius” into “regular person.” But men are the intellectual giants, at the cost of a total lack of empathy and communication skills.
Thing is, the supergenius detective or fix-it-all guy doesn’t need to be a blowhard. The series Foyle’s War does this very well: The soft-spoken detective who constantly winces has a moment in every episode where he just breaks everything the fuck down and gets to be the smartest guy in the room, without being a constant show-off.
And the real problem is, “Smartest Guy in the Room” has become a genre, with its own tropes — and the story has to be distorted so that everybody else can be dumb enough to let the Smartest Guy be really smart. At its worst, this leads to storytelling that’s more focused on clever reveals (for the Smartest Guy to uncover) than real character. Even at its best, it turns into a character study of a character we’ve studied too many times lately. It’s just as much an artificial construct as the horror movie where the Slut dies first and the Final Girl survives.
And finally, what about teamwork? The best problem-solving comes from smart people working in a team, not from a brilliant dude and his sidekicks. Science relies on lots of trial and error, not on intutition and flashes of brilliance, and it’s nice to see that reflected occasionally in our pop culture. I’d like to see smart people bouncing ideas off each other, instead of just one smart person dominating the conversation. Just every once in a while, it would be a nice change.
Additional reporting by Cheryl Eddy.