Making The Audience Think They Are Smart
I am probably not the first one to figure this out, but I just wanted to write about it because it sort of came to me all in one big pile: The best TV shows are the one that makes the audience feel smart, and feel better about themselves as a result. The proof of this concept, however, doesn’t lie in the endless parade of super low IQ reality shows filled with people you are clearly better than, rather it’s with some of the smartest and best written shows in the last 20 years of TV, and the ones with the smartest characters. The three people that specifically make us believe we are smarter are Jeb Bartlett, Gil Grissom, and Sherlock Holmes.
I came to this conclusion (and perhaps even to some extent the attitude in this story) from watching the current TV show Elementary. I got into it completely by accident, catching a single episode late one night and then working from there. Now half way through a catch up phase, I have come to realize that the character of Shelock Holmes, played to great effect by Johnny Lee Miller, is perhaps the most clear example. While clearly someone with major defections in his life and personality, he is also astute, intelligent, well read, and at least for the purpose of intellect, he would be an aspiration model for many. Many of us would like to be as well informed as well aware of our surroundings as he is. Of course, I am equally a sucker for the intelligent and attractive Lucy Liu, if nothing else she does add that “look, smart guy has a hot girlfriend / assistant” too.
In the original CSI Crime Scene Investigation, Gil Grissom was a similar character in many ways. Almost overly intelligent, he was somewhere between a father figure, a teacher, and an ever curious student. The first few episodes of the opening season of CSI showed an intelligent, playful, and somewhat mischievous man. Certainly, he would be someone that many would aspire to be.
The West Wing was packed with truly intelligent characters. Martin Sheen as Jeb Bartlett was one of many standouts, the cast as a whole was intelligent, glib, well read, and well informed. Again, so many of us could wish to be that connected and aware of life around us to be that up to date on seemingly everything.
It would be easy to say “we like them because we want to be like them”, but that I don’t think even covers half of it. I realized that these shows do something more, and specific characters in these shows create something way more special. They not only appears to be amazingly intelligent, but the scripts of the shows tend to give the general public just enough to work on to just barely pre-guess the outcome. In doing so, the viewer can not only congratulate themselves for deducing who the killer was or which politician was trying to screw which, but could also infer by getting their just before the very smart character in the show that they are in fact just a little smarter than them. Congratulations, you are just slightly faster at figuring things out than this supposed IQ 190 person we have on our show.
I also realized that this is part why CSI as a show has waxed and waned. As CSI turned more towards soap opera style story arcs (such as the dreaded Gilbert / Sara romance, aka GSR), it exposed more of the foibles of the man and made him less of what he was to start. The Gil Grissom of say season 5 was way less of the man than that of season 1. The next few seasons played more and more to that end, and by season 9 he was gone. His “replacement”, Dr. Raymond Langston (Lawrence Fishburn) was an interesting character but he didn’t reach that level of intellect and as a result, the show lacked for a true intelligent leader – and someone that fans could feel good about being slightly better than. Few if anyone would want to be “slightly better” than Dr. Raymond Langston, his character in the end was fairly revolting.
CSI looked to be on the ropes until they dropped the much loathed Dr. Raymond Langston and replaced him with DB Russell, played by, of all people, Sam the Bartender from Cheers. Most people on hearing that casting move figured that Ted Danson was going to be the kiss of death to the show, the guy they brought in to kill it in the last year and get it over with. Instead, DB turned out to be funny, intelligent, and yes, the guy you are proud to think you are just so slightly more intelligent than. Sadly, the show has gotten banished to Sunday nights, ratings are down, and the 15th season is reportedly going to be abbreviated to 18 episodes rather than an already short 22. However, it’s replacement / follow up is CSI Cyber, and that one is already looking reasonably brainy and perhaps will strike the same balance.
Now to be fair, the same thing applies at the other end of the scale. Shows like Jersey Shore and the absolutely stunningly scary Porter Ridge (look it up) reward the viewer because we know we are more intelligent than these people. For many of these reality and pseudo reality shows, the story lines and characters are IQ somewhere about 20, and it takes 57 points for a dog to be able to bark. It’s stupidity, booze, and boobs in equal parts that makes us want to look, and at the same time makes us somewhat content that even our miserable work a day existances aren’t as pathetic as these people. COPS did it for 25 years… and yeah, I have been known to watch that too!