Television has had a trend of ‘The Troubled Genius’ for a long time, but recently I have only started to feel irritated by it. I understand that when it comes to making television, there are a set criteria and cues for characters to meet. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Troubled Genius type, but it has gone from being one piece of a character’s personality, to their entire personality. It is as if everyone that is smart on television has to be an ignoramus to the feelings of others and exert an egotistical mess of dialogue that at times feels uncomfortable.
I get that writers are trying to blur the line between the Troubled Genius hero and the sociopath/psychopath antagonist. Sherlock did this very well as Moriarty and Sherlock both recognize both their intellect as being equal. But That isn’t the issue that I see with The Troubled Genius genre. The problem with Sherlock, House and Agent Will from Hannibal is that they are all very two-dimensional. That doesn’t mean they are not entertaining, on the contrary, this is the reason they are hilarious at times. Put it this way, humour is the glue that keeps these characters from coming solely across as being wholly narcissistic. They are talented, troubled people who lash out, but they get the job done. In reality, it wouldn’t matter how great their contribution would be, they would be fired. An organization works on the basis of everyone working together, you know those big words being thrown around in offices like ‘synergy’, companies really care about that. To have someone like House or Sherlock to work in an Office would be insane because they wouldn’t last very long in any single job because their antics would get them fired. No amount of work and breakthroughs would save them either because let’s be honest, not everyone can be a ‘Steve Jobs’. Steve Jobs was an incredible asshole and I question if he should be called a genius. A big part of being successful is being able to network, and these people clearly are incapable of doing that or simply don’t care.
The fact remains that if House, Sherlock or Agent Will didn’t have their ridiculous intellect and mind palaces, nobody would care about them. In the shows they are tolerated because they get results, but the overwhelming majority of people who exhibit their personality types in reality aren’t equipped with an intimidating IQ. Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory is a character I despise because the punchline is his anti-social behaviour. Other characters jokingly talk about looking at getting him tested and tolerate his antics. A lot of people who are Troubled Geniuses in the real world are either ignored and forgotten by society, or they are recognized very little in their lifetime and find fame after death. The genre of the Troubled Genius is misleading and it has brings many people to assume having anti-social tenancies and behaviours is somehow cool. It is reminiscent of people thinking being Depressed made them more artistic. The opposite is true, being artistic makes you depressed, but it is also your window away from it, a nasty little catch 22. Mental illness isn’t something you can switch on and off and it certainly isn’t a fashion statement, it destroys people like any other wound, only there are no scars clearly visible.
There are some Troubled Geniuses that don’t fit the mold. Walter White from Breaking Bad is one of the greatest Troubled Geniuses in Television history. I won’t bother going through the plot of Breaking Bad, but look at him this way, he is the product of the broken American dream. He is a genius who’s talents are wasted on High School students who don’t care. He works two jobs to make ends meat and they are both degrading to the man he is. He bursts out and becomes the Übermensch he always wanted to be. As the story goes on, it becomes clearer he does everything for his own egoistical desires and even though he loves his family, he still puts them in line of fire. He is a genius troubled not by humorous mental illness, but a troubled genius in the sense that he is troubled by the mediocrity of life as he enters middle-age with very little to be proud of. We can associate with his struggle as a genius thrown into mediocrity. He isn’t a two-dimensional character who makes quirky jokes to add humour at the expense of mental illness, he is a person.
Rust Cohle from season 1 of True Detective is my favourite Troubled Genius. Like Walter White, he has a reason for being troubled. His daughter died in an accident and his marriage fell a part. His time working in narcotics tore him down to the point he wanted solace somewhere quiet. He is not awkward, but edgy. His obsession for solving crimes is not derived from the pleasure he gets from it, but from his obsession to keep moving forward in life because if he stops, he will never get going again. It is true that he alienates the people around him, but he is still able to keep base with enough people not to be considered a completely hopeless case. Eventually he does become the Übermensch like Walter White when he redeems himself through solving the final case of the Yellow King and sets himself free.
Cohle and White are black and white figures of each other. Cohle wants redemption and his actions are righteous. White on the other hand had every possible chance to avoid becoming the man he would become in the future, but chose to stay on a path that would bring destruction. They both became Übermensch and became something greater, albeit at the cost of a great many things. But that is what a Trouble Genius is. They are not the quirky nerds reading comics in a fancy apartment or on the streets of London solving cases with friends, but instead they are real people that are faced with reality, which they can either accept and live in mediocrity, or they can rebel and become Übermensch and make something great.
Instead of having cheap laughs at the expense of mental illness, we should be focusing on the struggle of characters who have an aptitude that isn’t realized by many other people and their eventual ascent to becoming bigger than life, whether they want it or not. I enjoy watching Sherlock and a few other shows similar in nature, but it is obvious that what I am watching is trying to make being misunderstood look very chic.