The Glorious Bastards (of Television)

HD: Blackstrom social

Geniuses with few social graces who nevertheless manage to save the day are all the rage on television – here’s our ten favorites.

Just because I’m comfortable with my affection for “junk food” pop-culture doesn’t mean I don’t feel a touch guilty about just how disproportionately I look forward to stuff I mainly plan to “enjoy” in big bold quotation marks. For example: Am I glad to see The Clouds of Sils Maria getting a U.S. release at last? Sure. Does it occupy as much space in my anticipation-cabinet as the Flintstones/WWE Crossover? C’mon – by now you know me better than that.

With that in mind, I’m similarly sheepish about how much I’m anticipating the new Fox midseason offering Backstrom. A star vehicle for The Office’s Rainn Wilson, it’s an Americanization of a Swedish crime fiction series (and a Fox-ification of a onetime CBS pilot). It looks to be another entry into my favorite guilty-pleasure subgenre: Series where socially-inept (or outright hostile/obnoxious) geniuses are grudgingly tolerated by their peers (and beloved by their audience) because – “Sigh… gawd DAMMIT…” – they really are just that good at what they do (solving mysteries, usually).

I don’t suppose it would come as a shock that I’d be fond of series premised on heroes being excused from basic social norms by virtue of being smarter than everyone else. But I’m also a big fan of Wilson’s so I’m hoping for the best from Backstrom – even if it looks like something I’d like better if I could come to it seven or eight seasons in as overnight block-booking on USA. So while I wait to see how this turns out, here’s a look back at the would-be hero’s grumpy-yet-surprisingly-effective predecessors…

NOTE: Before anyone asks, Sherlock isn’t on here because he’s a basically faithful updating of the original Sherlock Holmes, the acknowledged progenitor of this entire trope. Walter White isn’t here because he’s a villain-protagonist, not an antihero.

NOTE: this list was compiled with input and assistance from writer and media critic Megan Kearns.

House M.D.
Dr. House is the modern TV poster-child for this trope, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. (Do you suppose we ever would have found out that Benedict Cumberbatch was a thing that existed if they’d gone with the original plan and called this Sherlock Holmes M.D.?) Hugh Laurie’s career-transforming performance landed him a legion of fans who still have no idea he used to be best know as a comedian (or British!) and did real-life doctors the world over a solid by convincing a generation of patients that a decent bedside manner wasn’t really necessary. Today, what still stands out about the character himself is how committed the series was to letting the audience excuse his eccentric-to-monstrous behavior rather than the plot – every time it seemed like there might be an “explanation” for what exactly was wrong with House, the possibility was gleefully yanked away. It wasn’t really the leg, the genetics, the upbringing or even the Vicodin… it was just House, forever and always.

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Prime Suspect (UK)
Once upon a time there weren’t many women in this genre, and yes it’s very much because popular culture doesn’t have the same affection for the sourpuss-as-superhero trope when attached to a female character. As you’ll see, that’s no longer the case, but any proper list would have to include Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect’s founding mother, an icy no-nonsense hardcase whose presence on TV was a revelation – and not just because international audiences were still largely most-familiar with Mirren as a sex-bomb in features like Excalibur, Caligula and Age of Consent. Tennison was making colleagues tense and suspects squirm back when most of these other prickly problem-solvers were still in boot camp.

As played by Peter Falk, Columbo’s schtick was to act just enough like a schlubby, none-too-bright, irritant that suspects drop their guard in exasperation in the process of getting rid of him. Sure, he seemed friendly enough otherwise, but the show contained hints of a potentially darker figure under the surface: We never learned his first name (he answered to “Lieutenant”) and the details of his family life and backstory are so inconsistent it wasn’t a surprise when he let slip that he often fudges those details as conversational leverage. He even held back on letting anyone know that his trademark off-center stare was an effect of having a glass eye (which Falk does in reality) save for a single offhand mention. Who was Columbo, really? We may never know.

Claire Danes’ Homeland anti-heroine is tough as nails and crafty enough to frequently outwit terrorists and her fellow agents. But all of that skill comes at the expense of social graces and, indeed, humanity (think Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty cranked up to 11… and then add a starkly realistic depiction of bipolar disorder). Carrie flies closer to the “anti” side of anti-hero than almost anyone else on the list.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent
I’ve heard Vincent D’Onofrio’s Bobby Goren referred to “jokingly” as autistic Batman. It’s not exactly the most sensitive of humorous ways to describe the erratic, obsessive, blustery performance he gave as one of Law & Order’s more colorful crimestoppers. But it’s grudgingly fitting since Criminal Intent actually did spend a decent amount of time suggesting that there was something more specifically “different” about Goren’s inability to relate to other humans… unless he was outwitting them to close a case. It was in many ways the perfect role for D’Onofrio, finally matching his imposing physical form and often childlike demeanor in a sensible way – Goren went at the bad guys like a bear that was both confused and sad to have woken up as a human that day.

A quintessential “bad guy for the good guys,” Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes is the fearsome head of a law firm who uses flagrant corruption and a near-total disregard for law, legal ethics and personal niceties to advance – at all costs – a personal quest of taking down powerful men who abuse their authority. Beyond a mere badly-behaving badass, she’s the dark avatar of Damages’ bleaker worldview: Power corrupts, no matter what you wield it for.

The X-Files
Once upon a time, we were exactly naïve enough to think that paranoiac shut-ins obsessed with conspiracy theories and Th’ Gub’mint being out to get them could be useful heroes rather than cretinous lunatics. David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder (who, at least, was donning the tinfoil over aliens and monsters instead of mind-control vaccines and U.N. black helicopters) was the poster child for the type. Ironically, he probably makes more sense now – in an age of social media, there’d be no doubt as to why the rest of the FBI wanted nothing to do with this space-case.

Grey’s Anatomy
Yang’s (Sandra Oh) hard-headed determination to become the best doctor humanly possible at the expense of everything else (family, romance, friendship, you name it) is the sort of behavior TV routinely lauds male protagonists for while punishing women for the same. That she got what she wanted without compromise, giving an inch or being made to apologize for what coworkers (and surely some audiences) saw as almost inhuman workaholism was impressive… but that she did so en-route to what Grey’s unambiguously framed as a happy, even heroic ending? That was revolutionary.

How To Get Away With Murder
Abrasive, hard-hearted and (potentially) lethal, Viola Davis’ brilliant-but-amoral lawyer and law professor inhabits a world where being anything less than the best at everything she does would mean the immediate loss of everything she’s fought for – in that context, why wouldn’t you become The Monster? In the series’ most talked-about scene, the audience is allowed to watch Annalise’s nightly ritual of peeling off her wig, layers of makeup, and false lashes, etc – starkly illustrating just how much of her steely nerve comes from having to survive not just as a woman in a man’s world, but as a black woman in a white man’s world.

Perry Mason
Raymond Burr’s iconic TV lawyer (loosely adapted from a series of pulp novels) took unlikely cases for the thrill of it and didn’t so much represent clients as use the context of a courtroom to showboat his way to the solution to unsolvable crimes by browbeating the truth out of opposing witnesses. Mason annoyed judges, infuriated police and flabbergasted his rival attorneys; but if you need a TV lawyer, don’t you want the one Ozzy Osbourne did a song about?

I’m not going to get into M*A*S*H the series versus M*A*S*H the movie here – I like them both for different reasons. What they shared in common was that they were shows about army doctors where just about everyone was too irreverent to one degree or another to be seen as a comfy fit for either medicine or combat. But then, that’s the whole point of the franchise: Rules were made to be broken.


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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.