Brow Beat

The Problem With TV’s Competence Fetish

Morris Chestnut in Rosewood, Bradley Cooper in Limitless, and Melissa Benoist in Supergirl.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos via CBS, Fox.

When Kara Zor-El Danvers raises her arms and rises into the sky above National City next Monday during the Supergirl premiere, the show will join a long list of network series that follow the adventures of superheroes or chronicle attempts to protect ordinary citizens from evildoers with superpowers. But these meta-humans aren’t the only TV characters who possess skills viewers can only dream of; the television schedule is packed with people who accomplish things more efficiently than the rest of us.

Television is a tyranny of competence: Every cop show seems to feature an investigator with the observational and deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes (especially this Sherlock), and every medical show boasts a physician with an otherworldly ability to make life-saving diagnoses. From Rosewood, which centers on a doctor who fancies himself “the Beethoven of private pathologists,” to Bones, whose Temperance Brennan is the world’s leading forensic anthropologist; from Limitless, where a slacker bro pops a pill and becomes a pharma-powered savant, to NCIS, where Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs can get suspects to confess simply by looking at them, television is long on miracle workers with almost magical powers.

There was never a time when TV shows celebrated useless cops or bungling doctors, but our current fascination with hypercompetence feels new. In the early days of television, police officers and medical professionals were idealized—series like Dragnet or Marcus Welby, M.D., stressed their honesty and kindliness. In the 1980s, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere tried to present a more “realistic” version of the way cops and doctors do their jobs. In the 2000s, we were exposed to nuts-and-bolts police work in the Law & Order franchises; the magic of science in the various CSI series; and complicated, not-always-likable antiheroes on cable. But in our current moment of #peaktv, when there is more competition for viewers’ attention than ever before, every show needs a gimmick—and all too often the easiest outstanding characteristic to assign to a protagonist is superlative competence.

Of course, given a choice, most people would rather spend time with a brilliant cop or doc or spy than a mediocre one—but superskills are often a lazy shortcut. Detective Carrie Wells’ NYPD colleagues go through the motions of following up leads and interviewing suspects, but every episode of Unforgettable (moving from CBS to A&E this November) is solved when Wells, who can remember everything she’s ever seen or heard, recalls a clue that could only be discerned using her mad spot-the-difference skills. That’s an extreme example, but all too many shows rely on feats of staggering genius to wrap things up within the allotted hour.

The characters we watch every week can be addicted, damaged, and unlikable, but they must be competent. Before Fox premiered police procedural Backstrom in January 2015—the show was canceled after 13 episodes—I talked to showrunner Hart Hanson about how the title character had evolved from a lazy, racist, evidence-stealing detective in Swedish writer Leif G.W. Persson’s brilliant novels into a lazy, misanthropic, but capable American TV cop. Persson’s version of the character might have worked on cable, Hanson told me, but on network television he had to be motivated—even if it was something as ignoble as his towering ego that drove him to solve cases—and he had to do his job well. Hanson resisted the network’s request that Backstrom demonstrate a Sherlock Holmes-like awareness of his own abilities and instead left it to Backstrom’s colleagues to make sense of his intuitive observations. But a network lead, these days, “cannot be totally incompetent,” Hanson declared. (The network’s other big note was that while Backstrom could make racist or sexist statements, none of the other characters could ever express sympathy for his views.)

One striking example of TV characters’ credibility-stretching prowess came earlier this year on FX’s The Americans. Since Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are living undercover in northern Virginia, they’re forced to be self-reliant, since they risk detection every time they make contact with other KGB assets. Consequently, in a Season 3 episode that aired this February, Philip took Elizabeth down to the basement of their suburban home and extracted a tooth she’d broken in a fight with FBI agents. It was an amazing, harrowing scene, but it also made me wonder: Were the show’s writers suggesting that KGB training included a home dentistry module? Wasn’t there a limit to how many talents a single human being could possess?

When I put my concerns to The Americans’ co-showrunners, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, they acknowledged that the trope of the perfect spy is one they regularly wrestle with. As the show has evolved, they said that they’ve increasingly tried to present Philip and Elizabeth as realistic humans rather than fantasy figures. “We’ve gone from having them be perfect martial artists to people who can get hit and who can be hurt,” Fields told me. “Instead of fighting like Bruce Lee, they’re more like street fighters now.” And rather than having the two of them handle every situation that arises, they sometimes bring in operational specialists to handle technical tasks, such as planting a microphone in a CIA agent’s briefcase. Weisberg added that the Jennings’ occasional lapses—getting shot or slugged in the face, or passing along fake submarine schematics that led to the deaths of Russian seamen—add to the interest and tension. “As we move closer toward real, we think it’s a better show,” he said.

More TV writers need to realize that infallible characters are rarely interesting. On Season 1 of FX’s Fargo, Deputy Molly Solverson was compelling not because she had a crime-solving superpower—she didn’t—but because unlike pretty much every other officer in Bemidji, Minnesota, she was dogged, hard-working, and believably brave. Scandal got better once Olivia Pope stopped relying on her gut. How to Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating may be a superb defense attorney (and an objectively terrible law-school instructor), but she is no robot. Indeed, the famous Season 1 scene in which Keating removed her wig and makeup was all about letting go of superficial perfection and getting real—and that revelation of vulnerability makes the character almost bearable. Empire’s Cookie Lyon is a gifted record producer, and she’s the quippiest character this side of the dowager countess of Grantham, but she has a jealous streak that constantly gets in the way of her plans for music-world domination. Still and all, I’d take Cookie Lyon’s flawed charisma over Carrie Wells’ perfect recall any day of the week—and I’m confident I’m not alone.

Disclosure: The Americans was created by Joe Weisberg, brother of The Slate Group’s editor-in-chief, Jacob Weisberg.