In recent news, CBS doubles down on eccentric male geniuses for its fall television lineup. One show, Pure Genius, treats us to an inside view of a Silicon Valley billionaire’s game-changing medical innovation; another, Bull, features the “brilliant, brash, and charming” titular consultant. And the MacGyver reboot, in addition to featuring an actor ten years younger than did the former series (!), snazzes up the clever factor, viz.,


electronics! What differentiates this slate from earlier hit shows (e.g., NCIS, Bluebloods) is its emphasis on intellect as the protagonist’s defining trait. Sure, our hero may commit the occasional social gaffe, exhibit some narcissism, and so on, but at the end of the day, their eccentricity gives way to originality, creativity; their intellect wins through and saves the day. And while this isn’t an entirely new thing (see House, BBC’s Sherlock), its pervasion of network TV is. The Cleverness Ideal – or in its extreme form, the Genius Ideal – has become firmly entrenched in popular culture. These are our heroes now.

(What about The Big Bang Theory? one might object. Network television could be loosely divided into comfort television, which meets us where we are, and aspirational television, which allows us to traffic in various cultural ideals. The former gives the viewer a posture of indulgence towards its characters (“Sheldon being Sheldon – he’s such a nerd!”) and the latter a posture of indulgence mixed with admiration (Dr. House is flawed on paper, but his insight is stunning). It is among the aspirational sort of shows that we can more clearly see cultural ideals reflected. And sometimes the two mix: Jim and Pam from The Office are our everyman figures who transcend the social flaws of those around them; at the same time, it is crucial that the two are unusually talented – without trying or caring as much – at their jobs.)

So where shows in the past would foreground various other values – the detective never had booksmarts but damnit if he doesn’t get people; Buffy’s always struggling in school, but she’s got courage and sarcasm aplenty – straight intelligence has become the defining feature of a new crop of protagonists. And it’s hardly surprising: the movers and shakers of our world, our new cultural idols, are people like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. The rise of technology in the business world means the meritocracy’s criteria are more narrowly focused on raw intelligence than ever, and the entrepreneurial ideal prioritizes the different, the mold-breakers, the eccentric.

macgyver-toyAs always, cultural ideals leave people out. Not every Spartan had the courage to hold Thermopylae; not every American male in the 50s had the grim determination of John Wayne in The Searchers. These ideals can turn cruel, as in the narrow ideal of female beauty to which almost every major TV character still conforms. And that’s where comfort shows play counterpoint to aspirational ones: Sheldon’s gang in The Big Bang Theory is imminently relatable; they are the figures whose presence onscreen reassures the rest of us that our more mundane existences are still good entertainment and, perhaps more importantly, that there are, in fact, people out there who are like us – or even, in Sheldon’s case, possessed of considerably more foibles. Elementary strikes the viewer down; The Big Bang Theory raises her up.

As far as network TV goes, this seems like a decent place to land (though it’s arguable the full loss of Two and a Half Men won’t be felt for some time yet). As far as the new intelligence ideal in pop culture goes, though, the horizon seems cloudy at best. For one, that ideal has become totalizing – as if all the new TV shows rolling out were about exceptionally beautiful women accomplishing things with their beauty, or an extremely well-connected guy working his social network to bigger and better things.

Notably absent is any moral content whatsoever: to get to the classic ideals of wisdom, courage, and moderation, for instance, we must make shows about high-school football – simply because that is the only place where they seem to matter. Even in the medieval setting of Game of Thrones, where it should be pretty easy to present those ideals, Tyrion – the alcoholic dwarf genius – is the character who really stands out, while Jon Snow – dutiful, courageous, a bit naïve – can’t quite achieve the same effect.[1]

There’s a few other considerations that might bear loosely on this single-minded focus on the virtues of the intellect on television now. First, it’s easy to forget that it’s a faculty, not a virtue. That is, one culture may value strength, another height, another good looks, another handwriting or vocabulary or skill at farming or pottery. Those traits are all, roughly, on the same plane – traits which may be more or less culturally useful at one time or another, but don’t have any ultimate moral value, at least from the Christian perspective and, as far as I’m aware, from the perspectives of most religious or ethical traditions. Of course, in a culture where there are few shared values apart from prosperity, perhaps the tools for getting ahead in the market – those which are innate to the individual, truly his or hers – is the best we can do as far as a common public ideal goes (a depressing thought).


Second, and parallel, education has acquired an increasingly moral component. I recently overheard two highly successful, highly intelligent parents (of separate children; they were colleagues) talking about their children’s public-school experience. (They had sent their children to public schools because they didn’t want their kids to grow up in a people-like-us bubble.) Apparently the experience was going well, except they were lamenting that certain of their (white) children’s classmates seemed to hold unenlightened political views, which of course were regarded as categorically inferior. Sending their children to school alongside children of, say, Trumpistas, was met with the same horror which a 50s parent might’ve felt about exposing their children to atheist classmates. High levels of education correlate strongly with enlightened political views; when we attach a strong moral salience to those views, one’s intellect and education-level become almost preconditions of public virtue. Perhaps that result is unavoidable, and the reasons behind it justified, but still – whenever those excluded from the reigning cultural ideal can be morally stigmatized as a result, it should at least give us pause.

Third, we’ve really continued to elevate the mind over the body. This is a place where Christianity has some strong medicine (“aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” –1 Thess. 4:11), and the American church has done a pretty good job of administering it. (Everyone seems to be on about incarnation, sacrament, liturgy, and the resurrection of the body; whether those doctrines are a deeper and more abiding remedy to Cartesian dualism than the contemporary Health Movement, only time will tell.)

It’s interesting that even as private sport thrives – running, tennis, working out – public sport is increasingly seen by elites as something morally questionable (not that the NFL or FIFA have really helped the cause). This has given way to strange distortions: highly exclusive fitness fora such as Equinox, an extreme aestheticization of traditional craft among hipsters, the pursuit of rarity and perfection in innocent physical pleasures, such as coffee or the hamburger. Such recoveries, however, are largely the province of elites, who often view more public elements of physical culture like pro football or American Sniper with a robust dose of suspicion.


Fourth, it’s possible for the cynic to view this ‘mental turn’ (to describe the phenomenon broadly) as the values inevitable when radical capitalism meets a desk-job economy, which should make people a bit queasy. It also helps explain the phenomena of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, figureheads of the left-out (often those who have lacked the privilege for market success, on the one hand, and those who have lacked the privilege to be inculcated into certain social mores, on the other).

The fact that there is at least some overlap between the two groups, from that perspective, makes sense. Though Sanders may have come close, neither major party has really offered a strong alternative: in the way the two are characterized, at least, one party inclines towards protecting the winners of the rat-race (defending a de facto hierarchy), the other to broadening access to it (such that we eventually have a hierarchy which is perfectly meritocratic, and therefore legitimated). Things probably are not quite that dire, but the link between fetishization of the intellect and the exclusions of the market probably could bear closer scrutiny.[2]

Monolithic and pervasive moral value-systems tend to produce burnouts; where are the burnouts here? Perhaps we could find clues among the troubling mental-health statistics, some of them disproportionately concentrated among high achievers, the all-pro squads of the service-economy game. Perhaps they’re staring us in the face in the current election and fraught political climate, the rise of populism in Europe and America. It is strangest that as the Valley billionaires and eccentric geniuses are increasingly fetishized in popular culture, elite technocrats are decreasingly trusted. A sense of having been screwed, of having been left out of a promised dream, has defined much of politics and public dialogue. The old ghosts of human nature were more resilient than was thought.

Film Title: MacGruberDespite its own occasional preoccupation with certain strains of mathematical gnosis, the Church has a long history, if not of exorcising those ghosts, at least for recognizing them, naming them. The Bible and the history of the Church contain a rich doctrine of human sinfulness and recidivism; the Christian may be just as helpless as the humanist in the face of intractable human sin, but at least she is not surprised. And while the fictional doctors solve the next world problem with the mind (while the real ones despair over anti-vaxxers), the layperson may be more interested in Faulkner’s “verities and truths of the heart… love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

And more than the layperson. For Christianity, the intellectual is always passing away, valid but provisional, subject to complete relativization in the face of the divine; the wisdom of the world may be revealed as foolishness at any moment. Thus Aquinas, in the midst of one of the greatest works of philosophy and theology in human history, saw a vision from God and ceased his work, looking back and proclaiming all he had written to be “so much straw” (Lives of the Saints). And the great problem of the world – human sin, selfishness, pride, estrangement – lies on a completely different plane from that of even BBC’s Sherlock. Its solution shows up, spends a while learning carpentry, and consorts with fishermen. He appears mostly uninterested in the theology of his day, apart from levelling the occasional insult at its exponents, and he never really figures anything out. There are no dazzling deductions, no clever escapes from predicaments, no discoveries for posterity. In a worldly sense, his accomplishments are surprisingly banal: gave free lunch one afternoon to a big crowd – confused Nicodemus, a leading religious figure of the day – provided more wine when it ran out at a village wedding – “leaving behind the vast total of the world’s suffering almost unaltered, only the tiniest inroads made into it, only an infinitesimal fraction of it eased” (Spufford).

His body might tell an even grimmer story: thin, presumably, undernourished by modern standards, small shoulders and likely stooped posture, older at thirty-three than some of us are at fifty, feet likely knotted and bent from hard days of long travel. Whatever potential there is flashes brightly on Palm Sunday, but there is little else on offer. A dinner with the fishermen, some agonized moments of crying in private; when the prominent and powerful ask for a rationalization, an able defense from God, there is silence. And a broken body on a Friday afternoon, and an inexplicable resurrection, and breakfast on a beach for a faithless friend, and a wound in the hand for a doubter.

[1] Daenerys too embodies certain moral ideals – resolve, will, justice – but to get her to stand out as much as Tyrion, the show must resort to repeated epic dragon-scenes and occasionally make her into an avatar of vengeance against the decadent, oppressive, and patriarchal Westerosi. That latter is a different culturally salient ideal and, while not quite as forced as epic/badass dragon scene no. 6, still represents a bit of a short-circuit to greatness. Also interesting is that her character, like Jon Snow’s, doesn’t seem have any major flaws; one could speculate that of the three, Tyrion’s character alone is compelling enough to audiences to be able to handle some flaws, whereas they’re still working to get our (other?) Targaryens developed enough to bear the weight of some limits/vices.

[2] Fifth, a bit out of my depth here, but it’s worth a venturesome speculation that we don’t actually value the intellect as a way to explain the world so much as the marker and enabler of human potential; that if we had to use loosely some un-precise theological paradigm, we’re still fundamentally in a ‘voluntarist’ outlook, where intellect is only an instrument and enabler of the unactualized human will, hovering in possibility. Thus it is pure means, more or less, and in some ways subordinate to the ‘end’ of whatever it is that the genius will choose to do. Thus a brilliant tech engineer can be turned down from a job at the Genius Bar due to age, and MacGyver, again, is ten years younger than he was in the original.