Some Scattered Thoughts on Detective Shows and Geniuses

I often joke here about my obsession with streaming Netflix television shows from 1992. Sometimes I find myself wondering what I actually did during the nineties that made me miss so much television, and then I remember I was hanging out with truancy officers, drinking Zima underage, angsting over my first boyfriend, and coming one horrible grade shy of flunking out of high school. Memories. But maybe it’s ultimately a good thing that I let myself get a little media literate before escaping into the mind of pop culture circa 1992. It’s fun to consume an unacceptable amount of television under the guise of “no really, I’m critiquing this shit in my mind, which is important, so it’s totally fine that I haven’t spoken out loud in three days or showered.” See, I work a second-shift job, while everyone I know works a first-shift job, so I often find myself awake in the wee hours with my good friends Adrian Monk, Cal Lightman, and most recently, Allison DuBois. (The reality is that all these shows first aired between 2002 and 2010, so the fact that I think the 90s are the 00s suggests an even larger problem, like, who am I and what year is it.)My routine looks something like this: If I had a crappy day, I like to start my TV marathon with something light, like an episode or two of Monk (which first aired in 2002). For those of you who don’t know, Adrian Monk is a former homicide detective who had a severe nervous breakdown when his wife, Trudy, was killed in a car bomb explosion. He was discharged from the police force because he was so distraught he couldn’t leave his house for three years, and his breakdown brought on a slew of intense phobias associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He eventually goes into business on his own as a consultant for his former colleagues on the police force, but not without a woman slash assistant slash nurse slash babysitter who follows him around everywhere handing him antibacterial wipes and driving him to and from crime scenes (among other degrading tasks). The show is usually hilarious, mainly because of Tony Shalhoub’s brilliant portrayal of Monk, but it certainly contributes to pop culture sexism (and in turn, real life sexism).

After an episode of Monk, I spend some time with Cal Lightman from Lie to Me, a current show in its third or fourth season that centers around an agency called, The Lightman Group, which specializes in reading facial expressions. Apparently, we all have these things called “micro-expressions” that betray us when we’re lying, but only highly-trained people can catch and decode these micro-expressions, (e.g. the employees at The Lightman Group). Dr. Lightman is literally a human lie detector, and it’s fun to watch him get up in the faces of liars and act like a cocky British bad-ass. He, too, works with women who, while brilliant and talented in their own right, spend a significant amount of their screen-time playing sidekick to Lightman and cleaning up his messes.

All this boy drama started to become stifling, so I browsed Netlix and found Medium (which first aired in 2005), a show I’d seen a few episodes of—and liked—but that I never really pursued, probably because of my embarrassing fear of the occult. Medium centers around Allison DuBois, a woman who can communicate in various ways with the dead, and who also has some psychic ability, such as knowing when a person might die, or experiencing creepy flashes of the horrible shit people have done in their pasts. DuBois interests me because, in addition to holding a job as a consultant for the district attorney (similar to Monk’s role in some ways) she’s also a mother of three young girls and has a rocket scientist husband who gets fed up on a regular basis with her mind-reading, afterlife communing talents. He admires her crime-solving abilities but deep down wishes she’d continued to pursue her law degree instead, in the name of normalcy. In this show, the man slash husband plays sidekick.

These three detective characters are similar in that their main role on their respective television shows is to catch criminals. All three of them aid the police force. All three of them often endanger themselves in the process of tracking down criminals. All three of them always succeed (which is the formula for crime dramas), and we’re led to believe that the criminals wouldn’t have been caught without the help of these characters. Monk, for instance, even with all his quirks and the accommodations he requires, is hailed as an absolute genius by his colleagues and is constantly referred to as “the greatest detective in the world” by his assistant. And he is, in fact, a scary good detective, and it’s for that reason that his quirks and his often abusive behavior (while played for laughs) is forgiven—the audience is led to believe that Monk wouldn’t be a genius detective without these eccentricities. (An episode where Monk takes an antidepressant for his phobias and subsequently becomes useless as a detective confirms that theory.)

Cal Lightman, too, might be one of the most egotistical characters I’ve seen on television, and he’s immensely likeable. He breaks all the rules and consistently does pretty much the opposite of what anyone tells him to do. His lack of respect for authority often helps him win his cases; his immediate contempt for and suspicion of The People in Charge sends him in unusual directions to solve crimes, so the audience is treated to episodes where he (hilariously) and deliberately does things like checking himself into a mental hospital, or going undercover as a coalminer and threatening to blow up the place if he doesn’t get answers—but we, and his colleagues, respect him more for his unorthodox detective work. Yes, he may step all over the people around him, but that’s just how he does things; who are they to get in the way of a genius in his element? But Cal inevitably leaves some sort of mess behind when he operates outside the box (i.e. pisses off so many authority figures), and it’s no surprise that his colleague, Dr. Gillian Foster, a psychiatrist who partnered with him to start The Lightman Group, gets stuck making amends on his behalf. (I’m very much reminded of the Dr. House/Dr. Cuddy dynamic here from the television show House.)

Interestingly (or not), both Monk and Lightman find motivation and success in their careers because of dead women; Monk is literally obsessed with finding Trudy’s killer (which is the one crime he hasn’t been able to solve), and Lightman wasn’t able to save his mother from killing herself; he watches old video tapes of her, repeatedly pausing them to read and reread her micro-expressions. This “I’m avenging the death of my [insert relationship to woman here]” theme shows up in, like, every movie about a man who achieves anything. In these shows and movies, even the dead women exist as nothing more than plot points to drive the narrative forward. It’s sick and demeaning to women. In fact, I should make a list of the films and television shows in which this trope exists and call it the “I’m Avenging the Death of My [Insert Relationship to Woman Here] Trope.” (I’m doing it.)

Did you think I forgot about Mrs. Allison DuBois? I love her. And oh what a difference gender makes on a detective show. In her world, she’s successful not because she’s eccentric or because she has a god complex but because she has special powers. In her world, even though she solves case after case, and sheds new light on past cases, she must always fight to be taken seriously by her boss, by her family, and often by her husband. The audience watches DuBois struggle both with solving the cases (while trying to raise a family of young daughters and keep her marriage intact) and dealing with the way her job directly impacts her interpersonal interactions. She isn’t, as is the case with Monk and Lightman, surrounded by an endless network of supportive characters no matter what; instead, her kind of “genius” is scary and unnatural and not to be trusted.

I get it. Dead people tell her shit, which is a little different than being aided by obsessive-compulsive disorder and a lucky mixture of intelligence coupled with extreme arrogance and defiance. But DuBois must decode the messages she gets, too. A dead person doesn’t just show up and say, “Hey, that dude killed me, and my body’s buried behind that dude’s house over there. Find me. Thanks.” The occult is obviously way more complex than that (eek!). While Lightman and Monk find themselves surrounded by people who worship them, she deals with the extra struggle of convincing people she isn’t crazy—but like, how many cases does she have to solve before people just admit she’s fucking awesome?

Arguably, DuBois is a much more fleshed-out character than Lightman or Monk. She has a husband, a family, a career, unacceptable sleep patterns, daycare to deal with, a possible alcohol problem, parent-teacher conferences to deal with—a life! The men, though, just kind of do the same shit every episode. Lightman does, however, have a teenage daughter, and season two ends with him flipping out about his daughter losing her virginity. I’m not joking. That’s how the entire season ends—in an episode where Lightman gets upset about his daughter not being a virgin anymore. I’m serious. It’s called “Black and White,” and it’s a horrible episode. (Seriously.)

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in discussing Medium because I’m only familiar with the first season. Perhaps things get better for Allison in later seasons. Perhaps the men in her life stop expressing so much condescension and distrust toward her and endow her with some Lightman- and/or Monk-esque respect. Perhaps she no longer feels compelled to apologize for her own idiosyncratic crime-solving abilities and develops Lightman’s uber-masculine arrogance about it. (But don’t take that confidence too far, Allison—no one wants to work with a bitch.) At the very least, in the first season of Medium, I sort of love her husband. I mean when is a male rocket scientist ever the sidekick, hmmm?

I guess ultimately what concerns me about these portrayals of male and female detectives is that it mirrors real life. Men are geniuses. It’s a fact. I think I once heard someone refer to Sylvia Plath as a genius in a lit class, but it’s absolutely uncommon to hear a woman referred to as such. Being a (male) genius comes with perks, too. You’re forgiven your bullshit, your weirdness, your unorthodox behavior, your screw-ups, your law breaking. I always think specifically of Roman Polanski—a film director who drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl, never went to prison, and managed to garner support from thousands in Hollywood who signed a petition on his behalf. He’s a genius! He’s paid his dues! Let him come back to the U.S.!!!!! I also recall the outrage surrounding the Julian Assange rape accusations—men across the globe immediately came to his defense (including “liberals” Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann), arguing: It’s a setup! Those women are lying! He’s a genius! Kneel before Zod!

Even though I really want to end this post on the phrase “Kneel before Zod!” I’d also like to say that while I love DuBois and think she is a genius and want to see her treated as such (in the same manner as her male counterparts) I’d also love to see more regular-ass women characters achieving genius-level shit. We need and love our women with superpowers (Buffy, too, of course), but I personally want to see a woman who looks like me, who does weird and unacceptable shit like me, who sometimes goes out in public wearing sweatpants like me, achieving some genius-level shit. I truly believe, as someone who studies pop culture and media, that we’re not going to make much progress toward ending misogyny in our everyday lives if we don’t deal with the misogyny we’re bombarded with in television shows, music videos, advertisements, films, and children’s programming. If we see it reflected all around us constantly, it becomes the norm. So, we need to call this shit out and keep calling it out, even when it seems like a tiny thing—like douchebag male detectives with unorthodox methods getting a free genius pass while brilliant female detectives with unorthodox methods have to endlessly prove their competence to significantly less competent people.

That right there is fucking patriarchy in action. Now:


  • Posted November 7, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the treatment of Alison DuBois, her husband does get better at believing and supporting her over the course of the show. I seriously loved the portrayal of their relationship. So full of respect and actual communication. Things rarely seen in a tv couple.

    However, her boss and (eventually her cop partner, I don’t think he was in season one) still, every episode, question whether her dreams/visions could possibly be true. My husband and I would constantly sigh and wonder how they could not believe her. She is always right.

  • Posted November 7, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    The “I’m Avenging the Death of My [Insert Relationship to Woman Here] Trope” is known in comics circles as “women in refrigerators”. The name comes from Gail Simone, who is now a well-regarded professional comics author but who in 1999-2000 or so was a fan who made a list of female characters who’d been killed off solely to give a male character his motivation (she took the term in turn from a particularly unpleasant example in Green Lantern comics).

    It’s depressingly pervasive; the list is long and has grown since 2000 (although since Simone has gone pro I don’t think she’s been keeping it updated). Obviously it’s a different genre, but I feel like there’s at least some fuzzy overlap between the “eccentric great detective” genre and the superhero. Anyhow, there’s been a fair amount of discussion of the trope under the “women in refrigerators” name which you might or might not be interested in.

  • Posted November 7, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    I think maybe Bones fits the genius with a supportive network of people who are there for her no matter what deal. Though I do think they make more of an effort to make her learn and make amends than with any of the male genius characters on other shows. Mostly though it’s just Brennan and you have to take it and accept it cause that’s how she is and she’s a genius.

  • Posted November 9, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    Oh yeah! Women in Refrigerators! I completely forgot about that, and we even did a spotlight on Feminist Frequency’s coverage of those tropes. Oops. :-)

  • Posted November 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I love Bones too. :)
    Also, I watched Medium for some time and really enjoyed it. It ran after a show called Ghost Whisperer on German TV. It was kind of a mix between Medium and Charmed and also quite enjoyable, although I liked Medium more: Alison just seemed more likable to me, maybe because she isn’t as conventonally attracrive and also older.
    My favorite TV show from the 90’s is X-Files, which has, after all, a strong female protagonist too :) But I have omly seen it up to the 7th season, so please, no spoilers 😉

  • LarissaP
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    May I suggest “The Tunnel” as your next binge? (French-Brit version)