A friend recently got me hooked on the show, Psych (I know, I’m late to the game), and I made the joke with her that Shawn Spencer is “American Sherlock with daddy issues.” (Ironically, this is the same friend who made the joke that turned into Drawful the Awful, and now here comes a blog post thanks to another joke). It’s a well trod character archetype, especially in modern TV: the sociopath/emotionally detached anti-hero/genius.
These days, it’s a pretty problematic trope, there’s a lot to be said about how it can quickly be misinterpreted as a certain ideal of a toxic masculinity: the genius unfettered and unimpeded by such silly (read: feminine) ideals such as emotion and love. At least, that’s the conclusion that ineffective renditions of the trope base themselves on (Looking at you, Phantom Thread).
The reality is that when the character archetype is employed most effectively it’s saying quite the opposite, and here are three examples of it:
I have to start here, because it’s the pinnacle and I absolutely adore the BBC Sherlock. The storytelling, the acting, it’s a tight but robust masterpiece of a series and Sherlock is the poster child for the detached genius trope described. Aggressively socially unaware to a point of careless abusiveness (poor Molly Hooper), we’re told: he’s a genius and it’s because he’s so completely unfettered by emotion and feelings that there’s only room for massive intellect.
Except the show makes it clear that isn’t the moral, and it isn’t what makes Sherlock any good at all. Right from the first episode, we see that intellect is what almost gets him to kill himself for no reason than to prove that he’s right in the game of death with the cab driver. We all love the moment that Sherlock tells Irene Adler that her emotions betrayed her and helped him figure out her game, but only because she was trying to deny having them.
Thus, we arrive at the real fortitude: intellect is great, but emotional awareness is key. Sherlock continues seeing Irene in his mind palace throughout the rest of the show, and when he’s shot by Mary in season 3, he uses the people and emotions attached to them to drive his self saving actions. It isn’t just knowledge that saves his life, it’s the emotional fuel from his friends and memories.
If it isn’t clear enough: Sherlock’s weakness was never developing emotions or emotional acuity, and his strength was never in the lack of them. He starts to realize that in later seasons when he begins chiding Mycroft for being antisocial and lonely, and it’s Mrs. Hudson who points out in season 4 that Sherlock is very emotional: “what does he do when he can’t solve a problem?”
Back to my newly beloved “American Sherlock with daddy issues.” Psych does a much better job up front of not trying to paint Shawn as some robotic sociopath. He has friends, he has family and colleagues. Did I mention he has friends? Because Dule Hill is a complete and thorough joy. I love him and I won’t hear any speak of ill of Gus.
To confirm what I concluded with Sherlock above: for the detached genius to work, they need to remain human, and to be human is to be flawed. The flaw can’t be “they lack flaws” nor can it be “well, they’re a genius and don’t feel things.” You make a pretty shit detective if you don’t understand feelings (since they factor into, you know, motives).
The flaw that makes this archetype work is lack of awareness regarding their emotions. Sherlock, at first, isn’t aware or willing to admit how much people around him mean to him, and Shawn has similar lack of awareness regarding his relationship with his father. His father was a hard ass in bringing him up and teaching him valuable lessons: Shawn’s challenge is getting past the harshness of some of the lessons to find the value in the lessons themselves, like in the first episode where his dad does teach him well with making Shawn build a dog house.
This one is the granddaddy of them all, and I thought using a non-detective character to illustrate the point would be a useful conclusion. Dr. Cox, ladies and gents.
I don’t think I need to run down his resume, he’s the best doctor at the hospital, emotionally walled off and reticent, aggressively distant and really walks the line on the toxic masculinity possibility I mention above (in fact, he probably does slip and tumble into it a few times, but for the most part he’s open minded and pretty #woke). However, the show does a great job establishing him as someone who is aware of feelings, and their factors in our work, our accomplishments and the good we can do for others, right from the get go.
Early in the series he has a night where he drunkenly shows up at JD’s sullenly venting about the emotional toll being a doctor can take. Much of his advice to JD isn’t for JD to become a robot, but to not let his emotions get in his way. In the evaluations episode, Dr. Cox goes off on JD, JD had been harassing Cox to evaluate him and Cox said the most important thing JD could do would be to look at himself honestly and frankly, and stop letting what others think and feel hold him back or distract him.
It’s a bit cliche at this point: but feel your feelings. They’re not weakness, even if they can lead to pain. Be wary of any media, any storyteller, any film where the message seems to be: genius trumps emotions and being good to others. Whether you’re a genius, a CEO, or say, the President of the United States: how you treat people, and the value you place on treating others well and with kindness should always be treated as an aspirational virtue, never weakness.