We’re living in an era of Peak TV, which means that there are plenty of terrific shows well worth your time, and too few hours in the day to watch them all. There are lots of shows designed for intelligent audiences; shows that demand close viewing and reward those who spend hours thinking about them when they aren’t watching them. Some of those shows truly earn the fan culture that surrounds them, but others aren’t so deserving.
The shows on this list are considered smart for one reason or another. Some of them are supposed to have intricate plots and complex characters, while others use specific types of dialogue to create an illusion of intelligence. To be clear, some of these shows are great. The only thing that unites them is that they have a reputation for intelligence that they probably don’t deserve. Here are 15 'Smart' TV Shows That Are Dumber Than You Realized.
Lost is great. It’s very good at a lot of things, and it’s been widely acknowledged as one of the best TV shows ever made. It’s a show about the survivors of a plane crash who land on a mysterious island, and slowly unravel its secrets. The show created online fervor unlike any that had been seen before, and it spawned an entire culture that still exists today.
Unfortunately, Lost didn’t reward those who watched it most closely. In the end, it failed to address many of the mysteries it had presented, and left many fans unsatisfied by the experience of watching the show. Lost didn’t give its audience all the answers. Over the course of its six seasons, it was consistently plotted, and proved to be one of the best character studies that television has ever offered. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as clever as some people thought it would be, and some of its most curious mysteries remain unsolved to this day.
14 How to Get Away With Murder
How to Get Away With Murder seems like a revolutionary way to reveal a murder mystery. The show follows a group of law students who work alongside their criminal defense professor to unravel a murder. Initially, the show provided a compelling story that seemed to have all of the best conventions of the murder genre, and also provided a slew of interesting characters.
As the series continued to unravel, though, it became a victim of its own fast-paced plotting. The timing of the reveals and the sheer volume of plot developments meant that the situations that these characters found themselves in continued to become more and more ludicrous. While it’s good for a show to introduce new developments on a weekly basis, How to Get Away With Murder took the idea a bit too far, and ended up jumping the horse. The intelligent parts of the show were left by the wayside.
The premise of Suits is as ridiculous as they get. The central idea is that a highly-intelligent college drop-out himself a job working with a preeminent lawyer, even though he doesn’t have a law degree. The series plays around with the idea of revealing Mike’s secret, and he eventually goes to jail for it, if only for a short time. While the show features fast-paced dialogue and occasionally makes use of complex legal jargon, these qualities should not be confused with intelligence.
Law shows often use complex language to disguise plots that are both ridiculous and fairly standard issue. Suits does very little that’s truly innovative, and instead relies on the fact that all of its central characters are smart people. The show is a lot of fun, for sure. It’s the epitome of a USA "blue skies" drama, complete with all the great things that that entails. It’s just not the smartest thing on TV.
12 Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey is undoubtedly wonderfully addictive. It’s the kind of show that’s hard to quit, and it’s made even more enticing because of its quaint period setting. The show, which followed the life of an aristocratic British family and their servants during the early 20th century, was smart about the way it put issues of class and decorum at its center.
Unfortunately, this idea wasn’t as revolutionary as many believed it to be, and although it made for some compelling drama, it was ultimately just a reworking of hundreds of years of melodrama. At its core, Downton Abbey is a soap opera. It’s a show filled with twists and turns, where every character is fighting to make things perfect in the eyes of their family, society, and themselves. It made for some really interesting drama, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t soapy to its core, even if it was dressed up in finer fabrics than usual.
For one beautiful, shining moment, it seemed like Homeland was the best thing on TV. The show follows Carrie Bradshaw, a special agent with bipolar disorder who becomes convinced that a prisoner of war has been converted by Al Qaeda. It debuted with one of the best first seasons in recent television history, and then immediately fell off a cliff.
Ironically, many of the qualities that made the first season great were indicative of what genuinely smart TV does. The story was compelling, and the central characters were fascinating and complicated.
Unfortunately, as the show continued its run, it became clear that this season was really the exception instead of the norm. In the ensuing seasons, the show became less tightly packed, and began to drag its central character through story after story, even as the conspiracies and plots that she was attempting to unravel became increasingly nonsensical and odd.
24’s premise is admittedly a clever one. Following special agent Jack Bauer as he unraveled political conspiracies in real time, the show got a lot of mileage out of its clever styling and its gritty aesthetic. The series was famous for introducing complicated plots that Jack Bauer would slowly unravel over the course of a season, and this proved effective-- at least early on in the show’s run.
Eventually, 24 had the same problem that many superhero films still have today. The stakes were so high on the show from the very beginning that it eventually had trouble topping itself. On top of that, the show’s intricate plotting began to seem rather corny, especially considering the high stakes of all of Bauer’s operations. The world can’t be in such imminent peril all the time.
24 proved to be a deeply entertaining show, but it just wasn't particularly smart in the way it told its stories.
Dexter’s another show that always seemed like a great idea on paper (it's based on a book, after all!), and, truth be told, it was for a while. The show follows a serial killer who justifies his crimes by murdering killers. It’s the kind of antihero drama that dominated the first decade of the 21st century, and Dexter was up to the task of telling its complex stories-- for a couple of seasons, at least.
Unfortunately, the show eventually lost its grasp on itself, and its central character. What were once very interesting questions about the morality of murder were ultimately weighed down by inconsistent characterization and strange plot decisions. What’s more, the show didn’t seem to know how to allow its central figure to progress past a certain point, and faltered in its later seasons.
Dexter might be the ultimate example of something that’s true in TV generally: namely, that an interesting antihero is not enough to make up for a badly told story.
House is certainly plenty of fun to watch, but that doesn’t mean it’s at smart as many of its biggest fans might think. The show, which follows a grumpy doctor who solves complex medical cases while warring with his own narcissism, is often a rewarding watch, and Dr. Gregory House is certainly a deeply compelling character. Still, at its core, the weekly cases that House is often forced to solve follow a fairly recognizable pattern that only varies on rare and significant occasions.
The smartest thing about House is the way it treats its central figure, who is rude and occasionally insufferable, but also deeply human. Unfortunately, the show around him adheres to a fairly standard procedural formula, wherein the characters discuss some issue related to the patient they’re treating, and House ultimately figures out the answer at the last minute. They try to throw medical jargon around in the hopes of throwing off the audience, but it can't cover up a central conceit that held this series back from being truly smart.
7 The Newsroom
The opening scene of The Newsroom is probably its biggest legacy, and with good reason. The scene, which features the show’s central character launching into an enormous rant about why America isn’t actually the greatest country on Earth anymore, is moving and genuinely smart. Unfortunately, the rest of The Newsroom failed to live up to the incredibly high expectations that this opening moment promised.
Instead, the HBO show, which ran for three seasons, usually offered explanations that were far simpler and more preachy than their real world equivalents. Creator Aaron Sorkin seemed to argue that, if news people would make reporting real news their top priority, everything else would simply fall into place. While Sorkin’s points about the way that news media works are valid, his answers are often too easy, and they ignore the complexity that governs the real world. Sorkin’s characters seem to believe that idealism will often win the day. Unfortunately, many today know that’s not really the case.
6 The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle had all the right ideas, but it fumbled them with its execution. The show is set in an alternate reality where the Axis powers won the war, and the United States has been invaded and divided into three clearly delineated sections. Hope emerges when tape is discovered which seems to suggest an alternate reality; one in which the Allied powers emerged victorious.
The show’s fantastical premise was enough to keep many viewers invested, but that doesn’t mean the show lives up to its many great ideas. Unfortunately, the characters that populate the show are much less interesting than the world that they’re exploring, and the fairly simple plotting ultimately makes for a show that is almost entirely without intrigue. Viewers may be curious where the plot ultimately leads as the show develops, but that’s about the only reason to keep up with The Man in the High Castle at this point.
The stories of Sherlock Holmes were always meant to be fairly complex, and that remained true in the modern adaptation of the stories, which aired on the BBC. Sherlock followed a modern day Holmes who used all of the 21st century’s technology to help him solve the crimes the show presented him with, which were often twists on old Sherlock Holmes stories. The show presented these stories in movie-length installments, which allowed the mysteries to unfold more fully.
While Sherlock is certainly a lot of fun, it’s difficult to argue that its plotting is actually as intricate as it wants viewers to believe it is, especially in later seasons. In these later installments, the show shifted somewhat into an espionage thriller, and its mysteries were often fairly simple and peppered with flash to distract the audience of these facts. Sherlock began to rely too heavily on its innovative formal elements, and let its plotting sag as a result.
4 True Detective
True Detective debuted to widespread acclaim. The anthology series, which follows detectives who solve intricate crimes while dealing with their own personal demons, was initially praised for its stylized dialogue and its equally stylish visuals, from scribe Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga. Eventually, though, many realized that the show was actually a much more straightforward detective story than they initially believed it to be.
While True Detective seemed to brush up against the supernatural, especially in its first season, the show ended up being a much simpler examination of the horrors in our world, and of the people who get up every morning and work to beat them. The show might work well as a fable, but its story is actually much less intricate than many fans wanted it to be. It’s an interesting show, for sure, but once season 2 premiere, audiences got wise to the fact that it just wasn't as smart as it seemed in season 1.
3 The Walking Dead
At its core, The Walking Dead is a simple, easily digestible story dressed up in nitty-gritty clothes. The central premise of a zombie apocalypse that wipes out most of humanity and brings out the worst in those who survive was interesting for a short period, but the premise can only take a show so far. What was left on the show after that was ostensibly a story about morality in immoral times, but this often got lost in the insane amounts of violence and brutality.
The Walking Dead remains trapped in a loop wherein it presents a hopeful situation for its characters, and then immediately yanks that hope away in order to further its nihilistic goals. The show is stuck in a pattern; one that’s pretty inescapable and that leads to pretty uninteresting television. It’s true that the show still occasionally spits out interesting episodes, but these examples are glimpses of the diamonds in the rough.
2 House of Cards
Over the course of television’ history, there have been plenty of shows to tackle the scandals and political intrigue that come out of Washington D.C. on a regular basis. Still, House of Cards is remarkable in the Machiavellian lengths that its central characters go to to attain power and to hold onto it. There are few shows with a darker depiction of the capitol of the United States, and fewer still that so fully ensnared audiences.
Still, while it may seem like the terrifying power-hungry couple at the show’s center are actually geniuses, that’s at least partially because everyone else on the show is so stupid. On top of that, many of the show’s most crucial plot developments are laughably unrealistic, and create a world that has little in common with our own. House of Cards wants to be an intelligent show about terrible people. Instead, it ends up being a rather entertaining melodrama with lots of silly plot twists and turns.
1 The Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory may seem like an odd entry on a list that is mostly filled with shows that have complex plots or are about supposedly weighty ideas. Although The Big Bang Theory is a standard sitcom, there are many who believe that it’s intended for a smart audience, in part because the central characters are all supposed to be of advanced intellect.
While it’s true that the show’s characters are geniuses, the show itself mostly chooses to make jokes at their expense, mocking their odd speech patterns and acting like the words they use are strange or laughable. Of course, just because the characters within a show are intelligent, doesn’t necessarily mean that the show itself is. This is the case with The Big Bang Theory, which is much dumber than its characters. The show is a conventional sitcom in almost every respect. It just happens to be about nerds.
Are there other "smart" shows that don't live up to their reputations? Let us know in the comments.
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