In pop culture, especially in media marketed toward young adults, some tropes get beaten to death. Perhaps you are sick of hearing about a misfit child whose quirks turn out to be strange powers, which leads to him being whisked away to join similar kids and learning to wield those powers (such as those in Harry Potter, X-Men, Percy Jackson, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). Perhaps you are sick of dystopian futures in semi post-apocalyptic worlds (Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner). Or perhaps you’re just sick of zombies. But there is one figure that seems to always capture America’s attention, no matter how redundant: the insufferable genius.
For the sake of this list, we define the insufferable genius character by the following traits. 1) They are the smartest person in their respective “world.” 2) Their intelligence is so great, and also so loosely explained and defined in terms of limitations or potential, that it essentially operates as magic or a super power. 3) Their crippling arrogance makes almost every person they interact with hate them. 4) They deal with substance abuse. 5) Their genius is so invaluable that they are tolerated where anyone else would be ostracized.
The list will move from most recent to most dated.
1. Rick Sanchez
Rick is the most recent and active member of the insufferable genius community. In order to keep this trope fresh, Rick’s intelligence is designed to be the greatest of anyone on this list. He is not only referred to as the smartest man in the universe, but his ability to travel to alternate dimensions also makes him the smartest thing “in every conceivable reality.” His “world” is huge and infinite, and he is just as infinite, basically resembling a walking god. Along with being the “smartest” or, more accurately, the most powerful character on this list, he is also the biggest asshole.
Rick is a sociopath, destroying worlds as well as his daughter’s marriage, repeatedly scarring Morty on their sci-fi adventures and almost never apologizing for any of his selfish ventures. His substance of choice is alcohol, which he consumes constantly, but viewers also watch Rick take part in all kinds of illegal drugs both from our planet and not. However, what is unique about Rick is that his family, the group who chooses not to “ostracize” him, values him only partially for his intelligence. His value is also defined by Beth’s fear that Rick will abandon her, a fact that complicates and compromises the invulnerability of your typical insufferable genius.
2. Iron Man
Technically, Iron Man isn’t on television, but he’s been in so many movies in the last decade that it feels as if he’s been the star of an ongoing serial that is only showing movie theaters. And one more caveat: Even though Iron Man was technically created in 1963, I am using the Marvel Cinematic Universe conception of this character, which was created in 2008. Part of why I am doing this is that he is written and played as much more of a jerk in the recent movies than in other iterations. This speaks to the rising popularity of the insufferable genius trope; they had to make him more insufferable. Especially in the first movie, Stark is loud-mouthed, sleazy, painfully arrogant and incredibly domineering.
Tony Stark’s genius is similar to Rick’s in that it is based upon science and invention but on a much smaller scale. Stark is deemed one of the smartest men on the planet with an intelligence that allows him to create a suit of armor to literally give himself super powers. Stark’s substance abuse (again, primarily alcohol) is different from other geniuses on this list though, because one of his most prototypical character arcs is actually getting clean. But even when he is drug-free and he trades in his arms dealing for saving the world with the Avengers, Stark remains abrasively cocky. He is invaluable, though, as the putative leader of the Avengers and as one of the most powerful beings on Earth.
3. Dr. Gregory House
“HOUSE MD” premiered in 2004 before Marvel took the world by storm, thus introducing the resurgence of the insufferable genius figure. House’s world is the smallest yet, surrounding the hospital he works at: Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey. His “super power,” the manifestations of which range from his nearly infallible medical knowledge to the ability to tell if patients are lying, allows him to correctly diagnose even the most mysteriously ill patients.
His arrogance and inability to work well with others are particularly problematic because he is the only person on this list who works within a “professional” setting. People pay him to do his job and could potentially fire him if he crosses too many lines, and of course House crosses almost every line he can. In addition to constantly insulting his coworkers and superiors, he frequently bends or breaks regulations and rules, telling his team to break into people’s houses for evidence and demonstrating a gleeful lack of bedside manner in front of potentially dying patients and their relatives.
House’s possible excommunication from his peers is brought closer to the forefront when you consider his substance abuse: pain pills. His addiction to pain medication is on and off throughout the series, but it represents one of the interesting aspects of the insufferable genius trope. His biggest concern isn’t whether his “superpowers” will be sufficient to save the day (correctly diagnose the illness in time), but if they can save his job.
4. Sherlock Holmes
Here we are, the OG insufferable genius. In addition to the actual book series written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the turn of the twentieth century, the world has seen three completely separate iterations of the character in the past eight years. First, there was the Robert Downy Jr. version on big screen. Then we have the BBC hit series “Sherlock” that aired in 2010. Then another totally unrelated Sherlock Holmes TV show, called “Elementary,” was released in America.
Why is Sherlock Holmes so compelling to the public? Because he is the very essence of the insufferable genius. His intelligence is the most “raw,” in the sense that it has no specialty or focus. While he does invent small things and can craft tools on the fly, he is not “an inventor” or a “scientist.” His knowledge isn’t specifically medical or intergalactic. He is just extremely perceptive, capable of incredible deductions and feats of memory. His drug-taking is on the more extreme side, consisting of morphine and cocaine (although at the time, those drugs were not seen in the same light). Most importantly, he was the originator of the “insufferable” part of the insufferable genius.
While the British police usually hate him for his condescension and streaks of vigilantism, his arrogance and abrasiveness is best showcased by his relationship with Dr. Watson. Watson, an intelligent man by normal standards, spends his days being patronized and occasionally insulted by Holmes. Yet Watson is our entry point into the world as the stories are told from his perspective. He is the Morty to Sherlock’s Rick, the James Wilson to Holmes’ House MD. It is through his lens that we can see all the flaws of a character whose abilities remain mystic otherwise, and it is through this lens that the audience realizes the complicated truth: these worlds need their insufferable geniuses more than they hate them. And that’s saying a lot.