Recently I made a remarkable discovery. CBS, the network that specializes in family comedies led by old white guys and criminal procedures (also led by old white guys) has a covert division of TV writers working for them. They’re the Division 6 of the network, the xXx of scribes — thrill-seeking wordsmiths and daredevil poets doing high-flying stunts with their pens, working to transform a staid lineup into something that might actually be worth DVR-ing. (Are DVRs still a thing?).
That’s the only way I can describe the glorious gift that is Scorpion.
Look, most of the talk when it comes to zany, unabashedly ridiculous shows on CBS centers around Zoo and rightly so. Zoo is the cream of the crop when it comes to shows that prompt the question “What the f*ck were they thinking?” It’s the perfect case study of what happens when a writer has a pretty fantastic LSD trip, jots down their psychedelic ramblings, mashes it all together and throws it on some executive’s plate. In other words, you should watch Zoo.
But it seems that, in the colossal shadow, Scorpion, the little show that could about a group of geniuses struggling to understand the world even as they save it, has somehow been cheated of its due. Well, I’m here to correct that glaring injustice. I’m here to introduce you to your next guilty pleasure, the show you’ll answer with when co-workers make mundane small-talk, asking what you’re watching at the water cooler. You’ll say, “I’m loving Scorpion right now, because I read this hilarious, insightful, Pulitzer Prize-deserving feature on it on Uproxx … and because Zoo’s currently on hiatus.”
Scorpion is a loose account of a real-life genius named Walter O’Brien. The real O’Brien is an Irish computer expert who likes to claim he has the fourth highest IQ in the world. He’s pretty smart, I guess. But TV Walter O’Brien (played by Game of Thrones‘ Elyes Gabel) is not only a proven prodigy and all-around Einstein, he just so happens to be roguishly good-looking (like former Dothraki horseman good-looking) and have the ability to save the world on a daily basis no matter what the doomsday scenario.
Rebooting an airplane’s software system by hooking up an Ethernet cord to the bottom of a 747 mid-air? Walter can do it.
Parachuting into Bosnia to recover military-grade stealth tech? Not a problem.
Going undercover on a superhero movie set in Kazakstan in order to disable a Soviet era nuclear missile? Child’s play.
He’s a man with no EQ (Emotional Quotient) who sets up shop in a dingy warehouse and spends his time hacking NASA. Yet the Department of Homeland Security treats the guy like he’s a regular Gerard Butler, tasking him with impossible, global problems and crossing their fingers that he’ll be smart enough to do their job for them.
But Boy Wonder over here isn’t the only worthwhile thing about this show. The supporting cast of characters (most of them geniuses as well) are heroes in their own right. There’s Happy (Jadyn Wong), an ironically named mechanical engineer; Toby (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a Harvard-trained psychiatrist whose job is to shrink people whenever the story needs some exposition; Sylvester (Ari Stidham), a human calculator, germophobe, and the show’s comedic relief; Agent Cabe Gallo (Robert Patrick), a former Marine and FBI agent who’s been tasked to play babysitter to the bunch, make bad dad jokes, and appear appropriately exasperated whenever DHS tasks the team with an assignment completely out of their depth; and Paige (Katharine McPhee), a waitress who… well she’s supposed to teach Walter how to relate to the world but that’s a pretty tall order for anyone.
I realize these descriptions might sound critical, but I think it’s best to be completely honest when it comes to this show. You will, episode after episode, be forced to throw all logical thought and rational explanations out the window. You’ll be asked to just “go along with it,” “It” being some crazy scheme or half-baked plan mocked up by geniuses or high-ranking government officials that will inevitably go wrong, forcing said geniuses to come up with a way to fix their mistakes using some other crazy scheme or half-baked plan, this one even more cracked than the last. It’s a wild rollercoaster of excitement, joy, frustration, and confusion, one that usually ends with the resigned acceptance that you’ve spent an hour invested in these characters and will likely do it again next week. Because you see, as completely improbable and insane this show can be, it’s also really fun to watch.
Gabel is the perfect lead, able to be funny, charming, and enraging in his arrogance all at the same time. He’s a dick to his friends and Paige but it’s hard not to forgive him, admire him, and feel sorry for him – most of that is thanks to Gabel’s puppy dog eyes, but his acting is top-notch too. Katharine McPhee is doing her Katharine McPhee thing here – her perkiness and likeability make you forget that her character is wildly outmatched in the brains department and doesn’t really have a purpose beyond slapping the geniuses upside the head with basic social cues every now and then. Toby, Happy, Sylvester, and Agent Gallo are all worthy as well, each getting a decent amount of screen time (surprising in the women’s case since CBS favors male-led programming) and doing their best with it.
The group has gone on some wild adventures over the years – crashing on a desert island, getting stuck (nearly) in space, surviving a frenzy of sharks, disabling a rogue A.I. building, stopping a runaway subway train by slowing it down enough for Walter to jump onto the car and be pulled in through the emergency window just before being smashed on the platform’s edge. Week after week they cheat death, save the world, and teach us something about humanity.
With Happy we learn the meaning of family – her father gave her up after her mother died and she spent most of her formative years in foster care, something that influences her “give no f*cks” attitude. Toby makes his living off reading people’s quirks but that doesn’t help him with his gambling addiction. Sylvester is terrified of everything, something he struggles with every day while working on a team that regularly puts itself in dangerous situations for no reason. And Agent Cabe Gallo is a hardened soldier, a guy past his prime who could likely be sipping pina coladas on a beach somewhere but instead risks his neck for this rag-tag bunch.
Critics and awards show voters haven’t evolved enough to recognize the brilliance of a show like Scorpion. It doesn’t fit into a ballot box, not with its logic-defying storylines that don’t just nudged the boundaries of realism and the laws of nature, they completely blow past them, slowing just enough to wave a big middle finger.
And they’re right. As someone who watches entirely too much TV for a living, I can attest to the fact that most of what I’m seeing is just too real. Dystopian dramas about enslaved societies that abuse women and minorities, military dramas focusing on covert teams eliminating terrorists around the globe, a family drama about three siblings navigating life after the loss of their dad to as-of-yet unknown causes – it’s like, we get it TV, you’re trying to reflect tangible problems, to be a metaphorical mirror to the world and I’ll tune in because I enjoy resting in a comfortable state of fear, paranoia, and sadness most of the time.
But dammit, sometimes I just want my TV to be fun. I want it to be that one-night stand after you’ve downed too many tequila shots at the bar, mixed up your ibuprofen for Percocet, popped a Xanax because you realized your mistake too late and got nervous about it, then decided, “F*ck it. YOLO. Give me a body to grind on.” It doesn’t matter if that body is smart, or sensitive, or capable of inciting deep conversations about institutionalized racism and the oppressive patriarchy and what bullshit it is that women have to pay a tampon tax. That’s not why I’ve decided to let it into my home. I want entertainment. I want sheer pleasure, the hollow kind people say you’ll regret but you never really do, at least not for too long.*
I want a show that knows what it is and isn’t afraid to stand in all its naked, crazy glory and scream, “Here I am. Take it or leave it.”
I’ll take it Scorpion. I’ll take it.
(*) I’m sorry this got sexual so fast, I blame it on the show’s season four premiere. You’ll have to watch it to truly understand but I’ll leave you with this: two characters do the dirty for the first time, then the show gives us a full-blown musical episode about intercourse. See what you’re missing?*