The end of Frasier Crane brings home that TV can’t do smart people good.
In the TV universe, the intelligentsia is a tiny minority in a population of Gilligans and Seinfelds. “Frasier” proved a refreshing exception, and its Thursday finale sweeps off not one, but two smarty-pants from the schedule (three, if you count occasional guest-star Bebe Neuwirth as Lilith Sternin-Crane).
Charmingly neurotic and hopelessly bourgeois, the brothers Crane suffered the comic mishaps of their intellectual pomposity. Still, the punch lines came less from an allegiance to their higher consciousness than from their hypocrisy when they strayed.
Most of the time, you get the feeling that TV’s smart people are created by a bunch of bitter vengeful C-students. Smart folks are usually blowhards or nerds with no sense of rhythm or dress. It’s even worse when creators try: For instance, when “CSI” strays from jargon, the cadavermongers spout stiffly inappropriate aphorisms or puns. (Worse yet, a character mispronounces Carl Jung with a hard J.)
In Hollywood, Q rating — the estimation of a celebrity’s name recognition and appeal — is all (and wouldn’t you know it, the full-time job of a real marketing company), with scores from one to 50. Still, as much as we kept shows like “Three’s Company” and “Walker, Texas Ranger” alive, we TV viewers rank IQ pretty high, too.
So here’s the math: With Q ratings from one to 50, and with IQ ratings from 100 on up, with 100 being smarter than the average bear, and 130 near-genius, we review TV’s smartest for their Q and IQ ratings in honor of the Cranes (Q 50, IQ 130).
Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson, “WKRP in Cincinnati”). The receptionist defied the conventions that blond and brains were mutually exclusive. (Anderson supposedly engineered the turnabout of Marlowe, originally intended to be the straightforward dumb blond.) Marlowe ran the administrative operations for the inept but lovable station manager (Gordon Jump), learned seven languages while on the job and shut down lascivious come-ons with unrattled efficiency. While she earned more money than her boss, she refused to lend any cash, especially to perpetually strapped Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman): “I don’t loan money to men. It makes them weak.” IQ: 110 Q: 40.
The Professor (Russell Johnson, “Gilligan’s Island”). Critics have maligned the poor professor, lesser known as Dr. Roy Hinkley Jr., for being able to make radios out of coconuts and repair NASA satellite cameras, but never figuring out how to use all those trees to build a ship. Sadder than that was being the best-looking single male and not being able to score with the movie star, Mary Ann or special guest Zsa Zsa Gabor. IQ: 130. Q: 25.
Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, “The X-Files”). Easily one of the most brilliant duos in television history, the detectives score higher points for not succumbing early on to a misguided romantic pairing a la “Moonlighting” (although marriage worked for Agent 99 and Maxwell Smart in “Get Smart”). No Woodward and Bernstein they, though: Their collective human intelligence couldn’t outwit government conspirators or alien smarts. Brain power proved impervious to seeing family members killed off one by one, all the blows on the noggin Mulder received and Sculder being probed, prodded and impregnated. Collective IQ: 130. Q rating: 35.
Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher, “Homicide: Life on the Streets”). He may not have quoted Zen koans or stocked up on human behavior trivia like his colleagues, but the detective gleaned the soul of a criminal better than any father confessor. A formidable presence (likely thanks to Shakespearean training), street smarts and fearsome brain power gave him the force of a brooding king or an avenging pope. Pembleton didn’t clean up the streets, he purged them, and Baltimore may not have been the safer for it, but it was the better. IQ: 130. Q: 40.
Gil Grissom / Horatio Caine (William Petersen / David Caruso, “CSI” and “CSI: Miami”): Wildly popular, gratingly smug and mysteriously granted enforcement powers beyond their job description. Grissom clearly has more of the brain cells. The Miami lieutenant isn’t so much smart as supercilious, which may be more the fault of Caruso’s smarmy delivery. Meanwhile, Grissom tends toward the bombastic (in killing ants: “I view them as martyrs in a scientist’s holy war”) or strained snottiness (to a cowboy who hates “retards”: “By the way, the definition of the word retard is ‘to hinder’ or ‘to hold someone back.’ I think your life is about to become retarded.”) And could he please tell his staff that gestalt doesn’t mean The sum is greater than the whole of its parts? Collective IQ: 115. Q: 30 (Caine’s the drag).
Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel, “Gilmore Girls”). Unlike most of her screen brethren, the younger Gilmore knows not to waste any angst about being a straight-A gal. She accepts her intellectual lot with equanimity and recently became an Ivy Leaguer, following grandpappy’s footsteps. Perfectionism, however, does lead her to hysteria, alas, as do matters of the heart. There, she follows mama’s footsteps. Fortunately, the daughter knows that she can almost always confide in mama. IQ: 130. Q: 40.
Cast of “E.R.”: Histrionics and excessive bedside manners sometimes pushes this NBC veteran into “General Hospital” territory. Soap operatics aside, the interwoven story lines rivet with passion and procedures. The program is also one of the few to integrate minorities (although criticized for taking so long to do so). Still, it gives us too-smart-for-her-own-good Jing-Mei (Deb) Chen (Ming-Na); book-smart Neela Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra); sincerely smart Michael Gallant (Sharif Atkins); smart-mouthed Gregory Pratt (Mekhi Phifer); and the gone but not forgotten smarter-than-thou Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle), whose arrogance and intolerance made residents quake. Collective IQ: 125. Q: 45.
Cast of “The West Wing”: The Democratic fantasy of how the Clinton White House really operated. At its best, rat-a-tat dialogue made bureaucracy juicy, diplomacy sexy and backroom dealings a necessary evil. In the early seasons, Aaron Sorkin’s writing crackled in its energetic wit and bucked political apathy, at least in the pop culture realm. IQ: 130. Q: 45.
Malcolm Wilkerson (Frankie Muniz, “Malcolm in the Middle”): Male adolescence and boy genius can often be counterintuitive. Malcolm can’t quite fit in the dysfunctional family scheme of things, although sometimes he leads the deranged pack. With brilliance comes enforced responsibilities. The precocious smart-aleck knows more than he thinks and less than he does. IQ: 165 (according to Fox). Q: 40.
Lisa Simpson and Velma Dinkley (“The Simpsons” / “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?”). The cartoon universe doesn’t fear masterminds, although they do tend to be evil. These gals are illustrated exceptions. Simpson defies half her DNA and upbringing to be a saxophone-playing intellectual environmentalist. A high school graduate at age 15, myopic Velma reads Chinese, deciphers the Rosetta stone, quotes Hamlet and catches villains, all in a miniskirt and knee-length socks. Collective IQ: 130. Q: 50.
Mrs. Peel and John Steed (Diana Riggs and Patrick McNee, “The Avengers”): OK, these are British imports: He a secret agent in Edwardian gallantry, she a talented amateur in sinewy leather. Still, hands down, they were the most brilliant and best-dressed team who also defined elegant camp aesthetics. (“The New Avengers” version reportedly inspired Gillian Anderson). Mrs. Peel especially dazzled, rattling off details from manufacturing to ornithology and tossing villains with karate chops. The polished Brits once infiltrated a Mensa-like organization by filling out a questionnaire. How, Steed asked Mrs. Peel, did she score? “Well above average,” came the clipped reply. “Better than mine?” Steed persisted. “Roughly the same. That’s hardly surprising since I also did your paper for you.” Collective IQ: 130, Q: 50.
WHEN TO WATCH
What: “Frasier” retrospective and finale When & where: 7 and 8 p.m. Thursday, NBC