We’ve all had at least one moment in our lives so far where we desperately wished we were smarter in one way or another. It could be as you’re struggling to remember a test answer that you know you studied the night before. When you realize you left your shopping list at home and you try to picture what was on the list at the supermarket. Or as you’re helping your kid or younger sibling with their math homework, and you’re scratching your head right with them.
Sure, it would be mighty convenient in everyday life to be some kind of genius. But have you ever wondered how having exceptional mental capabilities could play out in the bigger picture?
Well, we’ve put together a list of TV shows that feature a genius as the main character – all of whom play different parts in the “real world” of fictionalized TV. You’ve got child prodigy turned physicist, FBI profiler, expert diagnostician, lawyer, inventor, and even a machine – among many others.
So, sit back and let these intellectual savants knock your socks off with their almost unfathomable smarts!
Scorpion, CBS (2014 – 2018)
Loosely based on self-proclaimed computer genius Walter O’Brien, CBS’s Scorpion follows O’Brien’s character and his team of high-IQ geniuses from a variety of disciplines. O’Brien himself is a tech prodigy with an IQ of 197, but his low EQ makes him somehow socially awkward – though that’s not to say he’s completely emotionless.
His team includes a psychiatrist and behaviorist, a gifted mechanical engineer, and a mathematician and statistician. Also part of the team is a mother with relevant humanitarian knowledge who takes care of the team and her genius son who has an IQ of 200. Together, the team works with Homeland Security to fight against the world’s high-tech threats.
Where to watch Scorpion:
The Big Bang Theory, CBS (2007 – 2019) & Young Sheldon, CBS (2017 – present)
The Big Bang Theory tells of the everyday lives of four brilliant scientists: astrophysicist Rajesh Koothrappali, astronaut and aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz, experimental physicist Leonard Hofstadter, and senior theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper. Though they, along with Sheldon’s partner Amy (a neurobiologist) and Howard’s partner Bernadette (a microbiologist), are geniuses in their own right, it’s really Sheldon that takes the cake in their group.
Because of his glaring lack of social skills and characteristics consistent with Asperger’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder, a lot of the humor in the CBS sitcom centers on his antics. And, since his genius is so jaw-dropping, a spin-off series titled Young Sheldon was created to provide fans an explanation of both his intellect and his personality.
Where to watch Young Sheldon:
MacGyver, CBS (2016 – 2021)
CBS’ MacGyver follows a team of U.S. government operatives who are called in when an unconventional approach is necessary. Why? Because the team is built around Angus MacGyver, an ex-Army EOD technician with a genius-level intellect, unparalleled engineering skills, and exceptional physics knowledge. MacGyver uses his vast skill set to “hack” everything around him and solve problems others would see as impossible.
During the course of the series, we see MacGyver and the Phoenix team deal with everything from looking for kidnapped informants in Chernobyl and investigating mysterious objects at Area 51 to, more recently, taking down a clandestine organization that plans to cause a global apocalypse. With 5 seasons under its belt, this action-packed show is definitely a much-watch.
Where to watch MacGyver:
The Pretender, NBC (1996 – 2000)
NBC’s The Pretender follows Jarod, a man on the run from an institution, called the Centre, and the people that run it. Because of his knowledge as a child prodigy, he was abducted and raised at the Centre so they could use his intelligence to create tools of destruction. When Jarod found out, he promptly escaped and pulls all the stops to remain just out of their reach.
Not only is he highly intelligent but he is also an expert impostor: he’s able to quickly learn and master skills necessary to assume any profession. Every episode shows him taking on a new identity in order to escape the Centre and find out more about who he really is.
Where to watch The Pretender:
Sherlock, BBC One (2010 – 2017)
BBC’s Sherlock is a modern reboot of the infamous genius in literary history: its titular character Sherlock Holmes – and of course, his brilliant assistant Dr. John Watson. Still working out of his rented home-slash-workspace on 221B Baker Street in London, Holmes and Watson assist Detective Inspector Lestrade from the Metropolitan Police Service on cases – some of which are loosely based on the novels Sherlock Holmes was originally borne from. Like the original, his arch-nemesis Jim Moriarty plays a huge role in the series as well.
Occasionally assisting them are a pathologist from St. Bart’s Hospital and Holmes’ older brother Mycroft. Holmes and Watson are played by Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Strange) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit trilogy) respectively, and there’s probably no one better to play these roles.
Where to watch Sherlock:
Elementary, CBS (2010 – 2019)
CBS’ Elementary is another modernized – and now Americanized – reimagining of the misadventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Although Sherlock here is originally also from London, he relocates to modern-day New York City as he struggles to overcome his drug addiction. Alongside Watson, he works as a consultant for the NYPD and as per usual, often finds himself at odds with those in charge.
Though many of the well-known characters have remained, some of them experienced a gender swap that we didn’t know we needed. Watson is now Dr. Joan Watson, Sherlock’s sober companion, and eventual investigative assistant. While Moriarty is now Jamie Moriarty – played by the beautifully sinister Natalie Dormer.
Where to watch Elementary:
Numb3rs, CBS (2005 – 2010)
Who knew that mathematics actually had so many practical applications in real life? If only we all had the mathematical capability that our genius in this show has! Staying on the theme of crime-solving geniuses, CBS’ Numbers focuses on the relationship with two brothers, FBI Special Agent Don Eppes and mathematics prodigy and college professor Charlie Eppes.
Every episode features a different crime handled by a team of FBI agents, including Don, and with the mathematical consultation of Charlie – and in each one, the math presented is always crucial to solving the cases. To lend to its legitimacy, professional mathematicians served as consultants on the show and each equation is very much real!
Where to watch Numb3rs:
Person of Interest, CBS (2011 – 2016)
Creations with artificial intelligence are naturally made to be extremely brainy because of their highly technical and far-reaching connections. In the case of CBS’ Person of Interest, a billionaire computer programmer, Harold Finch, works with the federal government to create a program aimed at preempting terrorist acts – what they’ve called the Machine.
Due to the increasing sentience of the Machine, Finch discovers that the program is able to identify other high-threat risks outside terrorism. With the help of a former Special Forces and CIA agent as well as many others through the course of the five seasons, Finch is able to use the Machine to work on the threats uncovered by the Machine that the government has sidelined.
Where to watch Person of Interest:
House, Fox (2004 – 2012)
Gregory House is the titular character in House, M.D. (more commonly referred to as simple House), a medical drama following a team of diagnosticians based out of the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey.
House is a medical genius specializing in infectious diseases and is the leader of the team, but his chronic misanthropy and unconventional diagnostic process, while hilarious, often has him butting heads with literally everyone around him – not to mention his personal struggle with Vicodin to deal with the pain in his right leg. Each episode covers a unique storyline centered on a patient’s illness and the team’s attempt to diagnose it.
Where to watch House:
Da Vinci’s Demons, Starz (2013 – 2015)
Leonardo Da Vinci is a well-known historical polymath who dabbled in various aspects of arts, mathematics, engineering, inventions, paleontology, and even architecture – among others. Da Vinci’s Demons may be a fictionalized version of Da Vinci’s life, but his polymathic ability is still a central theme throughout the series.
Part of Da Vinci’s Demons and one would even argue that it’s the cause of all his troubles is his troublesome relationships with his father, Piero. Because of it, he eventually comes to work with the House of Medici as an Ottoman invasion rips through Italy and the city of Otranto. His many works as an inventor and military engineer are featured throughout the show and are sometimes even used against him.
Where to watch Da Vinci’s Demons:
Rick and Morty, Adult Swim (2013 – present)
Rick and Morty may be a Cartoon Network animated production but it’s far from safe for kids, rightly earning a spot in its adult-oriented programming, Adult Swim. The cartoon follows Rick Sanchez and his grandson Morty Smith as they go through various interdimensional space-traveling misadventures.
The two eponymous characters are the geniuses here, but each in his own regard. Rick is a misanthropic mad scientist whose genius comes from seemingly knowing everything there is to know about the universe. Because of his omniscience, he’s become bored with life and resorts to alcohol and space travel to make things interesting. Morty, on the other hand, has the upper hand when it comes to emotional intelligence.
Where to watch Rick and Morty:
Criminal Minds, CBS (2005 – 2020)
Criminal Minds had a great 15-season run on CBS. Centered on the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) of the FBI, this series follows a new case in every episode – with later seasons also featuring an overarching storyline. The goal of the BAU is to use criminal profiling to predict the serial killers’ next moves and stop them before they strike again.
All the team members have a prowess for critical thinking, but Dr. Spencer Reid is a rare gem even by the FBI’s standards. He has a trifecta of mental capabilities: an IQ of 187, an eidetic memory, and the ability to read 20,000 words per minute. Also, he has BAs in Psychology, Sociology, and Philosophy, and PhDs in Chemistry, Engineering, and Mathematics!
Where to watch Criminal Minds:
Suits, USA Network (2011 – 2019)
Mike Ross may be a college dropout, but his photographic memory has allowed him to cruise through school thus far – though not without its share of consequences, of course. After a botched drug sale turns into a chance meeting with corporate lawyers and “the best closer in the city” Harvey Specter, Mike manages to get a job as an associate at a top law firm in Manhattan – all without ever having attended law school or even college.
There’s a consistent storyline that crosses multiple episodes and seasons of Suits, but each episode also delves into various legal cases and how the dynamic duo of Mike and Harvey try to win each one. Mike’s character left the show after season seven but hey, at least we still had Harvey Specter for the last two seasons of the show!
Where to watch Suits:
Limitless, CBS (2011)
Our previous geniuses on this list of TV series with genius characters seem to have been born with the capacity for an advanced intellectual prowess, but not the protagonist of CBS’s short-lived drama Limitless. Taking place four years after the movie of the same name, Limitless follows Brian Finch, a struggling musician who gains access to a mysterious drug called NZT-48. Unbeknownst to him, it’s a nootropic that – true to its nature to improve cognitive functions – unlocks the full potential of the human brain.
Whenever Brian takes an NZT-48 pill, he becomes the smartest person in the world for 12 hours. There are fatal side effects, but he’s able to counteract them with a pill from a mysterious high government official. Brian uses his increased mental faculties to assist the FBI, all while keeping the counteractive shot a secret.
Where to watch Limitless:
The Good Doctor, ABC (2017 – present)
Freddie Highmore has a talent for playing troubled and out-of-the-ordinary characters (most notably as Norman Bates in Bates Motel) and his skill as an actor becomes all the more apparent in ABC’s The Good Doctor. Here, Highmore plays Shaun Murphy, a young surgical resident at the San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital.
Not only is Murphy part of a prestigious surgical unit, but he is also autistic and has savant syndrome. His capabilities include “near-photographic recall” and the ability to notice and process minute details in his surroundings. Though he has difficulty forming connections with his colleagues, he uses his exceptional abilities to save lives.
Where to watch The Good Doctor:
Prison Break, Fox (2005 – 2009; 2017)
Another show we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention in this list of TV shows about geniuses is Fox’s cult series Prison Break that lasted 4 seasons and returned in 2017 for a limited sequel that takes place several years after the events of season 4.
Prison Break follows a genius structural engineer Michael Scofield who formulates a plan to get his brother, Lincoln Burrows, out of prison where he’s awaiting his execution for supposedly murdering the brother of the Vice President of the United States. This plan includes deliberately getting sent to the same prison for an armed robbery, getting access to the prison’s infirmary among other things. But despite help from the outside by a lifelong friend Veronica Donovan, Michael’s brilliant plan is derailed by the appearance of a covert organization called The Company who framed Lincoln for the murder.
Where to watch Prison Break:
Genius, National Geographic/Disney+ (2017 – present)
Genius is the last show on our list of the best TV shows about geniuses and the only anthology series, proving that the last is definitely not the least. Formatted as a period docudrama, each season of this National Geographic series chronicles the life of a well-known genius throughout history, allowing the viewers to better understand the people of whom we are likely to only know of their achievements.
Every season is divided into two parts: the first focuses on the protagonist’s early life as they struggle to make it in their field, while the latter part comes after they’ve established their reputations in their expertise. The first season followed the life of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (played by Geoffrey Rush), and the second season was about gifted artist Pablo Picasso (played by Antonio Banderas). The third season is set to premiere in May 2020 and will tell the story of famed singer and civil rights activist, Aretha Franklin (to be played by Cynthia Erivo).
Where to watch Genius:
Hopefully, you’ve had your fill of living a genius’s life vicariously through these characters – I know I certainly have!