Perhaps you already know this one but the term ‘competence porn’ is new to me – and it’s given me a little bit of hope about a long-standing bugbear hobby horse of mine. Alternatively, it’s given me a little ammunition if I ever need to argue about dumbing things down for audiences.
My grumble is with clever people in television drama. You need someone smart to solve a problem, to move the plot on, to get characters out of a dull situation. But usually that clever person cannot be the hero, cannot be the lead character. Moreover, the actual lead will mildly mock them for being a geek. Mock them while being completely dependent on their idea.
What that’s supposed to do is let the audience know it’s okay that they, the viewing public, are not very smart. I don’t like that any more than you do. But I especially don’t like being patronised because apparently I, as a viewer, genuinely am smarter than the writers and more often producers or networks who decide to do this. For I can see and you can see both that it’s annoying and that what it really does is make the hero look like an ass.
But now we have this thing that is apparently called competency porn. It means we like watching characters who are good at what they do. Sherlock is the first example that comes to my mind. The Doctor in Doctor Who is another, usually.
Allegedly one reason we like Darth Vader as a villain is because of how professionally ruthless he is at the beginning of Star Wars. He’s caught the Princess, he casually kills somebody-or-other and we’re impressed. That’s more surprising when you think that nothing else he ever does in that film works out for him.
I think of the opening of Grosse Pointe Blank where we meet a hitman. He’s precise and focused as he prepares to kill someone, even while he’s also on the phone reciting bank account numbers to his assistant – he has a PA, this guy is professional and busy – and then he does this thing of aiming a rifle at someone far away. The hitman is in a corner hotel room, the target is a cyclist out on the street, and our guy takes aim through one window, then walks to another, tracking along where the cyclist will be, before shooting from the next window.
I know the hitman is John Cusack but he’s just killed someone and, bizarrely, we’re impressed. We’re on our way to liking this character.
One last example from where I heard this term competency porn. There’s a US drama called Leverage, a con/crime series very much like an American version of Hustle. As much as I like it, every episode does follow a set path and one early part is where this team of criminals – the good guys, by the way – have a briefing. Here’s producer John Rogers talking about a 2009 episode called The Fairy Godparents Job:
“Good Lord, how we agonized over spending so much time in the briefing scene in this ep. Ironically, this episode arrived just as we were collating feedback off the ‘net and found, stunningly, you people love the briefing scenes. For we writers, it was always X pages of pipe we tried to make as entertaining as possible and move past to get into the plot. For the audience, watching competent people banter and plan was a big part of the appeal. ‘Competence porn’ as we started calling it.”
There is a spectacularly and quite wonderfully dumb character in the remade Ghostbusters: I’m not saying everyone should be smart, I’m saying nobody should be dumbed down. And they don’t have to be.