One of the earliest Online Pop Culture Discourses that I can remember from back in, like, 2006-2007ish was the concept of the guy who was a huge jerk, but who everyone tolerated because he was so great at his job. This was actually in the last spurts of the Discourse Cycle when I became aware of it, which is to say that all the serious, thoughtful people had considered the concept and all the arguments and written their lengthy pieces (which comes after people write much less thoughtfully considered and much lengthier pieces), and by the time I came along, mostly what was left was people repeating the major talking points in bite-sized chunks. What I largely saw was that most considered the concept a juvenile fantasy. The Jerk With A Heart Of Gold is of course, an archetype that goes back a long way, but the Hypercompetent Asshole was a very specific variation with a very specific purpose. Dr Gregory House of House MD (later dropping the MD) was the biggest example, not just in being the most influential example of the time but in how clearly it lived up to the fantasy of the idea. House is so good at doctorin’ that he can abuse patients and colleagues alike (to the point that he has multiple lawsuits against him) and refuse all the cases that don’t personally interest him in some way.
The fantasy, of course, is the right to not only be correct but to get to be mean about it. I suppose it’s a part of human nature that, when given infinite power, most people will initially use it to be a dick to people for no real reason, and this is especially true when given the godlike power of writing fiction. Even House’s ‘punishment’ of working in a clinic and treating minor cases is really an excuse for him to abuse people committing petty acts of stupidity. Even the fact that the other characters dislike him is only part of the fantasy – if it’s not full-on “idiots hating me mean I’m doing something right”, it’s at least “people hate me but they’re forced to respect me”. Of course, the show reveals one gap in this kind of philosophy not in its text, but in the way it’s made – that is to say, not only is House (character) fallible, House (TV show) gets almost everything wrong about anything it sets its mind to. Somehow, the fact that it gets medicine wrong bothers me much less than the fact that it gets hospital bureaucracy wrong, with characters shown performing actions that would presumably be performed by technicians. To me, this ends up just revealing what the whole exercise is built on. It’s not that idiots exist and the solution is to insult them, it’s that we have to insult so we find some idiots. It’s cruelty looking for an outlet.
(I’ve also seen another weird reason people become preoccupied with it: they enjoy studying unhappy people. This is another motivation House often played to – that his behaviour made him miserable but he was caught in a perpetual cycle, providing viewers otherwise uninterested in being mean for no reason with an outlet for their sense of pity.)
The thing that fascinates me is that this type has fallen almost completely out of favour; I’ve said before that Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark is one of the last gasps of the archetype, and I’d like to add on that a combination of in-story character development and out-of-story franchise necessity pushed him into becoming more of a Reluctant Hero, where the fantasy is about getting the courage to do the right thing to save the universe despite not feeling up to the challenge. I suppose that the Golden Age Antihero filled the same role of the fantasy with a different justification; the big ones like Breaking Bad and Mad Men were about something other than the fantasy, but viewers could project the Hypercompetent Asshole fantasy onto them anyway. But I find myself almost wistful and like the concept was never really pushed to its real limits. Having known different varieties of Hypercompetent Assholes – from people genuinely fit the archetype to people who believed they fit the archetype to people who were a bit rough around the edges but meant well and were good at their job at the expense of their ego – I think it could support a good story the exact same way that a certain cop show used He Gets Results You Stupid Chief. You do, of course, have a central protagonist who is convinced that its their job to be as mean to every petty act that crosses their path as possible long past the point that this becomes a tenable way of life, but it also requires the right supporting cast who, you know, support that character properly; who indulge him for the reasons the genre suggest we indulge the Hypercompetent Asshole right up until that becomes untenable.
But then, are there stories already like that? Have I simply missed out on something that delivers what I want? What Hypercompetent Asshole stories do you know, and do any of them really work?