We interrupt your regularly scheduled Power Rangers to bring you something truly special. My friend forced me to watch this, and now I feel obligated to share it with you as well, so that you too can comprehend my suffering. For your consideration, I present the dumbest thing I’ve watched this year: the first episode of Scorpion.
Right, that one. Although actually, that first one feels thematically appropriate.
Scorpion, stylized as </scorpion> because apparently the producers realized that just naming it after an animal makes for terrible searchability but don’t actually know how search engines work, is a (at least, if this first episode is anything to go by) unintentional dramady made by CBS, which has for some reason just been renewed for a third season. There’s a saying which is often employed when a piece of media tries and fails to portray characters as geniuses: that they are a “dumb person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like”. Well, not only is nearly every character on this show a dumb person’s idea of a smart person, it’s also a dumb person’s idea of what a show for smart people would be. That it ever made it out of this pilot is a stunning rebuke to America’s tech literacy, because every single thing anyone does with computers in this episode is not just wrong, but laughably wrong.
But first, let’s meet our cast of douchebags.
This is Walter O’Brien, tech genius with an IQ of 197 who first came to the US government’s attention when, as a child, he hacked into NASA’s computers so he could print out the space shuttle’s blueprints and stick them on his wall. He is loosely based on the real person of the same name, who is, depending on who you ask, either a super genius who’s gotten up to all sorts of wild exploits, or a conman who’s tricked people into believing that he’s a super genius who’s gotten up to all sorts of exploits. Hint: most of the people who will argue for the first one are named Walter O’Brien. In the show, he runs Scorpion, a unit of problem-solvers who solve technical problems for the government with thousands of lives on the line.
Despite his intelligence, he’s about as good at dealing with people as most TV geniuses are; when we first meet him as an adult, he’s breaking up with his girlfriend during a job (fixing the wifi in some diner), and helpfully providing her with a document detailing the emotions she’s likely to go through over the next few months so that she can be prepared. The show never actually says the words “Asperger syndrome”, but it’s clearly supposed to be what we’re supposed to take away from it. Pop-culture Aspergers, mind you, where it makes you absurdly good at one thing in exchange for deficiencies in every other part of your live, particularly social interaction. Not the real thing, which is considerably more complex.
The other members of his team are:
Sylvester Dodd, genius mathematician and statistician and chess grandmaster, who suffers from Hollywood OCD (he’s gotta put all the chalk in order before he starts on the problem!) who is bad with stress and…that’s about it. That’s about his entire personality. I had to look his name up because he’s so unremarkable.
Tobias “Toby” M. Curtis is a Harvard-trained behavioral psychologist. They never explicitly call him a genius, but I guess he must be since he’s lumped in with all the others. Unlike the others, he’s not portrayed as having a mental disorder; he’s just an asshole who wears a fedora and doesn’t understand that trying to diagnose people around him in real time makes him look like a total dick.
Happy Quinn, a mechanical engineer. Of the preceding four characters, she’s the one who feels closest to be a human being. While the others are basically unable to function in day-to-day life (and one of this series’ premises is that genius makes you an otherwise dysfunctional human being), the worst she’s ever done is clock someone after she did a job for them and they called her ‘sugar’.
Other relevant characters include:
Agent Cabe Gallo, Homeland Security. He and Walter have a past. He’s their point of contact with the US government. His first scene features him threatening to plant drugs on a black guy to get him sent to jail forever, so. You know. He’s a really upstanding guy.
Paige Dineen, waitress in a local diner, and her son, Ralph. She’s a pretty normal person who gets caught up in their shenanigans. Her kid is a silent, socially maladjusted super-genius. Once again, they never say the words ‘Autism syndrome’, but it’s pretty clear that that’s what they’re going for. I think Ralph says at most one word during the whole episode, but they do sure talk about him like he’s not in the room a lot.
We start in the diner, where Walter breaks up with his girlfriend and then fixes the wifi. It immediately bodes poorly for the series grasp on tech: what the fuck GUI is this?
Ralph is sitting in the diner because he’s “having trouble adjusting” to school, and the diner’s owner isn’t happy to have him here. He’s piled up a bunch of salt shakers and shit on the counter in front of him, and he’s playing around with them enigmatically. It catches Walter’s eye, and on his way out he starts dicking around with the salt shakers etc., which causes Ralph to start moving them around in turn. When his mom walks over and asks him what the fuck he thinks he’s doing with her kid, he tells her to “help him”, the owner not to yell at him, and leaves without saying anything useful to anyone.
He drives back to his company’s office, which is apparently a dark warehouse. He walks in on Sylvester and Happy stealing power because, even though they have the money, Sylvester forgot to pay the power and water bills on time because he got caught up in a math problem. Toby runs in a moment later, pursued by a pair of clients who were a bit irate that he used his behavioral psychology to rip them off in a poker game. Walter mourns the fact that they “have a collective IQ of more than 700” but still can’t get their shit together. Now is a good time to remind you all that IQ is basically bullshit. This is all a bit irrelevant, though, because Agent Gallo shows up a moment later, chases the clients off, and hires them to solve the government’s latest problem:
Forty-five minutes ago, there was an automatic software upgrade in the LAX control tower. It had a bug. Now the entire system’s down. Contact’s been lost between LAX, Long Beach and Burbank. Incoming flights have been diverted, but the ones that were about to start their descent – fifty-six of them – are out of comm range…we need you on the software. Without landing guidance, those planes run out of fuel.
They have two hours to solve the problem before planes start falling from the sky.
An automatic update? Are you serious? Where the fuck is LAX’s IT department? Do they seriously have no on-site personnel? I work first-line support at a University’s tech department, and let me tell you, if my bosses let automatic updates roll out to the computer labs and screw them up, they would be fired on the spot for gross incompetence, and that’s without putting anybody’s lives in danger. It’s just not how it’s done. Use a fucking test environment!
And even if this did happen, has nobody ever heard of a fucking backup? Just roll it back to the previous patch!
Also, really? Has nobody ever heard of a fucking radio? What kind of software fuckup could possibly make it completely impossible to communicate with planes flying right overhead?
Anyway, Walter doesn’t want to take the job because his history with Gallo makes him mistrustful. He expresses this emotion in one of the cringiest lines I’ve heard in ages:
“Forget about it and move on” is not an option for people with photographic memories.
Happy drags Walter off to the side to convince him to take the money and save people’s lives. In this conversation, a bit of backstory comes out: Walter used to be a forensic analyst for a bank, who caught Sylvester and Toby trying to rip the bank off. He recognized that they were smart as hell, and so instead of turning them in, he quit his job and founded Scorpion with them. Where Happy comes into this story is less clear. Whatever, he agrees to help save thousands of lives. How magnanimous of him.
The basic plan is simple and sensible: delete the bad software installation at LAX, and restore the old one. Of course, there’s no reason why the government would go to these clowns instead of the onsite IT department, but hey. Solid plan.
Meanwhile, on one of the planes, we are witness to the copilot trying to check his phone. At cruising altitudes. Where there is no cell signal. Jesus fuck.
So getting onsite at LAX would make the whole problem pretty trivial, so the show needs to come up with a way to keep them away from there. First, there’s a huge traffic jam all the way to the airport.
Toby suggests bringing in a helicopter, but Gallo says that all air traffic has been shut down for the time being, so no can do. Which is insane! You are the department of homeland security, you’re really going to tell me you couldn’t swing that? And it’s not like the copter’s going to need to fly high enough for the planes to be an issue. Anyway, Walter has the solution: he doesn’t need to get onsite, he just needs a reliable wireless signal. Like the one he just fixed, in the diner! So they go drive back to the diner and commandeer it with an envelope full of cash.
The owner can stay, Gallo says, but everyone else has to leave. The owner kicks all the customers out, but doesn’t want to hang out with the feds because of his immigration status, so he tells Paige to stay in his place. So Paige and Ralph are still hanging around, even though they’re not allowed to be, and nobody comments on it.
Having set up in the diner, they get on the radio with a supervisor in the control tower. Walter hacks LAX’s systems, but instead of just…you know, solving the problem once he has access to the systems, he just turns the cameras around to face their computer screens so he can see what they see. That is…really dumb, but not quite as dumb as this: he tells the supervisor to reboot his systems by hitting ctrl-c when the screen flickers. What the fuck?
When the supervisor flubs it, Walter declares him insufficiently techy, and turns to this guy instead.
“You code, right?”
“Yeah, how’d you know?”
Anyway, turns out the software was installed fifteen years ago, by a company that no longer exists, and nobody in the control room knows where the install disc is. That is…well, from what I know about air traffic control rooms, it actually makes a lot of sense, but it raises a pretty big question: if the company no longer exists and the software is no longer supported, who the fuck put out the patch that fucked the systems up?
Good news! There’s a backup after all, located offsite. Bad news: the backup is updated every twelve hours exactly, and soon the old, good backup will be overwritten by the new, bad data, and the old one will be lost forever. Because that’s how backups work, right? In twenty minutes, the last remaining copy vanishes forever. Apparently nobody fucking works at this data center in the middle of the fucking day, so Happy and Toby have to go run down to get it themselves.
Meanwhile, Paige brings Walter a “drink”. I only mention this because…that’s a glass full of fucking ice. That’s not a drink at all.
He tries to do the Sherlock Cold Read on her but she calls him wrong and an asshole, so that’s sort of nice. When she tells him that Ralph is challenged, though, he decides to pop off about how actually, the kid’s a genius. Apparently what he’s been doing with those shakers? Playing chess, with the shakers and jam and butter packs as pieces.
He checkmates Sylvester, a chess grandmaster, in eight moves. Just in case you weren’t aware that being a genius means having fucking superpowers in this setting.
So the data center is abandoned and on complete lockdown. Their only backup plan will have an hour, by which point they’ll have lost two planes. Gallo and Walter are willing to accept that, since they can’t see any better way, but Paige goes off on both of them for being utilitarian assholes. This gives Walter a new idea: brown-out the power to the area around the data center to reset the building’s electronic locks and get inside. They get to a local junction box and do just that.
I’ll admit I don’t know that much about this sort of thing, but this whole sequence strikes me as bullshit.
So they get in, but there’s hundreds of hard drives and they’ve got less than a minute to figure out which one is theirs. Toby runs through the place doing some dumb fake psychologist shit to narrow it down.
“He’s the boss. Cufflinks, tie clip, he’s an anal micromanager, makes all the decisions about what gets stored where. Look at his belt-tail, he’s a lefty, so we can eliminate all the right-hand servers, he’d subconsciously put a big important client like LAX on his dominant hand side. Okay, you think LAX you think planes, you think planes, you think high, so eliminate all the bottom rows. He’s what, 5’6” tops? Napoleonic complex, so it won’t be the top shelf, the boss would never use a stepladder in front of his employees, so it’s one of theeeeeese…this one!”
“How can you be sure?”
“It says LAX on the side.”
This is a big old load of bullshit. Psychology doesn’t work that way! Especially when all you’re going off of it one photo of him that was sitting on the desk!
Back at the diner, Ralph is staring off into the middle distance, while Sylvester informs his mom about what he’s thinking about.
He doesn’t even know we’re here. He’s wondering if those flashlights can be powered by the heat of the hand that holds them. Or he’s calculating the square footage of that octagon clock…very few parents meaningfully engage with mentally-enabled children. It’s not your fault.
Fuck this romanticized bullshit. ‘Mentally-enabled’? Jesus Christ.
So anyway, Toby and Happy get back with the hard drive in hand. The plan is to send the old version of the software to the control room…via email. Like, they say ‘open your email’. Apparently the writers thought that air traffic control software would be small enough to fit as an email attachment. Holy fuck.
Hard drive’s damaged! The files on it are unusable! How did this happen? The answer is stupider than you might guess. It was left near the car’s speaker, and the magnet in the speaker wiped the hard drive.
Yes, hard drives are magnetic media. And yes, exposure to another magnet can wipe a hard drive. But no magnet you’re going to encounter in day-to-day life is going to be even close to strong enough to affect them. The idea that a speaker is going to wipe a hard drive with five minutes of exposure is lunatic. Nobody who knows the first thing about tech would have written this.
There’s more bad news. Now that there’s no chance of stopping the planes from crashing, fighter jets are going to be deployed to shoot them down. Because that makes a lot of sense: it’s definitely better for 56 planes worth of debris to fall uncontrolled over LA than for fifty-six planes to attempt crash-landings!
Anyway Walter kind of has a breakdown over all the bad news and Paige gives him a peptalk about not freaking out like her kid does whenever he’s faced with a problem he doesn’t know how to solve. It doesn’t really work on him, but then he sees Ralph looking up at one of the planes in the sky, and he gets an idea. A phenomenal, wonderfully stupid idea.
He going to get a copy of the software off of the planes. The planes have the same software, because they can use it to communicate with the ground. Planes from an earlier timezone wouldn’t have the patched version yet, so they would still work. His plan: get to a nearby airfield, have one of the planes do a low flyby, and while it’s over the runway download the software. This is the most insane plan I’ve ever heard.
First they have to get to the airfield, though, and that traffic jam never stopped being a thing. Gallo gets on the phone to make arrangements, but apparently he’s not fast enough for them, because they decide to do it themselves: Happy will hack the department of transportation to manipulate the traffic lights to create a corridor for them, and then Paige will drive them down super fast.
In principle, this sounds like an okay plan, but the execution isn’t…it isn’t great. Happy’s flipping the lights to green only half a second before they drive through, meaning there are still cars in the intersection as they whip through. But they make it.
Meanwhile, it’s Toby and Sylvester’s jobs to figure out a way to communicate with the plane. Because apparently nobody’s ever heard of a fucking radio. Everyone’s cell phone is going to be off because they’re on a plane, but Toby hits on an idea: find someone with an old, out of date analog cell phone! The receivers are more powerful, they can get a signal from the ground!
Yes. An analog cell phone. You know, that thing that hasn’t been a thing since 2008. Just find someone on the plane who is carrying on of these around! No big deal!
Holy shit, just kill me.
So yeah, they get in touch with the pilots by calling up a salesman and getting him to pass the phone along.
Captain Pike, you’re carrying uncorrupted version of control tower software that you need to email to me so it can be downloaded at LAX.
Again, the email! Anyway so you would think that, since they’ve gotten in touch with the plane, they’ll just have them land so they can get the software. They might not have guidance software, but they’re still got fucking pilots on board. If they’re the only one trying to lane, there shouldn’t be a problem, right? Well, apparently not, because instead they’re going to try to download it using the onboard wifi after the plant drops to 100 feet.
But, of course, it doesn’t work, because “there’s too much of a speed differential” between the plane and the stationary laptop. Whatever that means. So instead, they’re going to have the plan drop to EIGHT FEET above the runway, while Walter drives beneath them in a stolen Ferrari, and then pass the data over using an ethernet cord.
Let me repeat that. They are going to dangle a fucking ethernet cord out of a moving plane, plug it in below, and get the data off that way.
Again. This episode’s resolution depends on dangling a fucking ethernet cord out of a fucking plane.
What, you don’t believe me? Here, look.
Yep. That just happens. And they use it to download the software and fix the problem. Scorpion gets hired by the government full-time as problem-solvers, and Walter hires Paige to be the one normal person on the team, in exchange for helping her understand her genius child, who gives a fuck, kill me now please.
There are a lot of show that get basic tech stuff wrong, but it takes a very special mind to make something as persistently wrong as Scorpion. It’s essentially forty-five minutes of this iconic line. Everyone owes it to themselves to watch it at least once, if for no other reason than to understand just how little TV writers understand about computers. But I would never advise watching any more than that. I certainly won’t be. Just the pilot is enough marvels for one lifetime.