21 Intelligent Main Characters in TV Shows We Actually Like

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One of the worst things in a TV show is characters who don’t learn anything, or don’t have any arc. There’s nothing like watching another episode of Gilmore Girls and seeing Rory, Lorelai, and Emily falling into the same arguments again and again. And that kind of thing is common in TV shows. 

Well, fear not. There’s a flip side: the series that portray intelligent characters solving problems instead of creating them. While the professions and types of shows are typically similar, the characters are all vastly different in personality.

Intelligence is also a relative thing and comes in various forms. From doctors to scientists to detectives, more than a fair share of incredible brainiacs grace our screens. So buckle up for our list of TV shows that actually portray intelligent characters! 

1. House M.D. (Dr. Gregory House)

Dr. Gregory House from House
Photo Credit: Fox Network.

In the history of medical shows, no other doctor holds a handle to Dr. Gregory House, played brilliantly by Hugh Laurie. He is a grumpy, sarcastic addict with a horrific bedside manner. But as the doctor whose task is to diagnose seemingly impossible-to-decipher symptoms, House is a genius.

He always had a strong team surrounding him, but ultimately, House figured out what was plaguing each patient. Overall, both the show and the character are brilliant.

2. Timeless (Lucy Preston)

Lucy Preston from Timeless
Photo Credit: NBC Universal.

Timeless is a captivating yet short-lived television series centered on a team of time travelers dedicated to preserving pivotal historical events to safeguard our familiar world. Among this “time team” is Lucy Preston, portrayed by Abigail Spencer. A history professor by trade, her exceptional abilities lie in her extensive American and global history expertise. Lucy is not only strong-willed and confident but also vulnerable and brave.

She knows dates and times, etiquette, events, and appropriate attire for multiple different eras of our past. But her knowledge spans much farther to the most important thing about history; the people who shaped it. Understanding the thoughts and emotions of others makes Lucy unique.

3. Elementary (Sherlock Holmes)

Sherlock Holmes in Elementary
Photo Credit: CBS Broadcasting.

Fans of the classic detective stories of Sherlock Holmes, who enjoy fresh modern interpretations, will love Elementary. However, this take on the character is not your average one. Portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller, Holmes is a brash, recovering addict who closes himself off from others.

What remains the same is his dazzling intellect and deduction skills. What’s refreshing about this Sherlock Holmes is that as confident as he is that nobody’ smarter than him, he knows when to ask for assistance. His character grows in his emotional intelligence through his relationship with his partner Watson, in this series played beautifully by Lucy Liu.

4. White Collar (Neal Caffrey)

Neal Caffrey from White Collar
Photo Credit: USA Network.

White Collar is a light but poignant heist/thriller series similar in tone and premise to the film Catch Me if You Can. However, this series portrays an incredibly smart man in many ways. Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is a charming thief who is released from prison when he agrees to assist the FBI on cases of fraud and forgery, among other things. Neal’s intelligence is vast but hidden behind a veneer of charisma.

His skills in forgery are impeccable. Most impressive is his ability to copy masterpiece paintings. Not only does this take artistic talent but also knowledge of the painting and the artist’s methods. His skills appear effortless, which makes it all the more captivating to watch.

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5. The Big Bang Theory (Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, Howard, Amy, and Bernadette)

Scene from the Big Bang Theory
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Television.

For twelve seasons, audiences fell in love with the misadventures of a group of nerdy scientists on The Big Bang Theory. Besides being incredibly funny, we love that the characters grow. Additionally, while socially awkward, they have supreme intelligence in their fields.

These include theoretical physics, astrophysics, engineering, neuroscience, and microbiology. Through these genius men and women, The Big Bang Theory brings these complex sciences into our homes with heart and laughter. And it can make us all feel just a bit smarter.

6. Monk (Adrian Monk)

Photo Credit: NBC.

This drama follows former detective Adrian Monk who consults for the San Francisco Police Department. Though he struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, his ability to observe and solve homicides is uncanny. His intuitiveness and intelligence are unparalleled.

You will enjoy every time he utters “he’s the guy” because he sees what others overlook. The show runs for eight seasons, with the finale resolving the series-long mystery about the murder of Monk’s wife, Trudy. These last episodes bring the series to a satisfying and poignant conclusion.

7. Bones (Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan)

Photo Credit: Fox Broadcasting Company.

Bones follows a forensic anthropologist and an FBI agent who team up, along with a group of other skilled professionals, to solve crimes. Dr. Brennan lacks social skills but is a brilliant woman who often detects and sees things others do not.

Her ability to look past the morbid side of her profession gives her a mature intelligence we don’t often see in a female character. Bones is a long-running series with a whopping twelve seasons and 245 episodes, but worth the investment.

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8. The X-Files (Agent Dana Scully)

Agent Dana Scully from X-Files
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Television.

The X-Files and the character of Dana Scully are landmarks in television history. The show about FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, who investigate the paranormal, is an influential masterpiece. But the character of Scully is even more so. She is a doctor and scientist.

She is a skeptic but open-minded, remains calm under pressure, is endlessly courageous, loving, and above all else, genuinely brilliant. Female characters in her profession had rarely been seen in this light, so much so that she influenced an entire generation of young women to pursue careers in the STEM fields. This influence is known today as “The Scully Effect.”

9. The Mentalist (Patrick Jane)

Patrick Jane from The Mentalist
Photo Credit: CBS Broadcasting.

The Mentalist is a captivating and poignant drama that follows Patrick Jane, a man with keen observational talents that allow him to consult on cases with the CBI and FBI. But throughout the series, the one looming case is the pursuit of the serial killer “Red John,” who murdered Jane’s wife and daughter.

Jane’s intelligence is much like Adrian Monk’s in Monk in that he sees the small details and can solve puzzling cases. But as bright as he is, he is not infallible, which makes The Mentalist all the more compelling to watch.

10. Frasier (Dr. Frasier Crane)

Photo Credit: NBC.

Psychiatrists represent a unique kind of knowledge. Understanding the human brain to treat mental health is an invaluable profession. Although his brother Dr. Niles Crane is a practicing psychiatrist, Frasier and his brother are equally intelligent.

However, they may disagree on that fact. Their competitive nature, Frasier’s radio show where he quickly gives advice and counsel, and their penchant for high-brow arts make the series one the funniest and most brilliantly written on television.

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11. Psych! (Shawn Spencer)

Photo Credit: NBC Universal Television.

In the TV show Psych!, James Roday plays the brilliant observer Shawn Spencer, a brash and arrogant young man who consults with the Santa Barbara Police Department. His ability to notice what others miss is so incredible that other characters are constantly asking, “How’d you do that?” Shawn takes every opportunity to convince others that he works off of psychic powers. It’s a comedic show that combines mystery and problem solving with sass and humor, and we highly recommend it!

12. Broadchurch (Ellie Miller, Alec Hardy)

Photo Credit: Kudos Film and Television.

Broadchurch explores the ways that a tragedy around a young child affects a small town. Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) and Alec Hardy (David Tennant) are called upon to discover the criminal who took a child’s life. As suspicions run rampant among the community, these two use their intelligence and compassion to look facts in the face, and uncover the truth. Broadchurch isn’t an easy show to watch, but it’s excellently made and we give it a thumbs up!

13. Sherlock (Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson)

Photo Credit: BBC.

The show Sherlock is another modern take on the Sherlock Holmes books, and an excellent one. The duo of Sherlock and Watson bring together a towering intellect at the cost of empathy and kindness, and the balancing compassionate heart and medical detail that would be missing without Dr. Watson. In one episode, Sherlock is so busy solving a murder that he fails to notice what Watson saw immediately: the victim was still alive. Altogether it’s a thrilling show with characters that play well off of each other!

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14. Breaking Bad (Walter White)

Photo Credit: AMC.

Perhaps one of the least likely characters on this list: Walter White from Breaking Bad. The show does an excellent job of building sympathy for Walter early in the show. He’s working extremely hard to feed and care for his family, and underappreciated in each of his jobs. Then after he’s diagnosed with lung cancer, even though he turns to some extremes and makes some horrible choices, it’s all out of loyalty to the ones he loves, and despair. These are two emotions most viewers can relate to. Additionally, although his actions are downright evil sometimes, he’s still brilliant. 

15. Little Dorrit (Amy Dorrit)

Photo Credit: BBC.

In the miniseries Little Dorrit (based on the titular book by Charles Dickens), Amy Dorrit is one of the most compassionate and emotionally intelligent characters written for screen. Although she has very little freedom throughout most of the series, she knows more than anyone guesses about the likes and dislikes, the comforts and cares of the people around her. And through it all, she takes care of the ones close to her even at the cost of her own happiness. She walks through the story with a clear-sightedness; knowing and caring for the truths that underly each person’s character. She may not be a Sherlock Holmes, but she’s got the emotional intellect of a genius.

16. The West Wing (Josiah Bartlet, Leo McGarry, Josh Lyman)

Photo Credit: NBC.

Who doesn’t love a good political intrigue? The West Wing is full of high-level conversations by high-ranking officials, all of whom have to try run the country while managing their own lives as well, and keeping up with public image. If that’s not a game of chess, we don’t know what is. If politics is up your alley, you probably already know this show features witty dialogue, fast-paced plots, and plenty of intelligent characters. 

17. Ozark (Marty Byrde)

Photo Credit: Zero Gravity Management.

Ozark is one of those crime-ridden, dark shows that somehow still captivates viewers. Much like Breaking Bad, the honesty of the characters has a strong appeal. But Marty Byrde in particular has a brilliance all his own: he’s playing a dangerous game by throwing himself and his family in with a cartel. But with time, his understated responses and the way he does everything he can to rescue his family from the threats and dangers around them showcase how intelligent he really is.

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18. The Queen’s Gambit (Beth Harmon)

Photo Credit: Netflix.

In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon is orphaned as a child. at the orphanage where she’s taken, she learns to play chess and quickly becomes very good. But she also becomes dependent on substances and alcohol when the orphanage administers “tranquilizers” to the girls every night. As her dependency increases, so does her interest and skill in chess, and she wins one competition after another. Despite the challenges of her addictions, Beth’s brilliance in chess eventually helps her rise almost all the way to the top.

19. Peaky Blinders (Tommy Shelby)

Photo Credit: BBC.

This show is about a gang in Birmingham, England, active and growing in the aftermath of World War I. The gang comes to the attention of a constable from the Royal Irish Constabulary, sent over by Winston Churchill to restore order and put down chaos in the city. Shelby not only evade imprisonment and the end of the gang, but grows their activities and pushes the boundaries of what they can accomplish both in England and internationally.

20. Doctor Who (Christopher Eckleston, David Tennat, Matt Smith)

Photo Credit: BBC.

The Doctor in Doctor Who is played by a new actor every few seasons. Each new actor brings a new flavor to the show, but each of them have some things in common: compassion for people of all planets and races, a frequent need to run away from danger, and brilliant conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills. From rescuing alien species from being enslaved to helping different races of humanoid creatures reach peaceful agreements to showing Van Gogh his own significance, each season of Doctor Who contains both escape and rescue. 

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21. Star Trek: The Original Series (Captain Kirk)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

We’ll grant you, Captain Kirk doesn’t seem like the most intellectual on the surface of things. He’s impulsive and tends to change his mind about inconsequential things frequently. Still, when lives are on the line, he often follows his gut and somehow, makes exactly the right call. It takes an impressive intuition to be able to read a situation accurately and respond quickly in a high-stakes moment. So although there are lots of brilliant people in Star Trek, our vote is with Captain Kirk. 

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