In a way, one can say that Superman’s alter ego was TV’s first great nerd. Mainly because Clark Kent was not Superman, of course. And yet I find Clark Kent in all his many incarnations to be far more interesting than Superman who is, let’s face it, a rather dull and plodding superhero. Put Superman back on Krypton and he would probably still be a reporter. There is nothing exceptional about Superman the way there is about Batman, which makes the dichotomy between Clark Kent and Superman all the more profound. It is insanely telling that the only real difference between Clark Kent and Superman that keeps him firmly in disguise so that not even Lois Lane can tell the difference is those eyeglasses. Glasses are a common stereotype of the nerd, yet when Clark Kent takes them off, there is essentially no difference whatever in his personality. Especially on the TV show starring George Reeves.
Perhaps the first TV nerd to ever be heroic. Just think how long the castaways on Gilligan’s Island would have lasted without the genius of Professor Roy Hinkley. No washing machines, no radio after the first week, no giant robot that could walk underwater directly to Hawaii. Like Robinson Crusoe, those castaways would have been.
Steven Q. Urkel:
Perhaps the quintessential nerd, Steven Urkel encapsulates the hidden fear of nerds that engenders such unquestioned and uncritical dislike of nerds by athletes. Urkel was clearly the smartest person in the room no matter what the room, but place him in a locker room and the divergence between his IQ and the next highest IQ was as vast as the divide between the honesty of a five year old and the honesty of John McCain. I’m talking freaking huge! Steve Urkel first entered into the consciousness of America during that immortal males versus females bowling match on Family Matters when the secret weapon that was Urkel was undone by the secret weapon of having Laura Winslow touch him. From that point onward, Steven Q. Urkel rose from simple nerd to proto-nerd, encapsulating the primal focus point of why nerds remain one of the few groups that it is still fun to make of: their brains scare the bejebus out of the average American, quantified by their leader, the biggest nerd-hating psycho of them all, George W. Bush.
The Nerd Trio from Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
What Steven Q. Urkel hath wrought, Andrew, Warren and Jonathan took to the ultimate level. Moronic steroid cases notwithstanding, the reason that nerds take the brunt of the practical jokes in high school (the only higher level thinking most student athletes ever engage in) is because their power is feared. Brains will beat brawn every time, eventually. And those muscular troglodytes who pick on nerds the most know this in this hearts. The Nerd Trio on Buffy took being smarter than the guys who picked on them to heights that even Urkel could only have dreamed of. Only the awesome magical powers of Dark Willow were enough to stop them. Had it not been for the supernatural, the nerds would have ruled Sunnydale.
The Simpsons college nerds:
Many like to claim that Lisa Simpson is a nerd, but I disagree. She’s far too cool to ever be a nerd. If you really want to see nerddom expressed on The Simpsons, you can’t do better than Benjamin, Doug and Gary. We first meet these nerds when Homer is forced to go back to college. You can tell they are ultimate nerds right away when they inform Homer Simpson that they are engaged in a chat room argument over who is the best Star Trek Captain. No, that’s not what makes them nerds; it is that they actually think Kirk is better than Picard that makes them nerds. In another episode, The Simpsons writers reveal the link between being a nerd and being a fanboy. Benjamin, Gary and Doug show that they are unnaturally absorbed in the most obscure and arcane points of the Itchy & Scratchy Show. What is most interesting about this it that the Simpsons college nerds seem to act like Buddy Love in Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor. These nerds seem to be not only symbols of fanboys, but also a commentary by the Simpsons writers on themselves, most of whom at one time or another have described themselves as nerds on DVD commentaries.
Nerds on TV are usually guys, but there have been a fair number of female nerds. Margaret appeared in only one episode of The Wonder Years, but she had such an impact on me that I have never forgotten her. Margaret was a weirdo, with three pigtails who loved bats and Kevin Arnold. She was smart, funny and even kind of cute in an unusual way. She was certainly a better choice for a girlfriend for Kevin that that stick in the mud Winnie Cooper, the Helen Crump of middle school girls. That Kevin gave Margaret the bum’s rush because he was terrified of being made fun of for dating a nerd should send shivers down the spine of any man who ever overlooked a smart and funny girl barely-cute girl for a pretty girl with no brains and not much personality. The cruelty with which Kevin and everybody else, but especially Kevin, treats Margaret Farquhar is simply breathtaking and surprisingly intense, but oh so common, proving that you don’t even need to be a jock to be a jerk when you’re a kid. The nerd in this offering of The Wonder Years is every fascinating person that passed in and out of your life unnoticed because you clung to the essential point made here: Who you are is what other people say you are. The ending of this episode, titled “Square Dance”, is more heartbreaking than any of those awful “very special episodes” of 1980’s sitcoms ever made. Oh, and the reason Margaret Farquhar wore three pigtails? Because you never know when you’re going to need an extra rubber band, of course.
The man who gives lie to the belief that a nerd cannot also be the coolest guy in the room. Don’t think Fox Mulder qualifies as a nerd? Watch the X-Files again, especially the first season episodes. Mulder is routinely made fun of by the smarter athletic types who managed to land a job with the FBI or the police.