Bob is a principal character in a Police Procedural, a Homicide detective for a large New York police station. After checking out a murder crime-scene and questioning a few witnesses, Bob heads down to the morgue, where we watch him perform the autopsy on the victim's corpse.
Wait, what? Why is Bob performing an autopsy? Didn't we just say he was a detective? Where's the pathologist? Aren't there people around who should be doing this while Bob heads out, say, to question the suspects and look for clues? Isn't THAT his job?
In Real Life, the job of a detective is very well-defined, and only includes a specific set of responsibilities and a limited amount of authority. In fact, each member of the NYPD is restricted to performing a specific set of activities. This system allows each employee to be trained in one set of tasks, focus on performing those tasks to the best of their abilities, and they don't end up stepping on each other's toes while doing their jobs. This is called "departmentalization", and is a key aspect of many organizations (particularly large ones), including police, military, medical, governmental, educational and even commercial organizations.
On Bob's show however, The Main Characters Do Everything. This means that Bob's responsibilities are not nearly as restricted as they would be in real life - he'll often be seen doing whatever task is interesting to the story, regardless of whether he would logically have the clearance, ability, or even the need to do those things himself. Furthermore, it doesn't even seem like anyone (i.e. Bob's superiors) has any say in this, or that they are even interested in maintaining any departmentalized structure. In many cases, we'll see a lot of people milling about in the background doing nothing, because Bob is already doing their job.
Whether Bob has the skills necessary for the task is irrelevant. The point is that an organization described or even depicted as being departmentalized is showing no concern to maintain its own departments or hierarchy - allowing some of its members to do virtually anything they deem necessary - or even orders them to do so.
On some shows, the situation will be even more skewed: Bob is actually a figure of authority, but is frequently seen performing the jobs of his underlings - particularly putting himself into dangerous situations. Real-world Departmentalized organizations often go to extreme lengths to keep the higher-ups out of danger, letting expendables do the dirty work. In fact, superiors are often explicitly discouraged from taking a "hands-on" approach entirely (even when they are more qualified for a task than their underlings), whereas in fiction this notion seems to be almost non-existent.
This trope usually happens because writers are faced with a tough dilemma: If our main characters were realistically limited to the scope of their own jobs, things could get very boring very quickly; How interesting would it be to watch The Captain pushing papers and managing his crew all day? How many interesting stories can revolve around watching the doctor diagnosing patients in his little office?
Of course, one solution would be to add Loads and Loads of Characters to follow around, each with his own little job. Some writers prefer this, and some even pull it off rather well - but the multitude of characters can still potentially confuse the audience. Another solution is to focus only on the most interesting jobs in the organization, and have everything else be done off-screen (as seen in the many Police Procedural aversions listed below) - but again requires very good writing skills and/or very interesting stories to fit this specific format. note There are also Real Life reasons for a TV show to do this - you're already paying your main cast top-dollar per episode. They also want to be on screen - they did boring roles for years before landing this gig. The audience notices if these characters aren't around. Other shows would like to woo your actors away for their own casts. You have to put them on when you can to make sure you are getting your money's worth and your actors and fans are happy. The easiest way to do it is by using this trope. As for hiring lesser-known actors to do those roles they need to be paid, too... and if they're on the show every week they'll want better pay and higher billing.
Instead, most writers prefer increasing the scope of the Main Character's job far beyond realistic limits, or even impose no limits whatsoever. So now, the Captain goes out on dangerous away-missions, the general practitioner goes into surgery, and the forensic analyst does interrogations and arrests - whatever serves the drama. The break from realism is brushed under the carpet, in the hope that the resulting drama would be gripping enough to keep the viewers engaged.
It is important to note that this trope is only a tool, often being considered one of the many Acceptable Breaks from Reality. It helps reduce the introduction of Flat Characters that carry out the menial tasks, and keeps the main characters in focus throughout the episode.
A show can be said to use this trope if it fits one or more of the following definitions:
In a realistic world, one or more of the main characters would not be allowed to do what they're doing, given the stated or implied definitions of their jobs.
Example: A police detective performs an official autopsy.
The main characters are repeatedly seen performing a task that does not fit any of their stated job descriptions, when there is no reason that they couldn't (or shouldn't) acquire an additional team-member specifically to handle that task.
Example: A SWAT team keeps getting called for bomb-threat missions, but no one ever thinks of hiring a bomb specialist.
The main characters perform tasks that should've been the job of other characters who are also present and able to perform those jobs.
Example: A SWAT team's sniper disarms a bomb, while the teammate known to be a bomb specialist watches him work.
Example: We see the bomb squad arrive at the scene, but the hero detective is still the one who goes to disarm the bomb.
None of the figures of authority on the show seem to have any problems with the lack of departmentalization, or repeatedly order the main characters to act outside that departmentalized structure.
Example: The police commissioner sees the bomb squad arriving, but still lets the hero detective disarm the bomb himself.
One or more of the main characters is a figure of authority, but has no regards for departmentalization - often involving themselves in heavy micromanagement of every little detail.
Example: The bomb squad is disarming a bomb, but the police commissioner is giving them instructions on how to do so over the radio.
One or more of the main characters is a figure of authority, but constantly places him/herself into dangerous situations, despite there being plenty of "expendables" around who should be doing so in his/her stead.
Example: The police commissioner dismantles a bomb while the entire police department watches (with fingers crossed).
Note that the trope can be (and sometimes is) justified simply by providing a logical reason why any of the above occurs. Several such examples are listed below. Unfortunately, many shows offer no such explanation.
Finally, note that this trope is rarely confined to a single main character. It's usually a group of characters who, between them, seem to carry out every possible task in the show. You'll never see the extras doing anything important, it's always one of the Main Characters who gets the task. Some shows make this even more complicated by having one main character doing the job of another main character, because that other main character is off doing some other job that isn't within their remit. In the worst case scenario, this cascades on and on until all of the main characters are doing something they aren't supposed to do.
This trope is closely related to Ghost Extras, since the two tropes are almost always played together. Expect the main character(s) to be an Omnidisciplinary Scientist or Super Doc (it's usually an excuse to let him Do Everything). Also connected to Red Shirt; if you're in a series where The Main Characters Do Everything, and suddenly you see someone else participating in the main action, they might be there only for purposes of a sudden death.
Somewhat related to Composite Character, where after adaptation a single character has to carry out tasks that were originally carried out by two or more separate characters.
Compare with Einstein Sue and The Only One, where our main characters do everything because all other characters are either incompetent, or just never happen to be around when they're needed. Contrast Minimalist Cast, which is when the main characters do everything because there isn't anyone else. Also contrast with Lower Deck Episode, where the show focuses on the people in the background - and in many cases has to temporarily suspend The Main Characters Do Everything to make it work.
Pretty much every medical show features doctors doing the most of the nurses' jobs (well, unless the show is actually about nurses.)
The doctors on House often perform all sorts of duties that should've been departmentalized - everything from radiology to surgery. Somewhat justified given that a) House is eccentric about who he trusts to do tests, b) a lot of the procedures done on the show are dangerous, unethical, or illegal, and c) House's boss has the hots for him, so he gets away with a lot of stuff he really shouldn't. Still doesn't change the fact that a lot of the medical procedures on the show take months or years of rigorous study to learn how to do, yet House and his small team are always experts at every single one, regardless of what branch of medicine they specialized in. Those specialists themselves are as varied as possible (they're essentially a medical Dream Team), presumably to limit the amount this trope pops up.
Grey's Anatomy is nowhere near as bad an offender as House is, but still fits this trope. The main characters are surgeons yet they perform non-surgical aspects of medical trials, do all the work in the ER, all the work of radiologists and a whole lot of what the nurses are supposed to do. In addition they do all the internal medicine associated with their surgical specialty. This is largely a result of focusing on surgeons, and surgeons only (many plots even pretend that the chief of surgery is in charge of the entire hospital). As a result, after introducing several rounds of interns, attendings and residents, as well as personnel from the season-six merger, plus guest stars who ended up staying, and with few characters ever leaving outright, the show ended up as The Main Characters Do Everything despite its Loads and Loads of Characters. Within the surgical department, the further sub-specializations (general, cardio, plastics etc.) are handled relatively well.
The Australian soap opera Neighbours did this for many years with Dr. Karl Kennedy. He was a general practitioner, but any medical procedure of whatever kind always seemed to be done by Dr. Karl. Similarly, there have been various characters over the years who were nurses, and any stay in hospital would always see the characters cared for by that particular nurse
Emergency! both averted and played it straight. The paramedics had their own job, but could also act as firefighters in that time period. Most hospital stuff, though, was done by one of the three main doctors (Early, Brackett and Morton) and although there were lots of background nurses, Dixie was the most often seen one.
The Bill allows us to see a police station full of people, but conspicuously the 20 main characters are always involved in the cases we see, while those other guys mostly seem to do their own things that we don't get to hear about. It crosses the line occasionally in that one character (say, Sgt Smith) will be seen working as office Sergeant, and in C.A.D., and at custody, all in the same shift.
the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise is very egregious about this. Pretty much the only thing the all-purpose forensic investigators don't do as part of their duties is to give out speeding tickets. And they don't do autopsies, that's the ME's job. The others just often watch parts of it. And in Ray and Hawkes' case, they are trained pathologists. Also, all 3 series have lab techs, though lab work is just as often done by the main cast. On the original series everyone has specialties, but still, real CSIs don't do "lab stuff," only "scene stuff."
At least they aren't usually called upon to use guns much, unlike their counterparts in Miami and New York,although they're actually trained police officers with badges in addition to their guns.
And gently spoofed in an episode of Law & Order in which one of the forensic team makes a suggestion as to what might have happened at a crime scene, and Lennie Briscoe remarks "These guys think they're cops."
Hawaii Five-0: they've got a forensics lab that can find addresses from hair-strands, Detective Danno sneaks around like a ninja, and Police Chief McGarett fights criminals and makes arrests at the crime-scene when he's supposed to be minding the store. It's as if they're the only cops in the entire state of Hawaii. However, they are a special police task force reporting directly to the Governor.
Criminal Minds always has the valuable profilers arresting the violent, dangerous psychopaths. Also, the characters deal with everything from serial killers to the mob to terrorists to child abductors. In real life, the FBI has different departments for each of these and would not send the same team on all the cases they get. Justified to some extent as they do need episodes.
NCIS borders on this. McGee, Tony, and Ziva all do field work, but also run down information back in the office. However, McGee almost always does more technical stuff, such as tracking GPS signals and hacking, while the other two tend to look for more accessible info, like bank accounts and call histories. McGee will often be left behind to track a subject while Gibbs, Tony, and Ziva make the actual arrest. Abby, however, does all the forensics (Except for pathology, which is handled by Ducky and Palmer), from bullet matching to mass spectrometry, and she even does some computer hacking. This is justified, though, as she is qualified in all these various areas. Ducky eventually gets a degree in psychology so he can be consulted on profiles and the like.
Bones has a forensic anthropologist doing EVERYTHING. There was once an actual Forensic Anthropology teacher who offered extra credit to her students if they watched a single episode of the show and brought in a list of everything wrong with it.
The X-Files has Agent Scully serving as a field agent and performing her own autopsies.
Fringe is supposed to have the titular Division, a joint task force comprising dozens to hundreds of agents, of which our protagonists are only a few. By season 2, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Fringe Division was headquartered in Walter's lab and was comprised of three FBI agents, two civilian consultants and a cow. Well, Walter is segregated from most of the rest of the division intentionally due to his Science-Related Memetic Disorder frequently crossing the line into the "experiment on whatever human is handy" phase or outright omnicidal mania. I think the viewer is supposed to assume that when the assistant was asked a question and then wasn't around for a few scenes she was off liaising with the department proper. Similarly, they keep Walter's son away from sensitive files and personnel because he's a career criminal and Olivia stays out of contact to maintain the isolation. They're essentially a semi-independent 'cell' of the division kept apart because they're, well, a cancer cell.
NUMB3RS features this with Omnidisciplinary Scientist Charlie, somehow a mathematician is the one they go to to handle engineering analysis, geology and whatever other random scientific concepts are necessary for the case of the week. While he does get help from resident Hot Scientist Amita, a computer scientist, and his physicist mentor, Absent-Minded Professor Larry, they are still involved in a much larger number of fields than any real life scientist or mathematician. While occasionally other experts are brought in as necessary, more often than not it fall to the three main characters to do all the work.
Castle features this to an extent with Lanie, the medical examiner. While she does do autopsies, fitting her role, she also handles all of the field work and generally is the one to do much of the other forensic analysis despite the fact that there are other specialties for those roles.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., essentially a police procedural in the Marvel movie universe, on a team that actually HAS two specialist "field agents" perfectly capable of performing technical tasks through comms or even by themselves, frequently sends only one NEITHER of them on things like stings, undercover missions, and in one case a combat-heavy insertion to unscrew a single plate-panel and pull a plug on a doomsday device... with the other mission slot occupied by the audience-insert character (an untrained computer cracker that doesn't even have top secret clearance) or a member of the explicitly not-field-trained science team. In some ways an inversion of the trope, since the goal seems to be to give every member of the Five-Man Band equal screen time, logic be damned.
Flashpoint sees Strategic Response Unit Team One called out for a lot of things — not just hostage negotiation and rescue, but also kidnapping, robbery, serving high risk warrants, raids and responding to bomb threats. It is justified, however, in that the SRU teams are intended to respond to any possible situation, and have done a great deal of crosstraining (while Sgt. Greg Parker is the main negotiator, everyone on Team One has ended up having to negotiate with subjects at some point).
Police & Forensic Aversions
Averted by Joe Friday and his partners in Dragnet. They didn't have a specific department. Each episode, they'd be experienced officers in whatever department was most central to the real-life case they were depicting - only their off-the-job personalities remained constant. Regardless of the department, the two only did the plainclothes work. If they needed fingerprints or a license plate run, or other tasks outside their regular duties, they'd contact the appropriate section of the police department (part of the much-vaunted "realism" of the show).
Also averted in Adam-12. Reed and Malloy were patrolmen, their job was to respond to calls and arrest criminals. They worked with the Detective Division, but it was to give them information and provide backup - any investigation was done by the detectives themselves. Once Reed and Malloy arrested someone and brought them in (and did the paperwork), their part was complete and they went out to the next call. Not only was it realistic, it also provided a great variety of stories per episode.
The original Law & Order averted this as much as possible. The detectives are virtually never shown doing anything other than detective work. If they need to break into a suspect's house, you can bet there will be uniformed officers or even a SWAT team to take point. The Lieutenant stays in the office, the Pathologist stays in the morgue, and the computer guy stays in front of the computer. The district attorney virtually never leaves his office if it's not an emergency, sending his assistant out to interview witnesses if necessary. The only times these lines were blurred was when there was a good plot-driven reason, and there were bits of dialogue about how this wasn't strictly procedure, but needs must.
Also averted in sister series Homicide: Life on the Street. The detectives work murder cases almost exclusively. Other police-work such as medical examinations and forensic analysis is done by trained professionals, usually off-screen. The lieutenant and other higher-ups rarely get involved, unless explicitly needed, and the Detectives almost never make arrests without uniformed officers as backup.
This trope is played straight, averted and thoroughly justified in Spiritual SuccessorThe Wire. The entire premise of the show is that a judge's inquiries prompt the creation of a detail unit charged with investigating one specific case, which later becomes established as a semi-permanent crime unit with no real definition to its role in the police force. This later results in the team being reduced to making small-scale drug arrests due to in-office politics - much to the team-members' protest. Nonetheless, the Baltimore police department is shown as realistically heavily departmentalized - to its own detriment in most cases - and the show has Loads and Loads of Characters to boot.
Dexter: The lead character, a forensic investigator, not only is emphatically not a police officer, with no badge or gun, but works specifically doing blood spatter analysis, and rarely if ever deviates from this. In fact, they emphasize this as early as the pilot episode, where, upon seeing a cut up body whose blood has been completely drained, he turns around and walks away, telling Batista "No trabajo" (translation: "Not my job, man.").
Monk is an aversion in that we do know that other SFPD detectives exist and the main characters are only seen doing the investigation work at crime scenes, although we do see Monk and the others occasionally visit crime labs for forensic analysis.
Starfleet officers seem to have a penchant for sending themselves and/or other valuable officers (usually bridge officers, and sometimes ALL OF THEM) on risky away missions, when security forces or specialists are available.note This practice has probably saved the lives of many a Red Shirt who would otherwise have had to beam down to the planet and die; main characters are often wearing Plot Armor and will almost never be killed. This is occasionally admitted in the shows themselves. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Riker was hired because he refused to let his previous commanding officer go on a dangerous away mission.
You have to feel sorry for the Security Officer. Their job appears to cover everything from threat analysis and weapons targeting in starship combat to responding to an alarm tripping on the cargo deck. On the odd occasion they will delegate their alarm response duties to the Chief Engineer or First Officer.
Originally there was No Such Thing as H.R. in Star Trek, but then came the position of ship's counselor, which is basically an entire HR department in one person.
Star Trek: The Original Series: This may have been Lampshaded in the episode "The Ultimate Computer". When the M-5 computer is asked why it didn't pick Kirk and McCoy for a landing party, it cites them as "unnecessary personnel".
It is definitely lampshaded by the fact that McCoy's "I'm a doctor, not a..." protestations were frequent enough to attain catchphrase status.
The episode "Arena" contains a striking example: the Enterprise is under attack in orbit while Kirk is planet-side. Although Kirk is himself under fire, he takes time out to micromanage the space battle over the communicator (with such insightful tactics as "fire phasers" and "fire torpedoes"), rather that just letting Sulu do his job.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation it almost feels like the thousand or so people on board the Enterprise-D serve at most as backup in case one of the officers gets incapacitated. And usually, if all the Main Characters are incapacitated, those ample replacements are also mysteriously absent or incapacitated. There were touches of this in The Original Series as well.
Even random or alien phenomena tend to treat Main Characters differently from Extras. If a phenomenon causes people to disappear or die, it'll target the extras first, leaving only the Main Characters around to solve the problem. If a phenomenon is benign, or it teleports people to some interesting scenario, it'll always target the Main Characters only, leaving all of the extras back on the ship.
Speaking of TNG: Hey, there's a top secret and dangerous commando mission we need done. Instead of sending specially trained combat troops, we'll send a ship captain with valuable information on our defense plans, some doctor, and a Klingon. This isn't a huge risk to both the people involved and the Federation itself at all.
Picard is apparently a starship captain, detective, attorney, and diplomat all in one. That last one is partially justified since he's the captain of Starfleet's flagship. The Enterprise is shown to be as much a diplomatic tool for the Federation as it is a tool for exploration or combat.
Still, the number of episodes where Picard's various duties conflict with each other is very high. With the ship being used so often for diplomacy, and is already carrying over 1,000 people, the Enterprise should've had a dedicated diplomat on board. Starfleet is holding the Idiot Ball on that.
In the TNG episode "Remember Me" Dr. Crusher attempts to call two of the other doctors on the ship in to examine a patient and is informed they apparently never existed. Although the viewer is supposed to be just as confused as Dr. Crusher, one must wonder why these other doctors have been so rarely seen before.
Fridge Logic kicks in when the problem-of-the-week could be solved using a Vulcan or full-Betazoid's special abilities, and nobody thinks to ask if they have one on board — though Starfleet didn't seem to have a many (or possibly any) full-Betazoids.
The bridge of the Enterprise is never seen completely staffed by a backup crew. They must exist for the times when you see the main characters in a meeting or in the holodeck, but if there's a scene on the bridge, at least a few of principals are always on duty.
Star Trek: Voyager is particularly bad at this, with Janeway frequently sending both herself and her first officer off the ship on routine patrols.
SF Debris points out the astounding number of times where Ensign Harry Kim does something well out of his element simply because the writers wanted to give him something to do.
It's even worse in the case of Tom Paris, who is apparently knowledgable in everything from piloting, engineering, commando tactics, etc. And he's an ex-con. SF Debris even points out a particularly ridiculous instance of this in Year Of Hell where within the space of 30 seconds he is describing modifications he made to Voyager's hull (engineering) inspired by the Titanic (history) when he is suddenly called to perform field medicine and, to quote Debris, "none of these things are even his job." (piloting) Debris quickly comes to the conclusion that Paris was held in a prison for savants.
There's a specific issue of this going on with Paris: aside from the Doctor, he's apparently the only person on the crew with medical training, and training someone who isn't a major character is obviously impossible. So for a significant chunk of the series, there are only two people working in sickbay, and one of them is the ship's chief helmsman.
Voyager, at least, has two excuses: Half the original crew was killed in the first episode (including the doctor, nurse, chief engineer, lead helmswoman, and first officer), and they can't get specialized personnel from Starfleet. Those left on board have to step up from time to time.
Chaotica: (suspicious) Why this preoccupation with the Shield? Janeway: Oh, forgive me. It's just that, as a fellow ruler of the cosmos, I often have to do things myself. Chaotica: Ah. Because of the incompetence of your inferiors, no doubt!
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was extremely bad in this regard, especially considering the station is meant to have a crew of roughly twice a Galaxy Class ship like the Enterprise-D. On several occasions they left the station without its captain, liaison to Bajor, chief of security, chief medical officer, the chief science officer, and worst of all, their chief engineer who was also the senior NCO. And as most armies and navies know, you can take out as many officers as you like, but remove the NCOs and things start falling apart. This would essentially drop command to whoever the 5th or 6th highest ranking officer on the station, which is so far down the list that no-one of that level of rank was never made a character.
At least they did have the station falling apart while O'Brien was gone though, and the others trying to keep the station in one piece. Heck, in the earlier seasons it was falling apart even while he was around.
This was a result of introducing the Defiant. The writers decided that the story can't evolve if they're always confined to a single (stationary) space station, so they used the Defiant as an extra excuse to get the crew away from the station as often as possible. Since Defiant is a tiny warship requiring a crew of 40ish, it also gave an excellent opportunity for all the officers to leave at the same time. Does make one wonder why a warship doesn't get its own command crew to begin with, though.
After a while, they brought Worf in, and transferred him to Command rather than Security so they could at least avoid some of this trope when they took the Defiant out.
Kira Nerys is a Major in the Bajoran military, and the liaison between Bajor and the Federation. She's also the First Officer on board Deep Space Nine. This is fine, because DS9 is a Bajoran station which is simply under Federation administration, so the two jobs fit well. However, once the Defiant is introduced, in at least one episode Kira is the First Officer on the ship. Remember, Bajor is not a member of the Federation - half the story revolves around this point. But the Federation apparently has no problem with an officer from a semi-allied foreign military assigned to one of the highest positions on a cutting-edge (and top-secret!) Federation starship. Of course it should be noted that in-universe, Sisko appears to have the last word about anything remotely related to the Defiant - and that in itself is another instance of this trope.
The issue with Kira was somewhat resolved when Worf showed up: he would usually serve as first officer of the Defiant from that point onward. The one time Kira took command over Worf ("Tears of the Prophets") was shortly following an episode where Worf's command abilities had been called into question ("Change of Heart").
The one dedicated Defiant crewmember disappears following the episode she's introduced. She's also not even from Starfleet, but a serving Romulan military officer, which raises a lot of its own questions. Interestingly the reason she never appeared again was specifically because the writers thought the audience wouldn't be interested in a character with just one well-defined job.
Odo was chief of Security and nothing more; he was not a soldier, pilot, officer, diplomat, or any such thing - neither for the Bajorans nor the Federation. He was simply the station's top cop. Yet they would bring him along on the Defiant pretty often, sometimes having him sitting on the bridge doing stuff. This would be like putting an NYPD Detective on the bridge of an aircraft carrier. At least Odo could be justified on occasion, when the Defiant was near Dominion space, as Odo's species are considered gods to the Jem'Hadar, the footsoldiers of the Dominion. Run into trouble with the Dominion, you want them to see that one of their gods is on the ship when you hail them. It doesn't cover situations in the Alpha Quadrant, however.
This is actually used as a plot point in For The Cause. With most of the senior staff are off-station in the Defiant, Maquis spy Michael Eddington incapacitates Major Kira and takes command of DS9, allowing him to steal a number of industrial replicators bound for Cardassia as humanitarian aid.
Star Trek: Enterprise takes this problem to astounding levels. The show has absolutely no B-cast at all for the first two seasons despite having some 80 people on board, and none of the main characters share a department. This leads to absurd levels whenever one of the officers needs an assistant, and they call in another main character who has no training in that task. The list includes...
Archer serving as a nurse (at least twice).
Archer serving as a bomb squad (Having to be given instructions by a man who can't get a good look at the alien bomb because he has a spike through his leg).
Both Reed (Security and weapons) and Hoshi (Linguistics and comms), operating the transporter (which is brand spanking new technology, and we know is prone to constant malfunction after 200 years trying to perfect it).
Hoshi being constantly sent around the ship to do odd jobs, as though her official title was "Intern". One baffling instance has Archer pull her away from setting up the vital communication relay meant to keep in contact with Earth (part of her actual job), in order to send her on a Snipe Hunt to find out what Reed's favourite food is.
The situation is reigned in somewhat in the third season with the introduction of the MACOs—essentially Star Trek's answer to the Marine Corps. The detatchment's commanding officer insists that his team handle a combat situation on the ground so that the senior staff will be on the ship to deal with a hostile incoming ship, and Starfleet security personnel are available if Enterprise is boarded.
In fact, the starship itself (at least if it's named Enterprise) seems to suffer this trope. We find the Enterprise patrolling the border, mapping the far reaches of space, ferrying VIP's on errands great and small, responding to natural disasters, hauling cargo (usually medical supplies, but still...), investigating weird phenomena, participating in warfare, trying to stop warfare, acting as all-purpose troubleshooter for any ship or station that calls, doing first contacts with alien races, negotiating treaties, AND just plain running into bad luck. It's like the Admiralty is trying to get Kirk/Picard/Archer to resign in frustration.
The Star Trek TNG Technical Manual lampshades this tendency by outright admitting that the Galaxy-Class Enterprise-D was specifically designed to be a jack-of-all-trades vessel and admitting that the various jobs are usually better handled by specialized ships.
You're forgetting that space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly... well, never mind. So it makes sense to send whatever vessel happens to be in the area rather than sending a spaceship just for that task. This was more obvious in the Original Series where some effort was made to portray how far out they were from Earth. Hence a Starfleet vessel would have to be a jack-of-all-trades type. And there's the diplomatic issues to consider: sure you could send a civilian vessel, but why not send Enterprise to make some personal contacts with the ruling leaders and impress them with the power of Starfleet? That sort of thing comes in handy when the Klingons come blustering around, demanding a base on your planet, and you'd rather they accept Federation 'protection' instead.
Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined) also delves into this, though it's partially justified what with having so few people left who are trained in all the necessary disciplines. Still, with thousands of people in the fleet, it seems that the same dozen characters are responsible for pretty much everything that goes on. This is especially blatant with Pilot/Rebel/Commando/Vigilante/Criminal Investigator/Starship Captain/Lawyer/Politician/President Lee Adama - sometimes all in the same episode!
It's equally bad with the Cylons, except they have no excuse. Despite having a society where there are millions of every model of Cylon, making them practically interchangeable, the story features the same handful of Cylon individuals in all key positions.
They avert in some areas, though. Adama goes on an "away mission" once in the whole series (when he checks out the munitions at Ragnar Anchorage - not a situation where they expecting danger) and if you ever see him in a Viper fighting the Cylons himself, it's only in a flashback to his own days as a pilot.
Adama also went down to Kobol in "Home" part 2. After major surgery.
Taken to insane levels on the algae planet when the small algae harvesting facility is being operated only by the top pilots and the crew of the flight deck - all of whom should probably still be recovering from the insane flying they had to do in the previous episode to get there.
Lampshaded in the series itself, wherein one character chastises the cast for voicing that complaint off-screen, informing them that, as Marines, their job is simply to follow whatever orders they recieve (a not-so-subtle Take That at the letters they had recieved on the matter).
Stargate SG-1: SG-1 actually averts this trope to an extent, which is impressive given that the four main characters are the focus of 90% of every episode. The show makes it clear from the start that SG-1 is just one team of many. While it does seem like SG-1 does everything, this is because their team is designed to be generalist - it always has a military leader, scientist, archeologist, and alien warrior. We frequently hear of or see other teams which have more specialist duties (SG-3 led by Colonel Makepeace is an all Marines unit charged with high risk missions or providing armed backup to other teams, for example). A lot of episodes start with SG-1 following up on some other team's work.
General Hammond never seems to go home. Possibly justified with the major threats that the teams encounter likely keeping him on permanent call, while his wife is mentioned to have died in Season 1, giving Hammond a few good reasons to throw himself into his work.
Once O'Neill gets promoted to lead the entire Stargate Command, he finds himself coming up against this trope, as he wants to be out there where the action is instead of staying behind his desk and making sure the base runs smoothly. In fact, his predecessor, General Hammond, despite being the fifth main character, only ever uses the Stargate twice.
O'Neill is big offender through whole show. He leads foot-based squad of people fighting with assault rifles. But when the new experimental fighter jet is built? O'Neill with Teal'c go test it. (Teal'c is fully justified in this one as the fighter was a retro-engineered death glider, whereas O'Neill is trained as a pilot, but not a regular test pilot.) When the next prototype is built and is needed for saving the world? O'Neill and Carter. Attacking on Anubis flagship Star Wars style? You can guess. Also when there is some conspiracy back on Earth, it's SG1 who investigates...
Stargate Command also has a dedicated team of scientists and medical staff who will work on tasks in the background, like studying alien technology that SG-1 have brought back, or finding a cure to a disease.
And yet, more often than not, the other scientific "experts" are shown to fail miserably (and humorously) when trying to fill in for Sam (Doctor Lee in "Arthur's Mantle") or Daniel (Doctor Rothman in "Crystal Skull".)
This trope is still lampshaded in "Ripple Effect" when Dr. Lee asks why all of the teams from alternate realities are strictly SG1s. Sam justifies it by saying that, since they're only letting in teams who are under fire, it makes sense that the front line team would show up with more frequency.
Stargate Atlantis, however, follows the trope more closely. Only Sheppard's team + whoever is in charge of Atlantis that season + the doctor of the season ever get to do ANYTHING or are ever SHOWN to do anything. In fact, it gets silly as they will treat Rodney McKay being disabled as their entire science crew - save Zelenka - being disabled, despite the existence of 20 or so other scientists on his team who are some of the most brilliant ones alive.
Babylon 5. Exactly why does the Earth ambassador and commander of the Babylon Five station have to go out with the starfury wing/security team and put himself in the line of fire every time there is a crisis? Ivanova and Garibaldi are also quite bad at this, but not nearly as much as Sheridan/Sinclair. At least they did manage to justify it in most of the cases:
Sinclair pretty much out of survivor guilt and seeking out a heroic death. Garibaldi actually calls him out on this during the closing scenes of the episode Infection.
Sheridan, always having served on an Earth Alliance ship, gets the feeling of being trapped when too long on the space station, so he takes every opportunity he can.
Ivanova goes in place of her commanding officer once because she hasn't piloted a 'fury in a long, long time. Then stuff happens with enemies making a visit and well... she and her craft barely survived. Ivanova considered it a hell of a fun ride though, not understanding all the fuss about her 'fury basically being in repairs for a long while.
When preparing to repell a reclamation force sent from Earth, Ivanova insisted on piloting a Starfury because they were asking their pilots to fire on their own, and (paraphrasing) "one of us has to be out there with them".
Garibaldi, well... he is the odd one out in this case. But seeing as B5 barely surviving without him, and him being able to arrange everything it comes as no surprise that he gets spaceborne once in a while. He even got his own custom paint job on his own Starfury. Last time he went out though, he ran into a bit of a problem.
There was a cast member who was basically pushed on the show, an ace Star Fury pilot. Well... he didn't last until the end of the season.
Other Live Action
Possibly done in Yes, Minister - Hacker has dealt with hospitals, transport infrastructure, finance, smoking, gender equality, and everything else you can name. I think it was on the DVD Commentary that the writers said they deliberately gave him a fictional department (Administrative Affairs—basically anything that involves bureaucrats and red tape is in its purview) in order to get him involved in as many issues as they could.
On several occasions (such as the Burandan episode, and the one with I.D. cards), Hacker queries whether a matter really is within their remit, and is told there are administrative issues that mean it is theirs, which Hacker once refers to as others 'passing the parcel' of an unpopular policy on to them. As the department is almost axed for essentially doing nothing that cannot be done by other departments, it seems like it was created by Whitehall for the sole purpose of offloading unpopular policies.
Other episodes either have certain issues fobbed onto the DAA because the department which would normally handle that remit doesn't want to touch it with a bargepole (the episode focusing on the Unified National Transport Policy comes to mind) or because the DAA is essentially the department handling the Civil Service (the joke being that a new complex bureaucratic structure clogged with red tape has been set up in order to deal with pre-existing complex bureaucratic structures clogged with red tape).
In the same way as Yes, Minister, The Thick of It invented a similar department that could meddle in many different areas: the Department Of Social Affairs (or Department Of Social Affairs & Citizenship later on). It is hand waved in the show by the fact that even the department's own members don't seem to know what their primary job is. Beyond that it is clear that they mostly get the jobs that the rest of the government doesn't want.
Band of Brothers sits on the edge of this trope. Easy Company is always in the thick of things, in every major battle on every front. Of course, this is a case of Reality Is Unrealistic since that's actually what happened to airborne divisions during the invasion of Europe, and Easy is essentially a unit-sized Composite Character made up of what was originally several different airborne companies. However it also delves into cases of The Only One, thanks to Easy being apparently the only company that doesn't screw up on a regular basis. Looks like Easy has to Do Everything because no one else is competent enough to do their own damn jobs.
Angel's fifth season is both one of the most overt and most justified examples of this trope: Angel and co. now control one of the most powerful organizations imaginable, with literally thousands of underlings, paramilitary teams, doctors, scientists, etc. But they will go to extreme lengths and take absurd risks not to use them, because all of those people are irredeemably evil while the heroes... aren't. They get called out on this often.
NewsRadio is about a busy New York City radio station, but the eight main characters seem to do every job at the station, with the electrician sitting in on story meetings and sometimes going on the air, and with the owner of a huge media empire spending most of his time there. The show originally had non-speaking extras in the background to suggest that there were other employees, but eventually gave up on that.
On Dollhouse, although there are more than 20 "Actives" in the L.A. Dollhouse, any assignment that turns out to involve the Myth Arc will go to one of the four main characters, even if there's no in-character reason why it should.
Vicky (to Fat Neil): "We came so close to having one class that wasn't all about them."
Lampshaded in LOST by Arzt, who is annoyed by the main characters always trekking off on important missions together.
Arzt: I know a clique when I see it. I teach high school, pal-y. You know, you people think you're the only ones on this Island doing anything of value. I've got news for you. There were 40 other survivors of this plane crash. And we are all people, too.
Anime and Manga
Happens in Phoenix, particularly with the two speaking-part forensic scientists.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan continues the original series' tradition: The starship Reliant arrives at Ceti Alpha 5, now an inhospitable and deadly planet, to check it for life forms. Who beams down to perform reconnaissance in full hazard gear? Why, the captain and first officer, of course!
In Star Trek: Into Darkness, when Scotty and his assistant quit, fresh out of the Academy Ensign Chekov is made Chief Engineer, over the heads of the rest of the Engineering staff.
In the Nick Fury:Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. stories, it is always Colonel Nick Fury, Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones, Val, and a few other high ranking S.H.I.E.L.D agents who do most or all of the infiltrating, shooting, fighting, spying, and interacting with all of the superheroes. Even despite the fact that these characters should be too aged for active field frontline duties. Also, these characters always operate under their real names, oddly enough. These agents are high ranking intelligence officers whose faces are also well known to longtime enemies like AIM and HYDRA as well as to the various circles of costumed superheroes, many of whom have secret identities. Shouldn't their espionage functions be better carried out by nobody characters? After all, a famous spy is a useless one. In any real spy organization Nick Fury, being the man at the top, would be a reclusive, shadowy character whom even his senior officers may only occasionally see in person. And those senior officers would be spymasters in their own right, presenting a similarly shadowy presence to their own subordinates. The activities and operatives of this organization would remain mostly a mystery even to (especially to) the superheroes. Most of the interactions with superheroes or notables like Tony Stark would be through plainclothes middlemen who would probably not immediately bring up S.H.I.E.L.D's name. The iconic Helicarrier would be a foolish expenditure, it's intelligence functions would be carried out by a smaller, less conspicuous conventional aircraft. It wouldn't even need to be a carrier. Anyway, it would be foolish to have all of your senior intelligence officers together in the same place all the time. Instead, S.H.I.E.L.D would be a mostly invisible organization with no discernable headquarters. It would manipulate the more visible and publicly known conventional military or intelligence forces into supplying the hardware and doing most of the spying, fighting and dying.
Books generally suffer from this less because they can handle large numbers of minor characters better, but the villains in the Left Behind series seem to have an HR problem: Nicolae Carpathia rules the world with only a former flight attendant, a botanist, a disgraced ex-seminarian, and a newspaper editor to help him. But then again, Carpathia is literally Satan, Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies and the Prince of darkness, it's not as if he needed the human underlings.
This trope is somewhat built into the very premise of the Ender’s Game series, where a good number of the major characters are a bunch of super-prodigies who, in the first novel, were drafted as children (or at least strongly considered) by the military to be trained into tactical geniuses. The three Wiggin siblings, between them, go on to command an international space fleet, unite humanity under one government, found a major religion, destroy an alien race, save 3 alien races, become the most hated person in history, become the most loved person in history, make faster-than-light travel possible, and manage to do much this without their true identities being revealed to more than half a dozen people.
Discworld novels featuring the Ankh-Morpork Times, to an extent. William de Word still acts like an Intrepid Reporter in Monstrous Regiment, even though he's supposed to be the managing editor. In Unseen Academicals, he insists on reporting on the football match, although he assigned a sports reporter at the end of The Truth. If it's not him, it's his wife, Sacharissa, as seen in the Moist von Lipwig books. Justified since William invented newspapers on the Disc, and therefore his job works however he says it does.
Sam Vimes also finds himself doing a lot more work on the streets than his position as Commander of the Watch in the biggest city on the Disc should allow. However, this is often lampshaded and justified - Sam thoroughly dislikes the official side of his job and always looks for excuses to get out and do some real policing. And as he's only answerable to the Patrician (and his wife), he can get away with it.
The Sword of Truth series: If Richard didn't do it, and Kahlan didn't do it, then the action in question is by definition evil, because no one else on the side of good has any agency whatsoever. Becomes slightly ridiculous when an ancient wizard ancestor of Richard who was so powerful and dangerous that there was an entire civilization founded on keeping him and his flawless future-vision locked up, and a second civilization based on exploiting the technology invented to keep him that way escapes dramatically from confinement to... kind of faff around in the background aimlessly for a couple books, and maybe make a pass at an old woman or two. Little help with the oncoming super-evil empire of doom would have been nice, granddad.
Horatio Hornblower justified this. Most of the time when Hornblower is doing something, he's of a rank lower than captain. Once he becomes a captain and higher, he's less likely to get involved himself. On one occasion, he's forced to go on a mission because one of the Lieutenants on it would out-seniority his preferred choice, his own Lt. Bush. Bush himself is decidedly unhappy about his beloved boss risking his life.
This was present in LARP: The Battle For Verona, where the main characters instruct the US Army on how to repel Mongolian invaders using Medieval technology. The fact that these are young people who get together on weekends to play games instructing dedicated military personnel breaks the suspension of disbelief quite quickly.
Justified in The Lost Fleet series; having managed to get home from a disastrous raid on the enemy rear with a high percentage of his fleet intact, recently recovered Human Popsicle and very reluctant legendary war hero Michael Geary is immediately sent off on another mission as far from his home nation -much to his own considerable displeasure- as possible because he scares the living daylights out of his political leadership; relations between the military and the government have become exceedingly strained thanks to a century of brutal and bloody warfare, and there was already a serious threat of a coup before a man who is Famed in Story as some hybrid of Admiral Nelson and Captain America came back from the dead. It also doesn't hurt that he's just about the only really competent fleet commander they have left at this point, because casualties have been so appalling that training and experience are in short supply.
In Stingray, the title craft is supposedly the fastest, deadliest, most advanced submarine in the world, crewed by the two most elite aquanauts. Despite the many hostile underwater races and other threats from the world's oceans, Stingray is nevertheless always available to go on treasure hunts, to investigate wild rumours and to patrol oyster beds.
Yes, Minister's spiritual predecessor (though it featured only civil servants), The Men From the Ministry, was set at the even less realistic Department of General Assistance, with the remit that they were there to 'just help out' any other department which was overloaded (in fact it had only 3 civil servants working there, two of whom would get involved with absurdly small detail of the tasks in hand.)
Early Final Fantasy games used this quite a bit. No matter what job the main characters typically held, the second the Call to Adventure rang, they answered.
A prominent example is Final Fantasy V, in which four of the five player characters are royalty, and the second anything goes awry, they strike out on a quest to figure out what's going on. Alone. Even when they have entire armies, platoons, and teams of scholars at their command. No wonder one of them ends up dead.
Final Fantasy VI does this with both the heroes and the villians. The good guys have King Edgar leave his kingdom to fight himself pretty early in the game. You recruit his brother, Sabin, pretty early, too (although he abdicated the throne before the game started). On the villians' side, Kefka personally fights you several times throughout the game, even though he's shown commanding soldiers.
Played straight in Battlefield 3 When Sgt. Miller (Tank driver) blows a road block and takes out an IED under gunfire because the bomb squad guy is too cowardly to do it. His partner lampshades it by saying "you should get that guys paycheck, 'cuz you just did his fucking job". Averted, however, by switching to Miller and the female pilot for scenes Blackthorne (Marine Recon) was not at or could not feasibly do.
7 Days a Skeptic and 6 Days a Sacrifice have been accused of this. In the former, the ship's counselor is forced to do things like machinery maintenance and going EVA to investigate the comm array, while the engineer who's supposed to do these things loiter in the mess hall. In the latter, the protagonist has fallen down an elevator shaft, and has so many fractures and concussions that a wrong movement could kill him. Yet he's forced to hobble around the area carrying out fetch quests and interrogating prisoners while his uninjured allies hide in their rooms. The game maker has admitted to this, but saw no other option.
Valkyria Chronicles, especially in the anime version, would have you believe only Squad 7 actually did anything that moved the war forward and that the Gallian Regulars only existed so we could watch guys in the underdog army die. This gets even more hilarious when you consider the absurdly small size of Squad 7 and the massive size of the Imperial Army by comparison.
Which makes their enemies even worst for not bombing/zerg rushing/artillery firing/flanking/ANYTHING Squad 7 or simply going around them.
The Call of Duty series repeatedly has soldiers who are not only capable of using every piece of military equipment imaginable, but repeatedly ordered to use weapons that, by their military rank, they should not be let anywhere near. Of course, this is almost inevitably in some sort of highly-critical emergency with no one else available.
This becomes more apparent in the Modern Warfare games. Private Ramirez is ordered to use anything from sophisticated predator drones to rocket launchers to plastic explosives like C4, and Private Allen is tasked with being a Deep Cover Agent in a Russian terrorist cell.
The Ace Combat games serve as sort of an aerial counterpart to Call of Duty: The player (and, in some games, his wingmen) literally do the work of several squadrons, from combat air patrols to close support missions to counter-naval interdiction, and have access to a wide variety of planes to do so.
In the Mass Effect series, this is mentioned as one of the reasons why the batarians have failed to advance as far as the other species. Apparently, batarian commanders and other authority figures indulge in excessive micromanagement to the detriment of their society.
Justified in the Halo series, as Master Chief has spent years undergoing Training from Hell to handle every human and Covenant weapon, as well as operate just about every vehicle both sides uses. Being a Spartan supersoldier, he is often the only consistent game changer on the battlefield.
Police Quest danced around this trope several times. Sonny Bonds, the protagonist, started out as a patrol officer who got a (highly unconventional) impromptu promotion to Narcotics detective for the final part of the first game. He became a Homicide detective for the duration of the second game. Then, at the start of the third game, Sonny got promoted to Sergeant and put back in a patrol car —again— only to advance back to Narcotics detective by the end of that game! Chronologically these three games cover only a few years of time in Sonny's life. Even for the police department of a small city like Lytton, CA, this "hopping around" between jobs is highly unusual.
In the second game, Sonny believes that a recently-murdered man's body has been dumped into the local river, so he calls for a police dive team. The dive team van arrives, with only one officer in it. Of course, police procedure prohibits diving alone, but "fortunately" it turns out that Sonny can serve as the dive-buddy since he happens to have a diving certificate. This implies that whenever other detectives need the river searched, they're basically screwed.
Also, throughout the entirety of that game, Keith's actions amount to going back to the car to call the dispatch so that you don't have to. And that diving-team specialist? While underwater, he does nothing except swim about.
Parodied/justified on Agents Of Cracked. Their boss doesn't remember the phone extensions for any of the other employees.
While G.I. Joe had hundreds of characters (about one per every task that might need doing) it was extremely common to see one specialist doing the job of another. That's mainly due to never featuring all characters in the same episode.
In particular, nearly every member of the team was apparently qualified in flying modern jet fighters, and did so often. Perhaps this is why they ended up causing so much damage to the cities they were assigned to protect from Cobra.
In The Simpsons, members of the Family tend to get involved in affairs of other characters, with varying degrees of justification. One blatant example is in "Eight Misbehavin'", where Homer helps Apu steal back his children from the Zoo, with no explanation given except possibly that Homer is up for any kind of hijinks.
Lampshaded in "Lisa's Date with Density", where Chief Wiggum says "You know, in most cities, the Chief of Police doesn't even go out on calls like these."
In "Insane Clown Poppy" after Krusty bets and loses his daughter's violin to the mob and has to get it back, the Simpsons are inexplicably the first people he goes to for help.
In "Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment", Prohibition gets started because Bart drinks at the Saint Patrick's Day Parade, and Homer works to reverse it.
In "Sweets and Sour Marge", Homer indirectly, and Marge directly, causes the sugar ban, and Homer works to reverse it.
Apparently enforced, according to the DVD Commentary for "Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 2"; one writer suggested it should be Barney, but it was decided that it should be someone from the family. (It's Maggie.)
From "Homer the Smithers": "Nuts to this; I'll just get Homer Simpson." This is after Smithers tried to find someone too incompetent to handle his job when Burns forces him to take a vacation, only for his computer not to bother narrowing this down from 714 "finalists." Lampshaded in the DVD Commentary as an excuse to get to this trope.
In Futurama, the Planet Express team gets commissioned to do various improbable things, such as in "A Big Ball of Garbage", where they are put in charge of planting a bomb on the titular ball. Flimsily justified by reference to the fact that they're the only people willing/contractually obligated to take on such a suicidal mission.
In Archer when something needs to be done in ISIS its only limited to the core 8 casts doing something about it, the rest of the other nameless employees in the office do nothing but just be there to show how busy the office is.
Not only that but it seems to get worse over time: by the end of Season 3, Cyril and Pam, the ISIS Comptroller and HR Director respectively (both of which often seem to be the only people in their respective departments) also become full fledged field agents.
Non-human example - Thomas the Tank Engine is a short-range locomotive with his own branch line to run. Yet from series 3 onwards, running his branch line was about the only thing he hardly ever seemed to do. The same could be applied to any of the main characters.
Used both ways in The Dreamstone. The Land of Dreams is protected by a population of magical Wuts and the omni-powerful wizard, the Dream Maker, while Viltheed consists of the Evil Sorcerer Zordrak and his enormous army of Urpneys. Despite this, most episodes narrow the feud down to "Rufus and Amberley vs Sgt Blob, Frizz and Nug", with other characters only ever coming into the fray when one of them is genuinely on the ropes. While this is Lampshaded frequently in the villains' case (Frizz and Nug are usually the only ones who can be dragged into a mission), the heroes' reasoning seems based on pure suspension of disbelief (though one episode shrewdly implied the Noops were aware they always get handed the dirty work).
In T.U.F.F. Puppy, most of the actual work done in TUFF is done by Dudley, Kitty, Keswick, and The Chief. The rest of the staff in TUFF do little, or are absent entirely.