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Competence Porn

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Competence porn is a term invented by Leverage writer John Rogers (see here) and used by a lot of critics since —read here, here, here, and here. It's the thrill of watching bright, talented people plan, banter, and work together to solve problems. It's not just "characters being good at a thing," particularly if that thing is fighting—otherwise, the term would apply to virtually all fiction—but specifically about using cleverness and hard work. Though the term mostly applies to realistic dramas, there's an element of Wish-Fulfillment to it, as characters in a competence porn series rarely have to deal with serious infighting, dead-end ideas, Vast Bureaucracy and the other difficulties that affect real-life groups. As a result, competence porn is overwhelmingly featured in works on the idealistic end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.

Common genres include Capers, Medical Dramas, the more idealistic Government and Law Procedurals, and harder sci-fi. Guile Hero and The Trickster characters from mythology and legend are antecedents.

At least one key character, and possibly most of the main cast, will be a Consummate Professional. The Slacker need not apply, except to be the resident Butt-Monkey.

Not to be confused with the Competence Zone or with actual porn. Compare A-Team Montage, which is this trope in montage form, Catharsis Factor, The Beautiful Elite, and Asskicking Leads to Leadership. Also compare Rational Fic, which applies this to an existing work.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Gate: It focuses on Japan's military and its efforts in exploring a fantasy world on the other side of a portal. The soldiers involved are depicted as an extremely competent, organised and rational fighting force, with half the fun being the sheer catharsis of skewering the cliche of Rock Beats Laser with a hefty helping of combined arms.
  • Ghost in the Shell: The franchise focuses on an elite police unit, but this gets emphasized in the Stand Alone Complex sub-series, which shows Section 9 at their best, as a cautious and talented team of counter-terrorists who often out-think, out-hack, and out-politic the antagonists. Even at their most dire, the members always make sure they put up a fight to the last.
  • Golgo 13: The manga depicts the world's best sniper, and the reason for his success isn't just because of his reflexes. Many of his hits show the slow and methodical process of him researching and preparing for his shot, which makes the payoff all the sweeter when his various targets and rivals, who were so assured of their strategies, realize they've been outplayed.
  • Jormungand: Many of the show's curb stomps are because Koko's team of bodyguards are mainly composed of ex-military, and thus accomplish their job with the precision and professionalism many of their enemies lack. Koko herself is a shrewd strategist and businesswoman who regularly proves she's a braver, better player in the arms-dealing business than her self-styled rivals.
  • No Game No Life: The series follows "Blank", a brother-sister team of hardcore gamers who are unbeatable as long as they work together. The appeal of the series is watching the various ways they deduce how the rules of their opponents' games work, figuring out if and how said opponent is cheating, and then outwit their opponent to win the game. As a bonus, they also outwit their opponents after the game is over, such as using Exact Words to reinterpret the rewards for winning.
  • Starting Today I Work As A City Lord: A good amount of the enjoyment out of this series is seeing how Liu Feng constantly takes on powerful people and easily comes out on top. He also surrounds himself with highly competent assistants and ensures that his followers learn how to become highly competent individuals as well. Because of this, he and his forces can come at most problems from multiple angles and consistently gain the upper hand against adversaries.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: The titular character was described by Grant Morrison as hyper-competent in his Justice League phase, and even then a good part of the appeal of the "World's Greatest Detective" and his stories was seeing him use and apply his intelligence, skills, and resources to come out on top against every enemy and challenge no matter how dire and outmatched he is. This also applies to his supporting cast who are all at the top of their game, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, Lucius Fox, Oracle, with the Kid Sidekick Robin originally being created as an Audience Surrogate precisely to provide an emotional center to his stories and an element of vulnerability.
  • Fantastic Four: Reed Richards is generally considered the most competent and effective leader and scientist in the entire universe and the Four's adventures generally are all about their adventures and inventing and exploring somehow always saving the day.

    Fan Works 
  • Astartes:
    • The videos are a Warhammer 40,000 fan series that basically shows a bunch of no-nonsense Space Marines deals with the remnants of an uprising without any fuss or drama, exactly as they would normally. Even their enemies show remarkable tactical acumen, trying to kill the Astartes with more than the usual Zerg Rush.
    • On the Retributor side, they are Lightning Bruisers to a marine; quickly and mercilessly killing their way through the ship, sweeping aside fortified resistance while rarely slowing to less than a fast walk.
    • The ship's armsmen are tenacious and callous in equal regard; rather than continue to blast away with ineffective autoguns and lasguns, the armsmen tactically retreat until they can get behind sandbag walls and bring to bear heavy weapons (including a rocket launcher and a heavy machine gun) and trying to suicide bomb the marines with what look to be anti-tank mines.
    • The above efforts turns out to be ploys to buy time for their compatriots to set up ambushes with even more firepower, including crew-served weapons like an autocannon and later a twin-multilaser.
  • Hellsister Trilogy: Darkseid is an extremely thorough and skillful schemer, manipulator, and war leader who always stresses to his minions the importance of never underestimating their enemies. During the Apokolips War, he never loses sight of his real goals and proves that he is prepared for anything when it is revealed that he had spare clone bodies primed just in case he was defeated and his original body destroyed.
  • Hero Class Civil Warfare: The fic puts Izuku's planning and management skills front and centre, showing how a team filled with a disparate set of powers can be effective, as opposed to a poorly-led team that banks on winning fights with raw brute force. In-Universe the competence displayed by Izuku delights some (Nezu) and horrifies others (all of the other students in UA, who now know that if Izuku became a villain, he would be an Invincible Villain).
  • Saruman of Many Devices portrays all of Middle-Earth's armies and leadership as being rational and competent, including Gondor and Rohan, where in canon they were sabotaged by paranoia and subterfuge, allowing readers to follow the full breadth of military organisation, rather than hurried plans and desperate last-minute saves.
  • TIE Fighter: It shows the Galactic Empire, for once, not suffering from troops dying en masse ineffectively or having terrible aim, and wins a battle as a result, due to being genuinely more dangerous than the Rebellion.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Apollo 13: You already know how it ends. And you probably already know the gist of how three astronauts and their thousands of support staff on the ground cooperated to get a crippled spacecraft back to Earth. What the movie gives you is the chance to watch how they do it.
  • The Big Short: The film is about various people in the finance industry who saw the 2008 financial crisis coming before anyone else did and used this knowledge to become rich while the world entered the worst economic recession in nearly a century. Of course, whether they were right to do this is up for debate.
  • Ford V Ferrari is about expert drivers, designers and mechanics building a top tier race car to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. You see a little bit of everything from the new high power motor to discussions about brake assemblies and the precision driving needed to make it work the way it needs to.
  • Howard Hawks: In The Golden Age of Hollywood, he was credited with making movies about professionals who approach their work with confidence, spirit, fun, and resourcefulness. Movies like Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, To Have And Have Not, Rio Bravo all had hypercompetent professionals and team-mates banter with each other as the plot focused on how they approached a job.
  • The Martian: As Bob Chipman put it, "This isn't some hackneyed cautionary tale about the dangers of exploring the unknown, it's a high-stakes procedural about the awesome power of knowledge, which has placed Watney in one of the most impossible situations imaginable mainly so it can thrill us with detailed depictions of smart, dedicated people figuring out how to get him out of it."
  • Now You See Me: It has hyper-competent magicians known as "The Four Horsemen" robbing and swindling corrupt businesses and giving their money to the everyday-folk of the world. Even when it seems like they've completely fallen into the villain's trap, the Unspoken Plan Guarantee swoops in at the last minute to show that everything had always gone according to their plan.
  • The remake of Ocean's Eleven and its sequels each have a team of Gentleman Thieves working together to pull off The Heist. The thrill was seeing how these crooks manipulate and worm their way and use the Unspoken Plan Guarantee to their advantage to pull the rug under the feet of both their mark and the audience, generating suspense and thrill, as opposed to earlier heist films, in a perfectly executed heist.
  • Spotlight: The film is about a team of journalists doing their due diligence to uncover the full extent of the Catholic Church's child sex abuse scandal in Boston.

    Literature 
  • Heralds of Valdemar: The Heralds are essentially ideal coworkers. If you've ever wondered what a group could do without pesky real-life problems- bureaucracy, laziness, traitors, lack of funding- getting in the way, the series is for you. Also, they are adored by all and get to ride cool white horses. Notably, Talia fantasized about being saved from her crappy life by Heralds long before she started dreaming of becoming one.
  • The Irregular at Magic High School: The Yotsuba clan is a rare example of the "shadowy crime family that controls an entire country" trope that is just as badass as they are said to be if not more. Inter-clan conflict is the only real obstacle any Yotsuba character faces, and even then it doesn't stop them from accomplishing every goal they put their mind to- including enslaving a Physical God.
  • The Martian: Both the book and its film version are basically nothing but this—it's two hours of teams of scientists and engineers trying to bring Mark Watney home from Mars after he's stranded there by a freak storm. If anything, the book goes into even more detail about the science and math involved.
  • Project Hail Mary: Grace is a capable scientist and Rocky is an expert engineer.
  • Release That Witch: Thanks to Roland’s modern day knowledge, he managed to not only improve the quality of life for his kingdom, but also leave all other kingdoms in the dust of the arms race by developing hot weapons over cold weapons. Roland’s enemies may outnumber him, but he outguns them, proving that one should never underestimate an enemy they know nothing about.
  • Sherlock Holmes: In almost all his incarnations, the titular character has nearly superhuman powers of deduction.
  • Vorkosigan Saga: Frequently commented on by characters. Competent themselves, all the Vorkosigans are great at recruiting teams of hypercompetent colleagues. Standouts include Elena, Tung and Quinn (military), Illyan (intelligence), Bothari, Drou, Pym, and Roic (bodyguards), and Lieutenant Bone and Tsipis (accountants!). Not to mention Cordelia, Alys, Ekaterin, and the whole Koudelka clan, none of whom are employees but definitely on Team Vorkosigan. Miles even muses "I adore competent women," and wonders if the diplomat he's thinking of has a sister.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Better Call Saul: Watching ex-cop, cleaner and hitman Mike Ehrmantraut's various elaborate criminal schemes (both aiding Gus Fring's drug empire and interfering with The Cartel) is one of the main attractions of the series. Emphasized by his interactions with other criminals throughout the series, who are often hotheaded, reckless, or complete idiots.
  • The Big Bang Theory:
    • The moment it dawns on Penny that the bunch of nerds across the hall are actually quite effectual and hyper-competent —when they're dealing with their own areas of expertise.
    • Penny appreciates the intelligence and vast interests of the guys but has admitted to being overwhelmed with the Techno Babble and feeling she will never fully understand it. During a rocky point in her relationship with Leonard her friends encourage her to meet him part way. After surprising him in his lab, he shows her some of the work he does with lasers and holograms. This proves to be quite the Geeky Turn-On for her and they repeat a cycle of science experiment and fooling around afterwards several times.
  • Burn Notice: Watching Michael Weston out badass every criminal and spy he comes up against is entertaining. Adding to the fun are the voiceovers which nonchalantly explain why he's doing things a particular way.
  • Community: Inverted in "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps" with Abed's story: sure, the heroic characters he creates are (by slasher victim standards) Genre Savvy and hyper-competent, but the (In-Universe) audience (other than Troy) hates this for lacking any tension.
  • Criminal Minds: A hyper-competent team that catches the bad guys by using their own thinking against them.
  • How It's Made: This documentary Science Show is nothing but footage of people expertly making things.
  • The Joy of Painting: There’s something wonderful about watching Bob Ross calmly go from a blank canvas to a finished landscape in the space of half an hour, all while assuring the viewer that you can do it too with a little practice.
  • Leverage: It's the indirect Trope Namer. The series is about a gang of Robin Hood types who use their specialized talents to pull off elaborate con games, outsmarting a new Asshole Victim each week. Complications are cleanly overcome by the end, assuming they weren't actually part of the plan from the beginning.
  • Mad Men: Don, and to a lesser extent the other creatives at Sterling Cooper, is an appealing character, despite his many major flaws (that include a propensity for adultery, alcoholism, and narcissism), because he's so damn good at his job.
  • MacGyver (1985): He can always build the right device for the situation in relatively realistic ways; the show often details how seemingly useless items (at least for the problem at hand) could be used for another purpose.
  • The chief draw of Miami Medical is watching half a dozen or so very attractive, extremely brilliant trauma surgeons and their hypercompetent charge nurse be absolutely superb at their jobs in a Hospital Paradiso.
  • Mission: Impossible: This trope was the major appeal of the original television series. The Impossible Missions Force (IMF) is an elite team of agents who are tasked with achieving some sort of goal that the government has deemed pretty much "impossible". They use a number of high-tech gadgets, deception, disguises, and other methods to achieve their end goal. Some episodes have the villains figure out the plan or reveal some countermeasure to it, but this always either plays into the IMF's hands or is quickly adjusted for and countered.
  • Mythbusters: The crew were all accomplished artists, engineers, tinkerers and carpenters. They were not, however, scientists but this made their application of The Scientific Method A LOT more entertaining than it might have been otherwise. Entire generations of fans went on to become engineers and craftsmen because they made the industry look fantastic.
  • Parks and Recreation: Definitely part of the appeal of Leslie Knope, both in-universe and for fans. And in a literal sense of the trope, there are definitely times when she and Ben get turned on by the other's excellence at their mundane government jobs. As the series goes on, more and more of the supporting ensemble also develop into these kind of extremely talented people who it is a pleasure to watch excel in work they care about.
  • Person of Interest: The Man in the Suit can take down decades-old organizations with hundreds of members with minimal help from his support team. If anything, part of the reason the next-to-last season felt incredibly dreary is that Samaritan went past "proper escalation" and straight into Invincible Villain territory and the final season had the heroes struggling to catch up.
  • Star Trek: This is the main draw of the franchise for many. Professional people from a variety of fields act professionally and work together to solve problems by the end of the episode. Some newer Trek stuff is controversial with the old fans for the characters acting less professionally and competently, and getting by more on luck and Indy Ploys.
  • This Old House: Much of the series' appeal and Long Runner status is clearly found in the chance to watch professional workers use their skills to rehabilitate run-down houses.
  • The West Wing: The series is all about White House staffers coping with world-class political, social, and even historical crises every week. The main cast is also, to the last person, incredibly intelligent, idealistic, and incorruptible, and their political agendas are almost always for the service of their country, and not for their own profit.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Blades in the Dark: The gamebook explicitly instructs players to play out their characters as daring, bold, ambitious, and ready to take big chances to live a bigger life, while literally telling the Game Master, "Don't make the PCs look incompetent", and instead to explain their failures with overwhelming odds stacked against them.
  • Fate Core: The rulebook says this regarding player characters: "Characters in a game of Fate are good at things. They aren't bumbling fools who routinely look ridiculous when they're trying to get things done—they're highly skilled, talented, or trained individuals who are capable of making visible change in the world they inhabit."

    Video Games 
  • Call of Duty: Many games set in modern times, such as the Modern Warfare trilogy and later 2019 remake usually place the player in the role of military elite, allowing them to fight alongside other competent and professional soldiers armed with high-tech equipment and reams of long-distance support.
  • Ghost Recon: Future Soldier: The game could essentially be summarized as "stone-cold and extremely put together badasses stop a coup in Russia, and then allow the Russians to take credit for it with nary a flinch".
  • Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak: Every time you're on a mission with your allies from Kiith Siidim, whether the Sakala is saving your lives via distractions and timely airstrikes or the Kapisi is being The Cavalry for them, to say nothing of what happens when both forces team up and push back against the Gaalsi.
  • Medal of Honor: Warfighter: It has a lot of dramatised missions involving "Tier-One Operators" strategically taking out terrorist threats in a no-nonsense manner.

    Web Videos 
  • Restoration channels, such as Baumgartner Restoration (art conservation), or those with a focus on cleaning and fixing things in general.

    Western Animation 

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