You're watching your favorite adventure series. A group of plucky kids snoop around the place, get into exciting situations, and even get into danger and need to be rescued. And in the end, a cop arrests the criminal the kids were after. Supposedly, the kids didn't even help the police at all.
Suddenly it dawns on you. The main characters aren't that useful! They did all the cool stuff (basically, get into all the danger), yet someone else ultimately stopped the bad guy and saved the day. What the heck? Why even bother with these "heroes" and their adventures?
Because this is a story where the main attraction, if not the very point, is to watch ordinary people get into all sorts of excitement and danger. Yet they can't ultimately thwart the villain or solve the problem, because, well, that's not their job, nor do they have the actual skills for it.
This is a way to get kid characters (or average, non-professional adult characters) into an exciting adventure while providing the realism of showing the real police or other professionals doing their jobs and saving the day. Note that despite the title, this doesn't have to be about young characters specifically; this is about when the main characters, regardless of who they are, are not the ones who save the day (though Character Development does happen). Also note that the full story of the defeat of the bad guy may be available elsewhere, simply not at this particular story we are reading. In that case, the villain was defeated by a Hero of Another Story.
See also Little Hero, Big War, which is kind of this on a much larger scale, and with the hero having a larger chance of being the one who actually defeats the villain. Often if the main character pads a lot of the story failing to succeed it's because We Are "Team Cannon Fodder".
- While Detective Conan is all-but married to Adults Are Useless and Police are Useless most of the time, it played this trope completely straight on at least one occasion: the Ayumi kidnapping case. The police catch the actual criminal off-screen, while Conan and friends wind up "busting" two guys putting on a play.
- Ultimate Spider-Man: The Rhino is having a rampage in the city. Peter tries to leave the school to go there and stop him, but several things conspire to keep him there: May shows up, Gwen is crying in the dumpster, Flash attacks him, etc. By the time he finally gets to the crime scene, Rhino has been defeated by Iron Man.
- In the Self-Insert Naruto fanfiction Sugar Plums for a long period of time, the main character and her companions can actually do very little to improve their situation or the situation of Kirigakure. This is actually noted several times in character as a major frustration for the main character because of the lack of control and influence she has in the situation as the lowest rank of shinobi. It's also noted she lacks information because the events in Kirigakure are not very well documented at all in the Naruto universe and most of the underlying problems were started decades ago and have been perpetuated since then. This changes however once they catch up the the beginning of the series (the first eighty chapters or so take place starting five years before the start of the main series).
- In The 13th Warrior, main character Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan is a useful extra swordsman but doesn't actually do anything to resolve the plot, with the single exception of figuring out how the group can escape from the Wendol cave. Of course, since the story is really about Bulliwye/Beowulf, this is understandable. Ahmed also figured-out that the Wendol liked to act, and maybe even think of themselves as bears, and this allowed the group to find the Wendol cave to begin with. However, he is mostly an audience identification character and eventual chronicler of Bulliwye/Beowulf, so he still fits the trope well.
- In Goldfinger, the role of James Bond in the plot is actually rather limited. He spends most of his time tailing Goldfinger and hanging out in his base as a prisoner, always trying to get intel outside, but failing. Sure, he does manage to kill both Goldfinger and Oddjob, but that doesn't affect the plot very much, and the bulk of the work ends up being done by the US Army and the CIA. They even disarm the nuke for Bond. The only vital thing Bond does manage to do is, ironically enough, screwing Pussy Galore (who then performs a HeelFace Turn and sabotages Goldfinger's "grand slam").
- True, to an extent, for Raiders of the Lost Ark. If Indy hadn't been there to battle the Nazis, would the ending have been much different? Maybe a little. The flying wing was going to take the ark to Berlin, so if Indy hadn't interfered, it might have been opened in front of the top Nazi brass, thus killing Hitler and ending the war early.
- In The Desperate Hours a family is taken hostage. They have two or three perfect escapes foiled by the same kid. In one they get outside, find the kid missing and see he's still in the house at gunpoint. This kid also mouthed off to the bandits with something like "Oh, yeah? Well, when my father gets to his gun which is in the drawer right there ..."
- Discworld: Guards! Guards! has the Watch figure out who the Supreme Grand Master is, but it is implied that Vetinari was already aware of what was going on, and the Watch are ultimately useless in getting rid of the Dragon - Errol ends up defeating it by creating a sonic boom, which was part of his mating dance to the female dragon. Their investigation for the first half of the story is already invalidated: firstly, by the audience knowing about the Brotherhood's antics; and second, by the Brotherhood getting killed shortly before the Watch learn that they were behind it. Of course, Errol was in a position to do so because the Watch had adopted him and let him eat assorted random stuff for a good chunk of the book. In other words, the Meddling Kids weren't useless... it just turned out the useful thing they did was something else than the snooping and the getting into exciting situations.
- In the Left Behind books, the main characters, calling themselves the Tribulation Force, basically sit around and try to survive the tribulation, but do nothing that actually affects the events of the story in any way. Their main contributions are actually the minor tasks they do for the villain (writing press releases and flying his plane mostly). The books could basically be described as a travelog for The End of the World as We Know It.
- In the original, 1920s Hardy Boys stories, Frank and Joe's "investigation" often ended up with them hiding in a corner or tied up by the villains until their father and the police force arrived to save the day. This was eventually changed in the later books to make them more useful.
- Similar to the above example, in Janie's Private Eyes, the fourth book in The Stanley Family series, while 13-year-old David, 8-year-old Janie and 6-year-old Blair actually do solve the case, they end up in danger and have to be rescued. Fortunately, someone else calls the police and rescues the kids, resulting in the police solving the case without the help of the kids' hard work.
- Despite having the most screen-time in Good Omens, Noble Demon Crowley and the pragmatic angel Aziraphale have no effect on the main events of the story, though not for a lack of trying. Arguably though, having Armageddon be averted by humans only, without angelic or diabolical help was the whole point. Really, most of the rather large cast is like this—the final battle pretty much comes down to the Them vs. the Horsepeople. Shadwell, Madame Tracy, Anathema, Newton, and Ligur all turn out to be pretty pointless, not even counting other characters who had died/disappeared from the plot by this point. (Admittedly Newt's presence might have contributed, it's kind of unclear if the Horsepeople's defeat stopped the nukes or just made it possible for him to.)
- Generally averted in the A to Z Mysteries series, but played straight in the book The Canary Caper. This story revolves around a series of pet kidnappings ultimately solved by the police. Even when the three main kids discover a pattern in the kidnappings, Officer Fallon says they already made the connection. The kids hide outside the thief's next victim, but the police show up before they can even catch the petnapper.
- Ishmael, in Moby-Dick. The only thing that really distinguishes him as a character is that he's the only member of the Pequod's crew not to die.
- Invoked and justified in a few episodes of Doctor Who.
- Certain events, especially those based on Real Life history, require the Doctor and his companions to be this trope while otherwise solving the problems connected to what the show calls "fixed points in time" (the event must take place within a rigid set of circumstances defining the end result or reality will collapse). A good example is the Tenth Doctor episode "The Fires of Pompeii", where the Doctor and his companion discover alien beings called the Pyroviles are using Mount Vesuvius to stay alive, and to prevent the danger they pose humanity, Vesuvius must erupt as history dictates, leaving the protagonists unable to stop the historical event. They are, however, allowed to save at least one family of people from the event, since history doesn't record anything that would contradict their survival.
- This also happened in "Warriors' Gate" (where it was intended to be An Aesop about "doing nothing" sometimes being wiser than pointless action), and in certain stories during Eric Saward's tenure as script editor (where it was probably because of Saward's belief that the Doctor just wasn't as cool as his own badass military characters).
- In "The Time of the Doctor" the Doctor explains his default plan: talk a lot, hope something good happens, take the credit.
- The Venture Bros., who were based on The Hardy Boys and Jonny Quest both, really do nothing in the show during the first season, but are the main characters nonetheless. This changes in later seasons.
- In the original 1960s series, Jonny Quest basically just hung around while his dad and Race dealt with all the dangerous stuff. Occasionally, he, Hadji, and Bandit would need rescuing, and would even take down a mook or two, but otherwise did little but comment on the action. This was realized when Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures was made, resulting in the younger cast members being much more capable of fighting and getting out of trouble, not to mention being aged up a bit.
- Scooby-Doo's Mystery Incorporated, the meddling kids themselves, are an odd case. The mysteries are usually solved by Velma, using clues that Scooby and Shaggy discover completely by accident. Freddie is useless until the final act, when he builds a trap for the villain that never does what it's supposed to but results in the villain's capture anyway. Daphne contributes nothing. As famous as this formula is, it was frequently averted even in the first season and fell apart completely afterwards.
- This is averted hilariously in the live-action movies, in which the cast also realize their shortcomings — Daphne takes down a good number of bad guys after taking martial arts classes and Shaggy and Scooby spend the entire second movie performing investigations on their own to prove their worth (of course, the success of said investigations is pretty limited...)
- Captain Planet and the Planeteers is sort of like this. The Planeteers are the real main characters, with Captain Planet himself usually only getting about two minutes of screen time per episode. He is, however, the Deus ex Machina that solves all the major problems, while the heroes are mostly there to just summon him and learn the Aesop (green or otherwise) du jour, after getting into a lot of danger and adventurous situations, of course. Although Fridge Logic often comes in since the Captain's solutions are usually things they could have done just as easily without him; he's usually only useful at all because they have terrible teamwork and don't realize they can use their powers in combination.
- The children in The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan try their hardest, and are usually the ones who get the ball rolling, but it's always their dad who ends up solving the mystery in the end.
- Rufus and Amberley of The Dreamstone were usually ineffective against even the Urpneys, though usually come out fine anyway due to the assistance of the Wuts, the Urpneys screwing up the plan or just pure dumb luck. They became much more effective at it during later parts of the series however, sometimes disassembling their plans single handed.
- The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Over A Barrel" goes one better, as the main characters actually make the problem worse, repeatedly. The issue is finally solved despite them, rather than by any action on their part.