Scorpion’s tale: Walter O’Brien on the CBS show
Walter O’Brien reveals how Scorpion, the CBS show based on his company, has attracted more interest in his firm and tells DQ that the series carries a positive message for viewers.
He describes it as The Big Bang Theory meets The A-Team, but Walter O’Brien isn’t discussing just any TV show. This is Scorpion, US network CBS’s drama about a team of brilliant misfits who are the last line of defence against the high-tech threats of the modern age – and the central character is based on him.
The series, which began its second season in September, is inspired by O’Brien’s firm Scorpion Computer Services – a consultancy hired by banks, insurance companies and government departments to solve problems ranging from national security to business management. The company also has a sister business, ConciergeUp.com, which aims to solve any problem its customers want to throw at it.
“For years we said we’d solve any technical problem,” explains O’Brien, who says he started his first business aged 13 and that he has an IQ of 197. “Then our customers started asking us to solve non-technical problems, such as ‘cure my daughter’s anorexia,’ ‘rescue my son from a prison,’ ‘put a shark tank in my office’ or ‘choose a winning racehorse based on its DNA.’ We had all of these crazy requests. We approached them like we were solving a software problem.”
After building a network of experts to solve these problems, O’Brien found he needed to hire more “geniuses” but faced a challenge in how to recruit the brightest minds for his organisation.
“If we had a book, the demographic we’re looking for wouldn’t read it. If we made a movie, they’d forget about it in six months,” he says. “But if we took the producers of Transformers, Spiderman and Star Trek, the director of The Fast and the Furious and the writers of The Sopranos, Prison Break and Hostages, put them all together with CBS and made the next CSI-type show, we’d be in a situation where they’d find us.
“It would be like The Big Bang Theory meets The A-Team and they’d recognise themselves due to the people on screen playing geniuses and would come join us. And that’s what’s been happening. Our website gets 104,000 hits a week now because of the TV show. The first season’s pilot drew in 27 million viewers.”
As well as running the company, which launched Scorpion Studios in July, O’Brien spends time with the show’s writers to consult on storylines inspired by his work and to offer solutions to problems raised in the script.
“They would come back to me with a script full of ‘AWs’ – ask Walter,” he says. “They’d have things like Walter gets put in prison, how would you break out? Walter’s in Vegas, how would you cheat? Walter’s in a fire fight, how would he defend himself? And I have to come up with several ways that haven’t been on TV before to do these kind of things – like a modern day MacGyver.”
The most common problems Scorpion deals with are military related, O’Brien reveals. “They want to know how to sneak into another country, how to rescue someone who’s been kidnapped, or what’s the latest in cool-looking suits if you’re wearing bullet-proof armour underneath.
“We have to be very careful. It’s the studios and producers who get twitchy. They say ‘OK, you just told us how to hack a satellite – now can you fluff it up a bit so everyone doesn’t try it at home?’ Then of course we get critics online who say that’s not really how it works. So I can’t win.”
But not everything O’Brien is involved with is open for discussion with CBS and the Scorpion writers. “We have things that are classified, that can never make it to the studio. Then we have stuff that’s public knowledge now because it’s on WikiLeaks or YouTube and we’re simply pointing to it or explaining it. We also have other stuff that’s under non-disclosure agreements that last up to seven years. But as we’ve been in business for nearly 30 years, we have lots of stuff from 20 years ago that’s old to us but still cutting edge to people watching. We’re very careful. We can only talk about 10% of what we do but that’s enough to feed the shows with some cool stories and gadgets.”
So why is the series a hit? O’Brien, who has an executive producer credit on the show, says Scorpion is full of positive messages promoting teamwork and the mantra that being smart is cool. “The show is a dysfunctional family of superheroes,” he explains. They’re all brilliant in some ways and not brilliant in other ways. It’s easier to like the underdog. All these people have flaws, but when they work together they’re better off than working alone.
“The other positive message is every problem has a solution and being smart is cool. In the US, being good at basketball is considered cool rather than being smart. We need to change that. All of those factors combined make it a unique show.”