The Regularisation Headline
A few days ago, CBS announced they are finally going to retire their flagship sitcom The Big Bang Theory after 12 seasons. I was shocked at this news. I couldn’t believe it’s been going for so long. It turns out that TBBT is actually the longest running multi-camera sitcom in history and is only approaching an end because Jim Parsons, who plays the show’s golden goose Sheldon Cooper, has finally tired of the role.
People tend to assume I’m a fan of The Big Bang Theory and are mildly surprised that my feelings toward it are lukewarm at best. “But you’re a Science a nerd!” they say, to which I reply yes I am, and proud of it. But TBBT is not really a show for Science nerds, it’s a show about science nerds written by people who clearly aren’t.
Full disclosure though, I did quite like the first few seasons. It was refreshing to see nerds as main characters rather than sidekicks to a hero. Nerds are usually comic relief characters, so making a show about them as the stars felt different and worth paying attention to.
As a Science teacher I was also grateful to the show because it managed to introduce a lot of terms into the general vocabulary which students then asked me about. It was one of the most watched shows on TV, pulling 15 million viewers per episode, and got people googling things like string theory and quantum mechanics, which is fantastic. It also made an effort (sometimes at least) to portray Scientists as real people with personalities, and I always like seeing that.
It was a well-written show too, with snappy dialogue and I'm sure if I ever wrote a sitcom it wouldn't be half as good, so this is not a stab at the show's writers, its cast or the production team. I just want to express why my personal sensibilities didn't gel with it. This is - shock and horror - an opinion piece, so take it all with a pinch of bias folks.
And no, this has nothing to do with the fact that people keep saying I remind them of "someone off Big Bang Theory". I think they mean it as a compliment anyway??? Although that's probably a good place to start.
The Characterisation Expansion
Howard was the creepy sleaze-bag of the group. The joke was that he objectified and leered after women, using ever-more elaborate ploys to trick them into dating him. His schemes would always fall through by the end of the episode however and, after licking his wounds, he'd try again next time with a cunning new tactic. Kind of like if Wile E Coyote was a sex-offender.
Howard reminded me of a live-action Glenn Quagmire from Family Guy. In both cases the humour comes from off-colour shock jokes, which I'm fine with, but Family Guy kept Quagmire as a ludicrous side-character whereas TBBT made this thoroughly unlikable toad one of the heroes. Personally I found it hard to cheer for someone whose motivations were so sinister.
He’s played extremely well by Simon Helberg but he wasn’t really someone you could admire. He epitomsed a certain type of nerd who saw women as characters in video-games to seduce by hitting the right combination of buttons and you could easily imagine him slipping something into someone’s drink and posting about it later on 4chan. In fact, there were even stories which involved him videotaping women without their consent which, having lived with a guy who actually did that once, I just didn't get it. Oh and he had an overbearing Jewish mother which I guess you have to be American or Jewish to get the humour in?
Raj was a more interesting character and they managed to mostly bypass the stereotype of him being Indian. Occasionally they made reference to his heritage and demanding parents, but when you consider how far The Simpsons push racial stereotyping with Apu, Raj seems kind of mild.
Played superbly by Kunal Nayyar, the character himself wasn’t a problem for me. He’s generally the most suave, meterosexual and thoughtful of the four guys and the one with the least hangups. With one notable exception. Raj’s main joke is…drumroll…he can’t talk to women unless drunk.
Something about that gag just seemed iffy for a prime time sitcom. For one thing, it’s one of the oldest cliches in the book - nerdy guys can’t talk to women, fused with another cliche - being drunk gives you courage. Neither of those things are true by the way - I’m a nerdy guy and I can talk to women fine, and the dutch-courage effect of alcohol is a placebo. Sorry to bust ya bubble there.
My issue is that this running gag simply made me uncomfortable. Imagine if the situation were reversed and it was about a woman who could only go on dates with guys when she was inebriated. We’d question the guys' ethics and consider them predatory. Likewise, when Raj is taking his drugs and flirting with women, is this an OK joke for a show children watch? He’s putting on a drug-induced persona and women are potentially taking advantage of that. I’m not saying it was wrong to joke about it, it just left a bad taste in my mouth is all.
Leonard was the most likeable of the four to me. Certainly the most believable and relatable. He was highly intelligent but that came at the price of being neurotic. Smart enough to recognise social situations, just quick to forget them because he had other things on his mind. A lot of nerds feel like this. We know exactly what the expected behaviour is, we’ve just got other stuff to think about.
Leonard was really easy to root for too. He was a geek but wanted to be normal and settle into a quiet life with a nice girlfriend. He wanted to be a muggle while holding onto his magical abilities, and that’s something a lot of nerds relate to. He’s also fairly modest about his intellect, despite being a skilled quantum field theorist. He wasn’t defined by his IQ or his profession, he just liked Science and sci-fi. Who doesn’t?
Leonard should have been the main character in my eyes. His constant internal conflict between adolescent obsession and living in the adult world were endearing, relatable and hilarious traits. But he wasn’t quite the main character. Sheldon was.
In his portrayal of Sheldon Cooper, Jim Parsons channels undiagnosed high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder - what used to be called Asberger’s syndrome. This is typified by being intellectually remarkable often in one specific area, but socially uninterested and happily autonomous, often obsessed with ritual, detail and personal tastes which go beyond hobbies.
The show never explicitly states Sheldon is autistic in fairness, but it’s assumed by everyone, including Parsons himself. People on the autistic spectrum often come across a little weird or eccentric, so there's definitely potential for humourous situations there. But the show makes out that Sheldon's autism is funny to the point of him not quite being human.
The joke usually came in two forms. Either 1) he’s socially inept or 2) he’s intelligent which makes him overconfident. He’s kind of like an anti-Homer Simpson, the key difference being that Homer’s overconfidence came from rank stupidity. What also made Homer different to Sheldon, is that Homer is a sweet guy who cares about his wife and kids. Sheldon is just a jerk.
To be 100% clear on this, being on the autistic spectrum does not make you act like a callous ass but the implication with Sheldon seems to be that he is so uninterested in people’s social rules he has stopped caring about their feelings as well. He dislikes anyone who doesn’t do things his way and is unprepared to compromise to the point of conflict. He looks down on women and considers anybody intellectually inferior as worthy of contempt.
There are plenty of TV shows which center around an anti-hero clashing with normal people of course, but it’s hard to empathise with someone who is mean to everyone. If you compare Sheldon with, say, Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty or Gregory House from House MD, we again have antisocial geniuses who despise everyone else, but Rick and Morty/House's nihilistic tone made no secret of this. Rick and House were written to be thoroughly unpleasant, and as we learn more about them, we realise how tortured and alone they are. These were very dark themes for very dark shows.
In TBBT they play the outcast-genius thing for laughs and I never found it funny. I guess the reason is that a lot of Science nerds really are lonely and withdrawn. A lot of them become bitter and sharp-tongued to keep people at bay, so while everyone was giggling at Sheldon as a pariah, I found myself wondering if he was alright.
I’m not saying the show shouldn’t have made fun of him - humour is all about taste and never right nor wrong, but I just didn’t find the joke particularly amusing. For me, lonely, antisocial characters work fine in dramas or twisted sitcoms but it was always jarring seeing it played for hoots in TBBT. Also, Sheldon’s favourite Star Trek character was Wesley Crusher. Nobody likes Wesley.
Rachel from Friends but blonde.
The Feminine Assimilation Hypothesis
After about four seasons the writers began to realise, I think, that they’d taken the characters as far as they could and the show was at risk of becoming stale. Character humour is short-lived and after four years, it was probably time to stop. But rather than doing that, they made the slightly unusual choice for a sitcom of introducing two new protagonists - girlfriends for Howard and Sheldon in the form of Bernadette and Amy.
The show’s dynamic shifted significantly to watching the frustration of Penny, Bernadette and Amy deal with their nerdy boyfriends, with Raj as a neutral party. I really respected the writer’s self-awareness in recognising the show could become old, but the execution began to bug me.
My main problem was that the women were kind of normal. Amy, played by Mayim Bialik (who actually has a PhD in neuroscience) had her moments of dry awkwardness but she was still written as an emotionally reasonable woman who didn’t “get” the nerd culture of the four men. Her role was to soften Sheldon around the edges and extract his human side. She was a nerd but wanted to be normal, so it was as if Sheldon was dating Leonard. Perhaps they should have gone with that?
Bernadette was likewise, written as a calming, taming influence on Howard who brought him around to being a sort-of gentleman. And so the show’s two most exagerrated characters were made to mellow. Which takes away their purpose.
It seems like I’m complaining about it both ways with Howard though. I didn’t like him when he was an obnoxious sleaze and I found him boring when he became a “nice guy”. But I think they shot themselves in the foot from day one. Introducing a shock-character gives you two options over time. Either keep him as he is (in which case he becomes tiresome) or rewrite him as an ordinary person (in which case he loses comedy value).
And as for Sheldon, he just treated Amy badly. Apparently in later seasons he begins to treat her with kindness, and I’m vaguely aware that they settle and get married? That’s sweet, but I never made it that far because Sheldon was just horrible to this good-hearted woman and I couldn't watch. I was annoyed that the women were written as foils for the men. Why couldn’t they be eccentric nerds too? Why did the show’s dynamic have to be about women being human and nerds being nerds?
Gradually, the show started to lose the one thing which made it different for me. It stopped being a show about nerd culture and became a show about relationships…like every other sitcom on the air. The number of science-related subplots died down and it was suddenly all about dating and sex. Basically it turned into Friends if all the male characters were Ross. Ewwwww.
What originally made the show unique got phased out and it became a kind of box-ticking exercise. “Have we referenced a superhero movie yet this episode?” Great. Let’s get back to jokes about how men leave the toilet seat up and women love eating chocolate on their period. It became indistinguishable from other sitcoms and that’s when I started to get bored.
The Demographic Algorithm
The very opening scene of episode one of TBBT features Leonard and Sheldon discussing the infamous double-slit experiment with an analysis of the quantum measurement problem. And it’s accurate. I remember watching this and getting a warm glow of “hey that’s cool, they actually got it right!” something you don’t normally get watching fiction.
Moments later, they managed to spin this dialogue into a neat joke about how bizarre scientists can be and it made me feel hopeful for the series. A sitcom in which the main characters talk accurately about Science sounded great. This could be funny, educational and good for scientific exposure and depiction.
It was still poking fun at nerds a little of course, but I’ve got a sense of humour about myself - we often are obsessive about sci-fi shows, comic books and get a bit socially awkward sometimes. That’s fair game. By all means take your shots. At least you’re getting the science right for once!
Over the first few seasons, they managed to keep to this theme of poking fun at nerds while getting the facts right. The characters would make reference to genuine discoveries, the equations on whiteboards in the background were authentic (I paused often enough to check) and they had debates about Star Trek I remember having myself. There’s even one episode where a character makes a discovery which, in the real world, is coincidentally named after him. The writers had clearly done their homework.
A lot of people claimed this was therefore a show making fun of nerds but also being respectful; laughing at them and with them simultaneously. And it did feel like that for a while. Until it began to dawn on me that this wasn’t the spirit of things at all. The jokes were still at the expense of how nerdy these guys were and how socially poor their behaviour was.
At no point does the show mock non-nerds for their scientifically empty lives. The show doesn’t champion skepticism or reasoned discourse either, nor does it celebrate intellectual achievement and hard work in school. It was just the same old “haha nerds are weird and don't get invited to the party!” joke most of us had to put up with through our teenage years. Nerds were the main characters of the show yes, but they were still figures of ridicule.
I began to suspect the way the show was written was that they wrote a sitcom, then got Science experts to add references and make it sound authentic. I could imagine scripts looking something like “Sheldon describes a room being as messy as - INSERT SCIENTIFICALLY MESSY THING”. Which I later found out is pretty much exactly what happens.
There are Science consultants on the show who make sure the vocabulary is legitimate, but they are brought in long after the jokes are written. To me this is the writers paying lip-service to nerds to stop them feeling teased…while simultaneously teasing them. Watching TBBT for more than four seasons felt like unmasking the Scooby-Doo villain and discovering there was nothing magical going on at all. Just someone trying to squeeze money out you.
The Mixed State Postulation
The Big Bang Theory was a jumbled bag for me overall. I like that there was a show about nerds on TV and I like that they did their research. There were also nice Easter Eggs for sci-fi fans and a lot of witty exchanges in the dialogue. But they still went for the easy target of nerds being weird and portrayed us in a less than favourable light sometimes. It also reinforced the stereotype of the dumb blonde waitress being sexually promiscuous and seemed fine with men talking down to their girlfriends, as long as the women "got the last laugh" in the final moments of the show.
Overall, I thought of TBBT as a kind of humane Victorian freak-show. The freaks are treated well and there’s great information to be learned. The keepers obviously care deeply about their pet freaks and members of the public are encouraged to get to know them as people. But it is still, ultimately, a place where people pay to come and gawk at abnormality.
If you want a show which really is made for nerds, you want Star Trek itself. That was a show which included accurate Science, mixed with philosophy of Science, as part of the storylines and everyone in the show was a nerd of some sort. Plus it had robots and space battles.
In Star Trek there were also two Sheldon-esque characters: Spock in the original series and Data in Next Gen. But what set these shows apart is that while both characters were socially clueless, they weren’t jerks and they were always respected. There were misunderstandings and frustrations at times, which was played for both dramatic emphasis and for humour, but Star Trek had a deep respect for scientific curiosity and knowledge. The nerds were championed and usually vindicated.
Sheldon says something super-smart on TBBT and Penny raises an eyebrow at his nerdiness, cue peals of laughter. Spock says something super-smart on Star Trek and everyone listens to see if they can follow his logic. That’s the difference between a show about nerds and a show for nerds. In The Big Bang Theory nerds get pitiful charity-laughs for liking Science. In Star Trek nerds get to live long and prosper.
I love science, let me tell you why.