Sunday, January 6, 2013
Why I like The Big Bang Theory: A nerd’s defense of the CBS sitcom
The hit show is not as offensive to nerds as some think.
I’ve seen a lot of people, specifically a lot of nerdier people, express some serious rage over the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. The complaints, as I see them, are never that the show gets its facts wrong. I don’t see huge outcries of people saying “That science is inaccurate!” or “That math doesn’t add up!” or “Nintendo 64 emulators don’t actually exist!” Rather, the argument tends to be that the show is somehow “offensive” to nerds. Funny, since most of the friends I know who enjoy the show happen to be nerds.
This argument has been springing up again lately as this Tumblr post, “The Problem With The Big Bang Theory,” has made the rounds over social media. I’ll just say it outright: I think the author is wrong, and I don’t think he gives the show or its writers enough credit.
If The Big Bang Theory is offensive to nerds, Friends is offensive to single white people in New York.
I’m a nerd. I read comics. I write about video games professionally. I somehow convinced my wife to let me play music from Skyrim, Lost, and The Chronicles of Narnia as guests were filing in for our wedding. (My groom’s cake, by the way, was a Dharma logo for the Lighthouse station.) I have both a Sword of Gryffindor replica and a map of Middle-Earth in my office. The last time I went fishing was in Persona 4 Golden. Before that, Harvest Moon on the 3DS. My favorite kind of party involves video games and Cards Against Humanity, not alcohol.
And I also love watching The Big Bang Theory.
I didn’t think I would. The promos made it look dumb — like it would only make fun of Dungeons & Dragons players and feature one hot young blonde chick. But my dad thought I would enjoy it a lot, so he lent my wife (then my girlfriend) and I the first season on DVD.
We devoured every episode in about a day. Suddenly, the idea that it existed purely to make fun of people like me felt really, really dumb.
The anti-TBBT author’s argument can be boiled down to the following: “And here’s my issue, here’s why The Big Bang Theory makes me feel uncomfortable. We aren’t laughing with Leonard, Sheldon, Raj, and Howard. We’re laughing at them.”
I don’t think that’s true. I’ve laughed plenty with the characters. I’ve had to explain a lot of nerdier humor to my wife, who isn’t quite nerdy enough to get them otherwise. I’ve laughed as I’ve watched these characters have conversations and interactions that I myself have had with friends (even if they’re at least a little exaggerated for TV).
Yeah, it’s a show full of more pop culture and science references than well-constructed “jokes.” Its writing is not as brilliant as the characters it portrays. And yes, sometimes laughs are at the expense of nerdy characters — but you know? I don’t mind laughing at myself sometimes. Because sometimes I’m worth laughing at.
Sometimes actions of the gay characters on Modern Family are the punchline of a joke — but that doesn’t inherently mean that homosexuality itself is the joke. Just that these characters are worth laughing at sometimes. Eric Stonestreet, who plays Cameron, is not gay. So are his high-pitched squeels over a cute animal on the show offensive to the gay community?
Don’t get me wrong, I can see the concern here. My dad, a fireman, always had issues with the FX show Rescue Me because he said it gave firefighters a bad name by portraying them inaccurately, doing things they would never do in real life. I could see people making the same arguments about The Big Bang Theory. But is that fair? Rescue Me was a drama that tried to be truthful to the lives of people in that profession. TBBT is a sitcom — a genre of television that thrives on exaggeration and untruths.
After I started watching the show, I introduced it to a good buddy of mine who’s a recent University of Texas at Dallas graduate and is now an engineer at Texas Instruments. We laughed with the characters plenty, and my friend said at one point, “I think I’ve overheard some of these exact same conversations in real life in the halls of UTD.” In fact, during the characters’ discussion of the physics behind Superman catching a falling Lois Lane, my friend actually piped up to say, “That wouldn’t work,” and explained why, before the characters themselves gave the exact same objection, almost word for word. So whether that’s supposed to be entirety of the joke or not, you can’t say that it’s altogether inaccurate.
Sure, my wife, being more “normal” and far less nerdy than me, relates a lot more to Penny than to any of the other characters. That’s part of why we enjoy watching the show together, honestly. She has a character she can relate to, and I have characters I relate to. But she also relates to Penny in the sense that she cares deeply for people who have very different interests than her, even if she doesn’t always understand them.
Then there’s the issue of the people, real scientists included, who have associated themselves with the show. I don’t think the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Stan Lee, Wil Wheaton, and many other geeky/scientific people would have agreed to appear on the show if they truly found it offensive to nerds. Wheaton in particular has returned as a guest star many times, without any obligation (that I know of) to do so. Yet he’s also often seen as a bit of a champion of nerd culture. I mean, he has a YouTube show devoted entirely to tabletop games, for crying out loud. Would he really keep showing up if he thought the producers of TBBT were making fun of him and his fans? Hawking appeared on the show even after his synthesized voice was a punchline at least once before, probably because he knows how to laugh at himself and not be offended too easily.
Then there’s Mayim Bialik, who plays the socially awkward Amy, who has a real, no joke Ph.D. in Neuroscience. Why would such a smart girl continue to play a role if its sole purpose was to mock smart girls?
Then there’s this: “We’re supposed to feel like we’re cooler than them and that we’re better than them. This then prompts us to laugh at the things which make them nerdy, which stop them being cool, which make them lesser. This is done, in my opinion, to stop them from seeming intimidating. It’s essentially Chuck Lorre saying ‘Don’t worry, these guys may have fancy degrees, they may be more successful and more intelligent than you but they like sci-fi and read comics. They’re socially awkward and can’t speak to girls. You’re much cooler than they are so you’re still better than them.’”
But I can’t think of a single character or group of characters that’s treated as the “right” kind of person — a person that’s above being mocked. Every stereotype is made fun of. You could easily say this is done lazily, and I would not necessarily disagree. The “cool” guys who Penny is used to dating are universally either jerks (who you are supposed to hate) or idiots (dumber than the token “dumb blonde”), if not both. Sheldon’s religious, Texan mother is shown as being far too conservative and extremely gullible, willing to believe any mumbo jumbo she’s told. (And as a religious Texan, I could find this more offensive than any of the nerd humor.)
Penny herself, the “normal” character, is made fun of just as much as the nerds. Often the joke (and the laughter) is directed at how dumb she is. Not that that she just doesn’t understand Star Trek (something she’s actually grown to appreciate a little as time has gone on), but that she doesn’t understand basic “real world” things either. Audiences don’t relate to her because she’s not a nerd. They laugh at her because she’s more than a little air headed.
That’s the problem with “The Problem With The Big Bang Theory.” It looks far too closely at any time a nerdy thing could be used as a punchline, and not nearly close enough to see that plenty of other things are mocked for the sake of comedy, whether that comedy ends up being funny or not.
In fact, the most normal, “unoffensive” people in the series tend to be the intellectual ones. Bernadette is probably the primary example of this, being a main character of the series now. She’s not mentioned at all in the anti-TBBT essay, possibly because there’s not much about her that you can point to and say, “There! She’s supposed to be laughed at for being a nerd!” In fact, I’m having trouble remembering a time when she was ever a punchline. Yet she’s highly educated (arguably moreso than her nerdy, main character husband) and hangs out with the same geeky crowd.
Are there smarter shows on television? Yes, definitely. Does that mean this show is less enjoyable for what it is? I don’t think so. I watch TBBT to chill out and have a few simple laughs, not be blown away by how clever the jokes are or how smart the writing is. There are plenty of other shows on television for that (though I admit that if I had an infinite supply of BBC’s Sherlock episodes, I might watch nothing but those ad infinitum).
And hey, The Big Bang Theory has a much, much better idea of what hacking is than many other shows on television. There is much more respect given to the nerdy pop culture references on this show than you find in most other mainstream sources.
If you’ve watched The Big Bang Theory and simply don’t think it’s funny, that’s fine. I have no problem with that whatsoever. I just feel differently, is all. Different strokes and whatnot. But can we stop this nonsense of it being offensive to nerdom? Simmer down, my fellow geeks. Chuck Lorre is not out to get us. If you’re going to take the torches and pitchforks to him, make it be for how dumb Two and a Half Men is, not how you’ve been hurt by The Big Bang Theory.
If you want something to rage more justifiably about, I imagine the film Noobz is going to be a much more worthy target.
Follow Britton on Twitter @BrittonPeele