I was listening to last week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour*, and they started talking about Noel Murray’s AVClub article “The changing face of “nerds” (and autism) in popular culture“. The article talks about the rise of geeks and the no longer tied together links of autism and geekery. Among other topics, Murray discussed Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory on the topic of diversity of autism in popular culture. He described the show as “one of the most divisive, because of its mix of the broad and the particular” and mentions that the show “has been criticized as the nerd equivalent of minstrelsy by some, but its writers do know their subject, and do try to flesh out the stereotypes, even if they still lean on those stereotypes way too heavily”. A quick peek at the comments of the article bear this our as there is a huge amount of vitriol being thrown at the show. Just from reading the article and comments, you’d be reluctant to believe that the show is the top rated sitcom in the US currently and has increased its viewership from the 15-16MM viewers to the 19-20MM viewers recently. It’s more popular then ever and, yet, throughout the geek community I hear nothing but hated for the show. And I wonder why.
*I didn’t know that Steven Thompson of NPR (and AVClub prior to that) was the son of Maggie and Don Thompson of Comic Book Buyer’s Guide. How did I not know this.
From Fark: “BBT is a terrible show. It’s a standard sitcom dressed up in stereotypes. When I find people who like the show, I stop associating with them. It’s a character flaw, like being a racist.”
The commenter on Fark seems to have missed the entire point of television. The entire medium is used to entertain people. TV shows generally have no relationship to reality and sitcoms (more than most other types of shows) are prone to exaggerate to make comedy*. The Big Bang Theory is a traditional sitcom, only with geeks as the major characters. It’s Friends with nerds instead of pretty people. On Friends, no one expected Ross’ palaeontologist job to be exactly like other palaeontologists. No one expected Monica’s chef job to be just like other chefs. Most TV jobs are nothing like reality. It’s part of the suspension of disbelief that most television viewing requires. And the fact that the show stars people who love the same geeky hobbies that most of us do is a good thing.
*Although it’s been said that Scrubs was considered one of the more accurate doctor shows (probably not the musical episode) and Barney Miller was one of the more accurate police shows.
If you told me 10 years ago that there would be a show where the main characters watch science fiction shows and play board games and shop at a comic book store AND it was the most popular sitcom in America, I wouldn’t believe you. The trend over the last couple decades has been to push shows that have pretty people. Actors that viewers like looking at have become de rigueur on television. Even the people who are supposed to be less attractive are attractive. When you look at TBBT, the only truly conventionally attractive people are Kaley Cuoco and Melissa Rauch (and they frump up Bernadette quite a bit). The fact that this show with it’s fairly normal looking cast of characters who regularly engage in geeky activities is so popular is a great thing.
So, why do some people not like it? Generally I see two different (overlapping) reasons. There is one reason which is that there are a number of people who don’t take multi-camera sitcoms with a laugh track seriously. It’s still the dominant form of the medium, but since many of the higher quality sitcoms have eschewed the laugh track and only used a single camera, this leads many to conclude that multi-camera sitcoms with a laugh track are good. The other reason I generally see is: They’re laughing at us. Sometimes it’s phrased as “They’re not laughing with the characters, they’re laughing at them”.
I’ll ignore, for the purposes of this article, the first reason. If you’re not interested in multi-camera, laugh track sitcoms, then that’s fine. It’s a choice. As for the second one, I can see some of what is being complained about, but I don’t see it as an issue. Was their laughter when the characters are excited about playing Dungeons and Dragons? Yes, but the characters didn’t care. They were still true to themselves and excited to play. There is also much tittering and laughter at Sheldon’s antics. But I say that it doesn’t matter. Outside of a few early episodes, the characters ignore any laughter and are proud of their geeky activities. And the non-geeky characters (mainly the women) have learned to go along with it and many a time have become a lot more geeky due to the exposure.
In the latest episode, the women go to a comic book store to see why the guys like comics so much. The negative view of the show is the slobbering fools in the store amazed to see women. The positive view of the show is that the women become so interested in the comics that they get into the exact arguments that many comic book fans have.
But, in reality, the show exists in two universes. There is the geek universe and the real world. In the real world, the characters are forced to face people who disapprove of their hobbies and activities. In the geek universe, the characters interact with people who do the same activities and hobbies as they do. The show works much better when it exists solely in the geek universe. When they go to the real world, the characters are all shoved together (them vs the world) and there is little to distinguish one from the other. Leonard interacting with Penny’s friends is not nearly as funny as Sheldon vs Evil Wil Wheaton. The good news is that the majority of the episodes take place full square in the geek universe. And the show has become that much stronger due to this. There are still some real world interactions (getting insulted while doing Star Trek cosplay or Howard in the space station) and during those scenes, I can see where the naysayers are coming from. But as more and more episodes take place solely within the geek world, the show becomes stronger and stronger. And it’s been a slow progression to get there.
When the show started it was the geeks vs the real world. There were episodes with the characters being forced to interact with Penny’s non-geeky friends and it didn’t work well. And when Penny insulted the gang’s geeky habits, it was horrible. Not just the feeling that Leonard had, but the show was truly bad. But the creators realized that the show wasn’t working and set about tweaking it. They made Penny less dumb and more street wise and mothering (especially in her interactions with Sheldon). The show slowly started moving towards living more and more in the geek universe. The finally removed obnoxious Howard by introducing Bernadette. And the introduction of Amy has had a huge effect in changing Sheldon somewhat (and they finally got rid of that idiotic roommate agreement). Hopefully they’ll remove Raj’s selective mutism soon and we’ll have four well rounded and geeky characters. But the biggest thing that they’ve done is that they’ve moved more towards the characters embracing their geeky hobbies. There isn’t discussion about stopping their activities. There is just discussion about how their geeky hobbies fit into their other hobbies.
And as to why I like the show, the question I asked way back at the top of this article, it’s because the show makes me laugh. I see characters on TV interacting in ways similar to the way that my friends and I interact and they make me laugh. I don’t ask for a lot in sitcoms (especially ones that stick with traditional sitcom format), but the one thing I ask for is that it entertain me and make me laugh. I don’t see The Big Bang Theory as great television. I don’t even watch the repeats that much. But when a new episode comes on, I’ll be sitting there watching*. I can understand why some people feel frustrated or betrayed by the show. But I can’t agree with them.
*Well watching on my DVR later that evening, since I rarely, if ever, watch live TV.