Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why I Can't Stand The Big Bang Theory

Last summer I watched a handful of episodes of The Big Bang Theory all the way through, then gave up on the show entirely, not just irritated by what I watched, but astonished by the show's success (at the time, anyway).

I might as well start with the characters. As anyone who has seen an episode knows, the four scientists at the heart of the story--Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar)--are not just stereotypes, but very, very annoying. Of course, characters with annoying quirks can be engaging. Monk's titular character Adrian Monk is a perfect example of this, his combination of strengths and weaknesses making him compelling and endowing him with a genuine humanity, as well as affording the writers abundant inspiration for comedic material. Jim Parson's Emmy-nominated Sheldon, by contrast, never does anything more than grate, and the same goes for his friends (to varying degrees).

Of course, this is fairly standard. Treatments of "geeks" in American film and television tend to feel like they were written by the kinds of people who beat up geeks when they were growing up (if they ever did grow up). They are caricatures, and generally not good ones. Good caricature begins with an apprehension of reality, while pop culture depictions of everyone from the gifted child to the veteran scientist are caricatures of caricatures tending toward the grotesque. At the same time, the casting has often left me with the impression that the roles exist mainly to provide work to well-connected but awkward, uncharismatic (and frankly, unattractive) actors.

Big Bang is no exception to the pattern, either in the writing or the acting, all too predictably reusing, recycling and running right into the ground all the hoariest geek stereotypes and clichés--stuff that was tired in seventh grade--starting with the field of study all four of the scientists have in common, physics. After all, the greenest Hollywood hack knows that if you want to overawe an unsophisticated viewer, just throw in the word "physicist," preferably with the prefix "astro" or the word "quantum" in front of it. The average viewer may not be able to explain exactly what physics deals with, believe that the Theory of Relativity is a moral stance and think Albert Einstein's scientific contribution was his personal invention of the atomic bomb, but they realize that physics is "hard," especially because it "has math in it," and are therefore intimidated by anyone who can deal with it, so that where sheer intellectual one-upsmanship is considered, everything else is regarded as second-rate.1

Of course, pandering to widely held stupidities has never been an obstacle to popular success, and certainly there's always been an audience happy to laugh at nerds. (Remember, this show laughs at them, not "with" them.) Intellectuals like scientists may be an "elite" of sorts, but when push comes to shove, they are a rather powerless group, making them easy marks for everyone from comedians to demagogues. (As Morris Berman asked in his brilliant essay The Twilight of American Culture, "Can you imagine, in this country, a TV program along the lines of Cheers that ridiculed wealth instead of intelligence?") With anti-intellectualism running particularly hot in the last decade (as it usually does when national politics takes such turns), it may be no surprise that CBS scored a hit with a show founded on this kind of humor. And while I've never been a particular fan of Chuck Lorre's work (Cybill, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men), there does seem to be a sizable audience which clearly enjoys it.

This being the case, what really surprises me is the critical acclaim the show enjoys, and in particular the enthusiasm from the proudly self-described geeks one would expect to see right through it, to recognize that it isn't the smart or geek-friendly viewing it has been taken for. I suppose that part of it may be that instead of being relegated to supporting roles, the geeks are the core of the cast this time, and like members of a marginalized minority group they're simply excited to see such a representation of themselves on screen, even when it's an unkind one. Part of it, too, seems to be that the show's writers are relatively literate when it comes to both the science and the pop culture (indeed, I imagine many a joke goes over the average viewer's head), which is rare enough that some will regard it as an oasis of relatively intelligent viewing for that reason alone.

I say relatively. For nuanced geek-culture comedy I generally find myself having to look accross the ocean--to Britain for Spaced, or better still, to Japan for manga and anime like Genshiken (the first series, at any rate; I didn't much care for the second) or Welcome to the N.H.K. ("masterpiece" is the word that comes to my mind). As it happens, they largely dispense with the scientists, but that's partly the point: there is geek culture outside physics and computer science (as club president Madarame explains about himself and his cohorts "We're not techie otaku . . ."), and anyway, The Big Bang Theory, despite its title, isn't really about physics or physicists, even to the modest extent that the crime show Numb3rs is about mathematics and mathematicians. And these other shows are much, much better stuff than anything we're likely to get out of American network television.

1. There seems to be a widespread and deep-rooted view that there is a hierarchy of intellectual endeavor, with the physical sciences (of which physics is queen) and related engineering specialties (especially those including the words "rocket," "nuclear" or "computer") on top, ahead of the life sciences (though the word "neuro" has a cachet comparable to "astro" and "quantum" in physics; "molecular" is good too), the life sciences ahead of the social ones, and the humanities at the bottom, a view that the show routinely acknowledges (and if anything, reinforces, whether intentionally or unintentionally). A noteworthy example: in the episode "The Bad Fish Paradigm," Sheldon insists to Penny that a former girlfriend of Leonard's who possessed a Ph.d in French Literature is not a "brainiac" because "for one thing she was French, and for another it was literature."


halojones-fan said...

Part of the issue is that the show has gotten away from depicting actual smart people who are smart, and gotten more into depicting typical sitcom characters who happen to be "scientists" as opposed to marketing executives or plumbers or bartenders or whatever.

Nader said...

As I admit, I didn't follow the show from the beginning - and didn't intend the piece be taken for a comprehensive review of the show - but that could be part of the issue.

Still, it seems to me that they don't write the cast of this show the way they do other such characters. From what I've seen of the show, they are very much stereotypical geeks in their demeanor and pastimes.

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