Big Bang Theory
I started watching The Big Bang theory because of Wil Wheaton. When I read that he had a recurring guest spot as Evil Wil Wheaton, I got curious. I think the “Bowling Supervillain” one was my first episode.
There’s a fair amount I like about the show. I enjoy seeing smart characters in central roles, roles that try to go beyond the standard sidekick bit of “Smart, wimpy kid gets bullied and maybe helps the real hero.” I like the SF/F references and guest stars. (I’ll watch just about any show that brings in George Takei.) I like the experiments, like non-Newtonian fluid dancing on plastic wrap over a speaker.
But the more I watch, the more certain things bother me…
The Inhaler – How do you demonstrate that a character’s a nerd? Give them an inhaler! Because as the writers know, asthma is a genetically nerd-linked disorder. Dumbasses. (To quote Leslie Winkle…)
Speech Impairments are Funny! – Another lazy nerd stereotype/cliche. But hey, at least it’s okay to laugh at Kripke’s speech troubles, because he’s not a very nice guy, see? His iPhone 4s doesn’t understand him, LOL! Tune in for the next episode, when someone in a wheelchair is mean, so everyone turns around and says, “Ha ha, you can’t walk!”
The Sexism – Let me make this as clear as I can. Social ineptitude does not equal, justify, or excuse sexual harassment. One of the worst examples, which came up in a discussion with some other authors a while back, would be Howard. Especially in the beginning, he was slime, oozing over every female he saw. Boundaries? What are those, except obstacles to be overcome? When Pennie finally told him off, Howard’s friends came together and made her apologize for hurting the poor creeper’s feelings.
The Fat Jokes – Howard’s mother is fat. Isn’t that hilarious? I wonder how many TV writers would be out of a job if society ever decided it wasn’t okay to treat heavy people like shit.
Racial Issues – I guess you could argue that the show is making a statement about higher education being dominated by white folks, but I think you’d be giving them too much credit. We do get get Raj, who’s Indian … and therefore must joke about the untouchables back home, or have his accent mocked by Howard (the person on the phone can’t tell the difference between Raj and Howard doing a bad Indian accent).
The Hick Jokes – Sheldon’s mom lives in Texas, where everyone’s an ignorant Bible-thumper! Pennie’s from Nebraska, land of dumb farm girls!
Having now seen most of the show’s run, some of these problems were present from the beginning. But I feel like as it progressed, it’s been losing the things I actually enjoyed. We see less and less of … well, of anyone actually being smart. With the exception of the current Howard The Astronaut subplot, we see almost nothing of anyone’s jobs anymore. When was the last time the whiteboard came out, or they bounced a laser off the moon?
It feels like, as the show became more popular, it’s been co-opted. The focus has shifted more toward generic sitcom territory. I can imagine the marketing meetings.
“We need to expand our audience! Cut back on the science jokes and the geek bits, and double the sex stuff.”
“We introduced Amy as a foil to Sheldon, socially cold but brilliant. Since she’s a chick, let’s rewrite her to focus on important things like getting a boyfriend and learning to be popular. Throw in some lesbian innuendo too. Guys love that.”
“You remember Ross and Rachel’s on-again, off-again relationship from Friends? That wasn’t at all like beating a dead horse, resurrecting it as a zombie, then beating the undead horse for another six seasons. We should totally do that!”
No show is perfect, but this one is losing (or has lost) the elements that drew me in, and is pushing things that make me change the channel.
Discussion is welcome. However, if your comment includes the following, please don’t bother:
- Any variation of the phrase “political correctness.”
- The words “overreacting” or “oversensitive.”
- An attempt to argue that other shows are worse, as if this in any way invalidates a critique of this one.
February 29, 2012 @ 10:02 am
I will say that a (female) friend of mine adores Amy for the fact that she’s awkward and kinda gay. Because there really aren’t all that many rolemodels for socially awkward, kinda gay women on TV.
Other then that, I’ve spent the entire run of that show thinking that they’re laughing at me, not with me.
February 29, 2012 @ 10:05 am
For me, The Big Bang Theory is just… geek-chic. It’s packed to the back teeth with references to geek culture, but I don’t see it as a geek show. It’s a show that non-geeks can watch in order to feel geeky (“OH YEAH BRO I TOTALLY GOT THAT BATMAN REFERENCE!”) without… feeling geeky?
I watched the first season or so when it originally broadcast over here, but I never bothered with it beyond that. It’s not that I felt it was bad, but I just found the characters to be… eh. Sheldon in particular annoyed me. Oh, look, an OCD clean-freak with no social capabilities. Just what geekdom needs more of!
It hasn’t made geekdom look cool or look better. It’s contributed to the social exclusion of geeks, and to the stereotypes of what we are. And, as you’ve pointed out, it’s contributed to the negative representations of life-affecting problems such as speech impediments.
Haven’t there been some questionable crossdressing jokes, too?
Jim C. Hines
February 29, 2012 @ 10:09 am
I think I’d like Amy more if she hadn’t been changed so much since the introduction of her character.
The “laughing at us” thing came up over on LJ, too. My sense is that they’ve got both — there are aspects of the show where I genuinely feel a connection to the geekiness, and there are other times when I feel like the show is aimed at the people who laughed a the geeks.
The example that came up was the pantsing of the protagonists in the very first episode. There was no comeuppance or no payoff here. The “funny” was supposed to be, “Hey, look at these nerds still getting bullied! Ha!” That speaks to who the audience was, at least for that scene.
And it feels like the show has continued to move away from trying to target *me* or my community.
Jim C. Hines
February 29, 2012 @ 10:12 am
I wonder if that’s a cultural thing. Other countries don’t seem to have the same attitudes toward intelligence that I see here in the U.S., so by comparison, something like BBT might look better here because so little even tries to focus on theoretically smart characters…
February 29, 2012 @ 10:29 am
I definitely agree the show is slipping into standard sitcom territory. What was a self-mocking look at awkward geeky social skills (Leonard & Penny) has indeed turned into something more mainstream. And uninteresting. Leonard, this nerdy guy we (nerds) can identify with suddenly ends a relationship with one incredibly hot woman, only to start a relationship with another? And then cheat, make up, go to the old woman, blah blah blah. Rather than elevating the geek/nerd/intellectual above that of the stereotypical jock — it seems to celebrate the geek becoming a douche. I think that aspect of the show has jumped the shark.
Poking fun at the stereotypes doesn’t bother me quite as much, because I think they are done so “over the top” that it’s clearly mocking the idea of stereotypes. I can understand not everyone would see it that way, but I see it like “this is how absurd the stereotypes really are, see how invalid they are?”
Sheldon’s character, with the implied (or verified? I’m not sure) Asperger’s Syndrome is a brilliant plot device. “Oh, Leonard, I finally understand the phrase ‘friends with benefits’.” Sheldon, in my opinion, is what makes the show work at all. I do still hold hope for the show, but reiterate my agreement with you — it’s starting to feel like a run of the mill sitcom.
February 29, 2012 @ 10:35 am
Hmm… I’m not sure. It’s comedy, Jim, but not as we know it. If you watch shows like Fraiser – the joke is basically that he’s *too* smart.
I have no idea what my point is. But BBT is popular over here.
February 29, 2012 @ 10:35 am
I wrote about TBBT evolution at GeekDad awhile back – http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2010/02/getting-geekier-the-evolution-of-the-big-bang-theory/ – and I find myself agreeing with you, for the most part: The show does seem to be slipping lately back into that first-season “laugh-at-them” territory, which it had so smartly left behind for so long. And while I do enjoy Sheldon’s character, they have been terribly reliant on him this season.
Jim C. Hines
February 29, 2012 @ 10:41 am
I’ve heard more than one person say it’s turned into The Sheldon Show…
February 29, 2012 @ 10:42 am
I wonder how the show would fare is given the Bechdel Test?
February 29, 2012 @ 10:44 am
My friends and I were just talking about this; our society has moved geek culture more towards the center with Star Wars, LOTR, Game of Thrones, etc. And since half of us are overweight or obese the fat jokes are less and less prominent in the day-to-day.
It begs the question, is BBT relevant anymore?
Do we really need a show about nerds being nerds or is it just to satisfy some network bigwig’s desire to make up for all the wedgies and namecalling he did in highschool because he’s surrounded by the very same people?
February 29, 2012 @ 10:44 am
To all these comments I would just add: it bothers me most that Penny doesn’t have a last name. Love the show, but of all the things that bother me about it, this is the worst.
Jim C. Hines
February 29, 2012 @ 10:46 am
I *think* it would pass … barely.
Jim C. Hines
February 29, 2012 @ 10:47 am
I can’t speak for society, but while I’m happy to see geek stuff becoming more accepted, *I* want a good show about nerds being nerds.
February 29, 2012 @ 11:27 am
I loved the show at first, but… everything you said above.
In addition, I have another pet peeve. The show has historically made an effort to get the physics right. I wish they’d give the same courtesy to the biosciences. I’m sick of the running series of jokes where Bernadette may not have washed her hands … or thinks she made drinks in a beaker used for infectious material. Everytime they discuss her work, it makes my teeth grind. Also? A neuro Ph.D. who is finishing up her thesis wouldn’t be working as a waitress. She’d be in the lab 18 hours a day living off her NIH stipend. (Which jumped 6K a year, or thereabouts, the year after I graduated. HOW RUDE)
February 29, 2012 @ 11:36 am
The best thing about the show, in my opinion, was the fact that they were always doing interesting things…while everyone else was watching “Friends” they were out bouncing lasers off the moon or building robots or having Babylon 5 marathons or coming up with complicated Venn diagrams of something routine.
I still enjoy the show, but not as much as I did.
Jim C. Hines
February 29, 2012 @ 11:41 am
Yes. I miss those bits, which seem to have pretty much vanished from the show.
Jim C. Hines
February 29, 2012 @ 11:42 am
I winced at some of those jokes too … it feels like another example where instead of making jokes about something smart/geeky, they turn the smart/geeky thing *into* the joke.
February 29, 2012 @ 12:11 pm
I watched the show once or twice and could never get into it for most of those reasons. My mother-in-law had us watch an episode because we were geeks, and I felt like I was being made fun of. I love Wil Wheaton and I’m glad he’s getting TV roles, but I just can’t bring myself to watch the show.
February 29, 2012 @ 2:15 pm
I think Jim Parsons becoming an Emmy favorite really hurt the show. The writers have decided that the show should be built around Sheldon, who is really a one-note character. I mean, they are all one-note characters, but it worked when they were doing cool things that we wish we could do. Now that the show revolves around Sheldon – and who would want to be his friend? – they’ve lost so much of the geeky fun.
It also says a lot about the writers of the show that they got rid of Sara Gilbert because they couldn’t think of anything for her character to do. That’s really sad.
February 29, 2012 @ 2:19 pm
I have to say I had the same reaction to the show. I watched it via video and halfway through season 3 I realized that Penny would never improve.. she would always be a waitress, not able to act, never able to come up with a company plan. Sheldon would get worse and worse as the breakout character. At the episode where Sheldon uses chocolate to “train” Penny like a dog.. I had it. Sold the DVDs and moved on. Never have gotten to watch a single Wil Weaton but at certain point the subparts you brought up had become the major issues I got hung up on.
Oh well.. maybe someday there will be a comedy with a story arc that sticks.
Andrew S. Balfour
February 29, 2012 @ 4:56 pm
As others have expressed, I’ve pretty much always felt like BBT was laughing *at* me, not *with* me. It’s not a show about nerds, by nerds and for nerds. It’s a show about nerds, by a committee, for the lowest common denominator. It’s been snidely insulting us since episode 1 and – judging by the t-shirts damn near everywhere at my local cons – we love it. Who cares if every “nerd” character on the show is a one-dimensional stereotype? The popular kids are acknowledging us!
February 29, 2012 @ 5:51 pm
To paraphrase Sheldon Cooper paraphrasing T.S. Eliot, “this is the way the show ends. Not with smart smart/geeky comedic writing, but with a fat/hick/inhaler joke.”
February 29, 2012 @ 7:04 pm
You know, the inhaler thing wouldn’t have bothered me if, at any point earlier in the show they’d described him as Athsmatic.
March 1, 2012 @ 1:10 am
I never got into this show. It always feels like they are laughing at geeks, rather than with us, and I get enough of that in life.
Jim C. Hines
March 1, 2012 @ 7:51 am
“It also says a lot about the writers of the show that they got rid of Sara Gilbert because they couldn’t think of anything for her character to do.”
Has there been any official reason as to why she left the show? I’ve looked a little, and wasn’t able to find anything, which suggests to me that you’re right and they just didn’t know what to do with her … which is sad.
March 1, 2012 @ 8:56 am
I must thank my friend, fellow blogger, and book reviewer Kevin Bayer for turning me onto this blog. Mr. Hines, I think I’m going to be a big fan of yours.
See, I’ve never been a big fan of this show. Even blogged about it (http://turnerwatson.com/2011/09/27/geek-rant-big-bang-theory-isnt-funny/)and agree with those who call it “Nerd Blackface.”
Now, in spite of this, the tragedy is that think Parsons & co. are actually brilliant. Heck, I liked Jim’s guest spot on iCarly, fer gawd’s sake…but once again, Hollywood is unable to wrap their collective minds around modern “geek” culture. Remember how excited everyone was for “Hackers?” Yeah. How’d that work out?
If this were an FX series or an HBO show along the lines of a nerd-core “Entourage” it could be brilliant. Could be. I really want to root for this sitcom. I do. But I just…can’t.
Thanks for bringing up some more excellent points. Your blog is bookmarked for LIFE!!
March 1, 2012 @ 1:33 pm
Just barely. Which is one of my main disappointments. Although, season 4 when there was more of the women, IMHO is the funniest.
March 1, 2012 @ 1:36 pm
What’s really bothering me now with BBT? Why is Leonard always wearing a jacket with hoodie? It’s only when he’s in pajamas (or “dressing up”) that we don’t see him wearing one. Seriously, dude, you’re in the house, take off the jacket.
March 1, 2012 @ 4:13 pm
Racial Issues – I guess you could argue that the show is making a statement about higher education being dominated by white folks, but I think you’d be giving them too much credit.
I read your post earlier today and this statement has been nagging at me. Partly because of unsubtle disparagement of writers you don’t agree with. Partly because you so casually dismiss the fact that they might actually be making this statement without any basis for such a dismissal. And partly because there was no third option. They were making a statement or they were being racist. What if they were just portraying reality without ascribing to a statement or a prejudice?
So I went to the Cal Tech website and looked at the actual physics faculty. Given the show’s reference to non-white Americans either as walk-on characters or by name in conversation, there seems to be an equivalent level of multiculturalism when compared to the real thing. I don’t find the first half of your racial comment to have much merit. The point would have been better made solely your example of Howard’s Indian impersonation.
Jim C. Hines
March 1, 2012 @ 5:55 pm
Hi Turner, and thank you!
“Hollywood is unable to wrap their collective minds around modern “geek” culture.”
I think this captures a lot of the problem. There’s this fairly generic Hollywood idea of what a successful sitcom looks like, and as BBT became more successful, it feels like there was even more of a push to fit it into that mold. So the things I actually liked got whittled away, while the annoying and offensive aspects were emphasized even more…
March 4, 2012 @ 12:34 am
You left out the string of pretty boy dumb jocks, just because you can bench-press 600 pounds doesn’t mean you get the girls and are dumb as toast. They manage to ping on most stereotypes. Then again just like my food, I don’t analyze TV shows that I like too much for fear that I’ll actually see what it’s made of. Still I like the show and laugh unashamedly when I watch it. Is it Hollywood shlock? Yes it is, but it’s shlock I like. And the Will Wheaton episodes are the ones that actually made me LIKE the guy. To each his own.
March 4, 2012 @ 7:52 pm
The other thing that has been bothering me recently is that Bernadette used to be a great developing character. Now they are painfully turning her into Howard’s mother. Which is so extremely lame I can’t fathom why they’d want to do it. She used to be appalled at the stuff Howard did with his mom, and now she’s like, “sure I’ll totally take care of you like a 5 year old”.
The show was good when nobody was getting any sex… That was believable for a show about nerds. Now it’s just Friends with a touch of science here and there.
March 5, 2012 @ 12:43 am
You articulated the devolution of this show so well. I watched the first two seasons religiously, and now the last several episodes are sitting on my DVR unwatched.
March 6, 2012 @ 10:05 am
This is a really interesting post. I haven’t actually watched the show – it wasn’t even on my radar until about a month ago. I think I’d heard of it, but never thought about it until I had two people recommend it to me: one of my best friends (a fellow geek) and my mother (not a geek – well, maybe a bit of a science nerd, but she doesn’t really get science fiction).
I may still check it out, just to make up my own mind, but the questions you’ve raised about it definitely make me question whether I want to watch it. And even leaving aside all of those social issues, most of the comments here indicate that it has a lack of character depth and development, which is what I like in my television. (Like Firefly – there was a show with some character!)
March 7, 2012 @ 6:54 am
Yes, character is king. Firefly was better than “Farscape” or “Babylon 5” or any number of sci-fi wannabe franchises because it was the perfect storm: great characters, pitch-perfect cast, incredible writing and dialogue, and a director with vision.
And that’s why I must now defend BBT (can’t believe I just typed that)by saying that their decline was inevitable. Firefly ended before Hollywood had a chance to ruin it with contrived, thrown-together romances or inane guest-star cameos. We get to remember it the way we loved it, at the height of its game. Had it stayed on the air, would it have spun years of spin-offs and movies, a-la Star Trek? Or would it have died on the vine like X-Files? It’s nice to cling to our fond memories of once-great shows. BBT is simply another example of being “victims of their own success.”
March 7, 2012 @ 2:57 pm
@Turner We’re gonna have to agree to disagree as far as B5 goes. I mean, “this is my favorite gun, I call her Vera” just doesn’t hold a candle to “With a little wave, just like this”
March 7, 2012 @ 4:15 pm
One man’s trash is another’s treasure, BlackCoat. I KEEED!! Seriously, to each his own. My basic point is that eventually things get diluted or watered-down. If not, there would’ve been no need for the “Batman Begins” reboot, etc.
Mayim Bialik, PhD | Dragon Hunters
May 10, 2012 @ 9:05 pm
May 11, 2012 @ 1:59 am
I adore Amy for the same reasons, but I’m a stickler for continuity, and I agree that they changed her character over night and out of nowhere.