clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Big Bang Theory is better at portraying geekdom than haters admit

New, 87 comments

The show’s cancellation has been widely celebrated online, but for all its missteps, its 12-year run helped normalize geek interests

Photo: CBS

The Big Bang Theory didn’t make the best first impression. Back in September 2007, the CBS sitcom’s pilot episode introduced a pair of California science professors — Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) — who spent much of the next 20 minutes either stammering awkwardly in front of their pretty new neighbor Penny (Kaley Cuoco), or getting humiliated by her hunky ex-boyfriend. Right from the start, the geek community had their worst fears about this show confirmed: based on how it began, The Big Bang Theory promised to be a cliché-ridden weekly mockery of all things nerdy.

For some, that initial disgust with The Big Bang Theory never flagged. Last week, producer Chuck Lorre announced that the show’s upcoming 12th season would be its last. And while BBT has been one of the most-watched comedies on TV for most of its run, the news of it ending was greeted in some quarters with more of a triumphant whoop than a wistful sigh.

We’re not rejoicing in my household, though. My wife and I happily identify as geeks, with a closet full of comics and a treasured collection of science fiction and fantasy novels. We’ve watched every Big Bang Theory episode, and we’ll miss it when it wraps.

I’ll go one step further. “Nerd culture” in general — however one chooses to define it — may look back one day and realize that this much-maligned, cartoony little sitcom was more of a positive force than they thought.

Photo: CBS

The original take on The Big Bang Theory wasn’t wrong, necessarily. The show is still an old-fashioned three-camera sitcom, with live audience laughter. Those tend to be broad by nature, reducing characters to types for the sake of getting jokes across with extra punch. In the early going especially, BBT generated a lot of its material from Penny being a ditsy aspiring actress, Leonard being a nervous neurotic, and Sheldon being a fussy know-it-all with a possible undiagnosed Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Throw in the poorly dressed, perpetually horny Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and the painfully shy Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) — plus punchlines about food allergies and superheroes — and it’s no wonder that some people still groan at the very mention of the show’s name.

But just as it’s in the nature of three-camera sitcoms to draw in thick lines, smart TV creators (and Lorre and his BBT partner Bill Prady are certainly that) also understand that one-dimensional characters and gags don’t stay fresh for very long. The Big Bang Theory is still filled with punchlines about Leonard’s lactose intolerance and Sheldon’s germophobia, such that anyone dropping in on the show for the first time, or only encountering it through short clips in anti-BBT YouTube rants, might come away thinking it’s just stale, lazy digs at nerds. But for regular viewers, those jokes and others like it are really about the specific characters of Leonard and Sheldon, not entire subgroups of humanity.

From roughly its third season onward, The Big Bang Theory has been one of the premiere “hangout” sitcoms of its era, like Friends in its heyday. Each episode more or less stands alone, telling its own relaxed, low-stakes story, but there are also longer, surprisingly involving arcs. Whether it’s Sheldon becoming disenchanted with theoretical physics or Leonard and Penny falling in love and getting married, BBT’s narrative elements have always been just as important as the comedy. The plotlines have deepened the characters over time, as faithful fans have seen them grow past their quirks and foibles to face real-life challenges.

There’s a reason I’ve tagged season 3 as the point where The Big Bang Theory becomes something special. That’s the year Melissa Rauch was introduced into the ensemble as Penny’s Cheesecake Factory co-worker, aspiring microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski. It’s also when Blossom’s Mayim Bialik appeared for the first time as neurobiologist and computer-selected Sheldon-mate Amy Farrah Fowler.

Photo: CBS

The Big Bang Theory became a consistently enjoyable show about halfway through season 1, as Parsons, Galecki, Helberg, Nayyar, and Cuoco started bringing more nuance and individual personalities to their characters. But it became a great show — and, perhaps not coincidentally, jumped about 30 places in the Nielsen ratings, into the Top 10 — once Penny stopped being the only female lead.

In the years since season 4, Bernadette has married Howard and has given birth to two of his kids. Even the asexual Sheldon has wed Amy. Meanwhile, across those seven seasons, with more women in the mix, The Big Bang Theory has allowed Penny to evolve from being Leonard’s elusive, idealized crush-object to becoming a human being as flawed and funny as her brainier pals. Penny, Bernadette, and Amy share their beefs about the men in their lives, but they also share their dreams and desires for the future and their struggles with balancing careers and family life. BBT is much, much better-balanced than other ostensibly male-centered sitcoms and dramas.

The one major stumbling-block with how the show depicts these women is that they’re all, uniformly uninterested in the fantasy fiction their boys love. That’s one annoying stereotype BBT has certainly perpetuated: that comics, video games, and science fiction are “guy stuff.”

Still, given the well-documented toxic sexism of so many geek habitats, there’s something quietly radical about a beloved TV series arguing that male nerds’ lives are substantially improved by relationships with women. Penny and company have forced these men to grow up and engage with the wider world, and in the process, they have made them noticeably happier, without sapping their senses of humor or their fanboy passions.

The past few years have seen a disturbing popularization of the notion that lonely, angry men “deserve” to have sex with beautiful women, and if they act out in psychotic ways, it’s the women’s fault for denying them. The Big Bang Theory subtly suggests that maybe these gentlemen should lighten up, treat women as equals and as people, and start looking for friends and partners, not just hookups.

Photo: CBS

I don’t mean to dismiss the complaints of BBT haters out of hand. The show does still think it’s hilarious that certified geniuses struggle with social interactions and fashion. There isn’t much in the show that could be considered overt social commentary about controversies like Gamergate, online trolling and bullying, or the diversity problem in STEM fields. Critics could also argue that because the Big Bang Theory characters are financially comfortable and mostly white, the show exists in a TV dreamworld, irrelevant to reality.

But I do think a lot of the resistance to this series is a matter of taste more than morals. Enjoying The Big Bang Theory requires a higher tolerance for the classic sitcom form than many younger viewers have had the chance to develop. Over the past decade, millennials have become acclimated to dynamic single-camera comedies like Arrested Development and Silicon Valley, as well as the freewheeling, edgy, and intensely personal universe of YouTube videos. They may associate traditional three-camera series like BBT with shows like Saved By the Bell or Hannah Montana, which seem formally stiff and aimed at either little kids or old fogeys. Like any art form, three-camera comedies have their own specific language: the cameras rarely move, and the actors have to pause between lines for laughs. And that may not be a language younger viewers speak as much as older viewers do.

But it’d be nice if everyone who slams The Big Bang Theory for what they insist is a sneering attitude toward geekdom would recognize how knowledgeable Lorre, Prady, and their writers actually are about all the things their haters love. Some shows that reference comic books or science fiction movies make up intentionally silly titles, like Wonder Lad or Galaxy Warriors. On BBT, even the jokes are nearly always about real properties: The Flash, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and so forth. The same goes whenever Sheldon and Leonard talk about technology or physics.

If people just don’t find The Big Bang Theory amusing, so be it. Life is short, and no one has to like everything. But by spring 2019, a major network will have spent 12 years airing a massively popular show about brilliant scientists who look forward to Comic-Con, think action figures are cool, and have healthy, fulfilling relationships with each other and with the opposite sex. At a time when superhero movies top the box office and technology wonks like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are household names, The Big Bang Theory has helped promote the idea that nerds are the new normal.