The trouble with “The Big Bang Theory”

by James Somers, June 17, 2010

Think of what “The Big Bang Theory” celebrates. Raj is socially inept, Howard is a little boy who tries too hard, Sheldon is smug, and Leonard is femininely sensitive. They’re all book-smart and street-dumb.

We’re supposed to like these guys, not in spite of their (one-dimensional) distinguishing features, but because of them. We’re supposed to applaud the fact that these are not your typical male leads. So Raj’s ineptitude is meant to be cute; we’re meant to see a bit of ourselves in Howard; we’re meant to take Sheldon down a notch, but to still laugh along with his jokey parade of negativity; we’re meant to appreciate Leonard’s emotional openness.

It’s remarkable that these features don’t actually repulse us. We are so accustomed to good-looking high-status self-confident male protagonists with nice smiles, that you’d think we’d reject a group of awkward nitwits with loser attitudes. How do these guys earn our admiration, or even command our attention, if most of what they do is pine and bicker and trade masturbatory nerdy in-jokes?

Answer: they’re really smart. We are constantly reminded that these are four very talented scientists, former prodigies and possibly future Nobelists, PhDs in physics and engineering at CalTech. And with that, the basic premise of the show instantly transmogrifies from “four self-satisfied dopes failing socially and indulging ComiCon culture” into “the lighter side of genius.” All of those quirks and shortcomings are suddenly framed as the amusing side effects of their brilliance; their social gaffes take place against an implied backdrop of impressive academic achievement; their (irritating) overuse of jargon in everyday situations, their (childish) intellectual one-upsmanship, and their (regrettable) inability to connect with regular minds, are all explained away as the native burden of the brainiac.

All of this is achieved, mind you, not by convincing demonstrations of actual problem-solving ability or quick thinking or wisdom (though God knows what that means), but by mouthful after mouthful of highly technical vocabulary, often ripped from context, that has the veneer of intelligence.

For people who understand it, this kind of dialogue is a cheap enjoyable ego-massage—for what better way is there to feel good about yourself than to swallow whole the very same sentences that are causing so much trouble for the show’s “normal” characters, like Penny and her friends? And those viewers who can’t parse the jargon are, by virtue of the aforementioned buffoonery, encouraged to pat themselves on the back for not being too smart, for being “well-adjusted.” Everybody wins.

Penny, incidentally, is almost the show’s saving grace. She’s friendly, neighborly, warm, and refreshingly open-minded. She manages to both hold her own among these bizarre boys and stay unflinchingly positive in the face of their haughty and patronizing swagger. But I say “almost” the saving grace because she is, alas, reduced to being a babe. That is, much of the show’s action and comedy pivots on her attractiveness, in a way that clouds and crowds out her excellent attitude (among other things). So where her role could be to teach these guys about a life outside their geeky cloister—and granted, she does do this to a significant extent—she operates mainly as The Girl, that enduring staple of nerd fantasy.

But in the end what bothers me most about this show is that these idiots are held up as models, sort of, by the nerd community. I can understand their enthusiasm—the demographic has been shortchanged by just about every sitcom that ever was—but I wish they held out for something less cheap.