When The Big Bang Theory came out in the seemingly halcyon year of 2007, it was immediately shunned in my household. It was clearly mocking nerds who worked at CalTech spinoffs and lived in Pasadena. This was NOT ACCEPTABLE. And that was before the nerds actually went to Bar Sinister to pick up goth girls:
Paul would like everyone to know he finds this personally insulting to imply that nerds would go to a goth club only for the hot goth girls! He would like everyone to know that as a nerd, he also went for the music! Furthermore, he never degraded himself with fake tattoos, eyeliner, or studded belt accessories and finds this entire scenario ridiculous. A nerd should be capable of forming a relationship with a goth girl without having to look like a Hot Topic threw up on him. (Side note: when I met Paul at the aforementioned Bar Sinister, he was wearing a black shirt and black pants and zero accessories and he still managed to successfully ask me to dance despite his minimal wardrobe pretension. Then I made fun of him for being a nerd living in Pasadena. Then he got his job at a CalTech spinoff in summer 2006)
And yet, despite the show’s initial ridiculous premise, here we are twelve years later with the show on it’s deathbed, but still the top sitcom by no small margin. I read the recaps rather than watch the show, with no small amount of schadenfreude. There is something about TBBT that irritates me when I binge-watch it on airplanes, the way the writers try to portray female nerds and yet rely heavily on female tropes. I wrote about my issues with the funny/straight girl dichotomy in a past post on gender equality in sitcoms:
It’s the shows where a character can behave based on who they are, regardless of their gender role, and have it be accepted in that universe that I’m fascinated by. Otherwise, having a “cute” girl who’s programmed to react in socially appropriate ways just makes the “funny girl” seem like she’s there for comic relief.
That is a part of what irritates me about TBBT: that when the female nerds act in non-“traditional” ways, they are still being compared and contrasted to a “normal” female role in the form of Penny, the original female character. And Penny’s response to everything seems to be “I’m gonna drink some wine! Because women love wine!” Despite plays at depicting equal female characters, the show ultimately continues to remind those women that they are, well, women, and therefore are required to:
- laugh off lazy male behavior
- over-coddle their men
- DRINK A LOT OF WINE
And yet, I feel I should credit the show for its depiction of female scientists who are just as committed to knowledge, curiosity, learning and their careers as their male counterparts, making being a nerd a gender-equal proposition. The best balanced character is undoubtedly Mayim Bialik’s Dr Amy Farrah Fowler, whose enabling of her romantic partner is less about tolerating lazy male behavior and more about working with a neuro-atypical partner’s brain. I think a lot of this is the real-life passion for knowledge that the actor herself brings to the role, but the character herself is remarkably balanced in her work and personal interactions. This is a step forward in sitcom culture, but, like all acknowledgements of females as equal, it just isn’t enough.
Also to the show’s detriment, with the exception of the somewhat brownface Apu-esque depiction of a South Asian astrophysicist, there are no scientists of color on this show, even outside the core cast. If the show wasn’t so lazy about this, they could use this glaring omission in the last season to deliberately highlight the lack of diversity in tech and sciences. However, that would require CBS to acknowledge the problem and then find a way to cleverly and compassionately write in characters of color who could serve to make some meta-level awareness about the show’s universe being strangely devoid of all non-white people (with the exception of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, of course). I find it strange that more writers and critics don’t call this out: for a successful show, it could have done a better job depicting people in science from less white privileged backgrounds.
There are plenty of reasons this show has been successful despite its flaws though: Vulture nicely sums up the more tangible, quantifiable reasons. What I genuinely cannot figure out though, and the reason I have to actually give Chuck Lorre & Co more credit for this sitcom, is that this show has been successful given the culture of stupidity and anti-science that we’ve cultivated in America since before it debuted. The show came out in an era where being an “anti-intellectual” was becoming a valued quality thanks to the then-president; it is still running and still popular in an era when half the country literally does not believe in science. Who are these viewers watching this show? Are they wannabe geeks? Real nerds who are happy to be acknowledged? Middle Americans who just really like hearing the same familiar jokes over and over again? How is this show still popular in the post-truth era and why can’t we use it as a vehicle to convince the population of this country that science is real and climate change isn’t something you can choose to believe in or not?
How is it that in an era when 40% of the country believes in creationism over evolution, and a similar number do not believe that climate change is caused by humans, has a show about a bunch of actual working scientists, featuring actual working science, been the #1 sitcom hit for as long as it’s reigned?
I supposed despite my mixed feelings, the missed opportunities to do good, and general resentment of its use of gender cliches, I should accept TBBT as being an overall positive in society for its depiction of female nerds, and autism. Still, at this point in the show’s arc, I agree with the deathbed metaphors: this show, much like The Simpsons, has been phoned in for years. It’s like someone set up the plot arc, yelled SEE YA and peaced out, leaving a combinations of interns and AI to write the scripts. It’s extremely formulaic, with what I suspect ratio of 3:2:1 jokes: three Sheldon Behavior jokes for every two Gender Trope jokes for every one single genuinely funny nerd reference joke. And most egregious of all, it still has that goddamn laugh track, which is the second biggest reason my nerd husband won’t watch it. One wonders if, without a laugh track, the show would become an existential commentary on the futility of being overeducated similar to Garfield Minus Garfield.
Still. This show insults nerds who live in Pasadena and work at Cal-Tech spinoffs! I’m contractually obligated to mildly resent it in the same way I obligate my husband to mildly resent shows about quirky girls who move in with multiple guy roommates. In the land of general TV it’s the least of many evils. It’s not a CW groundbreaking sitcom, but one can hope that it’s a very small step forward in depicting difference in characters in future television.