I’ve been meaning to post something about The Big Bang Theory for a while now but it’s taken me ‘till now to really understand what it is about the show that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not exactly a believer in the whole “only write about the things you like, don’t trash the things you don’t” trend which seems to be plaguing comments sections in negative articles lately, but I wanted to be able to really examine why I don’t like TBBT rather than just slagging it off. My main questions being - Why don’t I like this anymore? Why do I feel uncomfortable watching it? And why do I get so annoyed when I see people sing its praises online? The thing which really sparked this post was seeing a raft of comments on Facebook, below the last round of voting in Television Without Pity’s Tubey Awards, claiming The Big Bang Theory to be “the best comedy on TV”. This made me angry so instead of posting an impulsive comment calling out their bad taste which I’d probably regret later, I decided to really analyse why seeing comments like that made me so mad when previously, although I didn’t really love the show, I’d never considered myself as disliking The Big Bang Theory.
Hell, I even have season one on dvd, it’s sitting right between Battlestar Galactica and Bored To Death in my alphabetised collection.
And here, I think, is where my problem with The Big Bang Theory lies…
I am wary of labelling myself as anything other than what I definitively know I am, but for the purposes of this post I will call myself a nerd. This is a label which I think others would use to describe me – I help run the sci-fi society at my university, I spend my days watching TV and movies, I collect merchandise and comics, read science fiction and fantasy novels and play video games. I like to be organised, I alphabetise my DVDs, books and CDs, I go to conventions and participate in cosplay. More than anything though, I’m a fan. I love things obsessively and I like to think I know a lot about what I love. I know there’s a lot of debate online about what constitutes a nerd, and then there’s the debate about whether there should be a debate at all. I’m not getting into any of that here. Let’s just say I’m a nerd and move on.
When The Big Bang Theory first aired there weren’t many nerds on mainstream TV, at least besides the character with the glasses and braces in the background on a teen drama. Before TBBT, nerds were the characters the protagonists avoided, the ones with the crushes on the blonde cheerleader lead, or the person the popular ensemble helped out to show that they were nice. Sure we were on cult shows like Freaks and Geeks, Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer but those programmes were aimed at us, we were their fan bases not the wider viewing public. When Big Bang came along it claimed to be heralding a new age of “geek chic”, nerd culture was cool and mainstream television wanted a piece of the pie (or should that be pi?). Here was a programme whose main ensemble was made up of four highly intelligent scientists who love science fiction, fantasy and gaming. Here was a show with nerd protagonists aimed at the mainstream. We were finally getting some representation.
Except that we’re not. At least not any more.
And here’s my issue, here’s why The Big Bang Theory makes me feel uncomfortable. We aren’t laughing with Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard. We’re laughing at them. Chuck Lorre has given us four exceptionally intelligent, nerdy main characters and he’s positioned us as an audience against them. When I watch Big Bang it becomes more and more obvious that I’m not supposed to relate to the guys (or more recently Amy Farrah-Fowler). I’m expected to relate to Penny. You only need to pay attention to the audience laughter to realise that TBBT relies on positioning us as an outsider to the nerds, as someone like Penny who doesn’t understand their references, their science, their vocabulary even, and who doesn’t care to learn.
The Big Bang Theory rarely constructs jokes. Often it relies on pop culture references as humour. I recently listened to a podcast from The Film Talk where – when reviewing the film Ted – they spoke about the psychology behind reference as joke. We laugh when we hear a pop culture reference out of nostalgia, we remember enjoying it so we laugh at the referenced rather than the reference. Laughing at a pop culture reference also shows that we understand it. It creates a sense of inclusion, we don’t want other people to think we didn’t get the reference so we laugh to show that we too understand, we too know our culture. And don’t get me wrong, I love a good pop culture reference, my all-time favourite show is Buffy The Vampire Slayer and that’s full of them. However, a reference for a reference’s sake does not count as a joke. It’s lazy humour and it’s surprising to see just how often Big Bang utilises this.
But this specifically is not my main problem, lazy humour is one thing but cruel humour is quite another. If you watch, really watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory and pay attention to when the audience laughs it soon becomes clear that what they’re laughing at. What Chuck Lorre wants us to find funny is not the jokes which the characters are making, it’s the characters themselves. At one point Howard mentions playing Dungeons and Dragons. There is no joke attached to this, it’s not the punchline to any set up, however it is treated as one. Howard says the words “Dungeons and Dragons” and the audience laughs. They’re not laughing at a joke, they’re laughing at the fact that Howard plays D&D. And this kind of thing happens all the time throughout the show. How many times has a joke been made out of Leonard owning action figures or Sheldon collecting comics? When, in season one, Penny invites the guys to her Halloween party and they are excited about making costumes, we’re supposed to laugh at them, to think they are silly for dressing as a Hobbit or Thor when everyone else is trying to look sexy. The reason I feel uncomfortable watching The Big Bang Theory is because it’s laughing at me, at people like me.
The humour in The Big Bang theory relies on the audience siding with and relating to Penny, the character coded as “normal” in comparison to the main four guys. It also relies on the audience having a sense of superiority over Leonard, Raj, Sheldon and Howard. We’re supposed to feel like we’re cooler than them and that we’re better than them. This then prompts us to laugh at the things which make them nerdy, which stop them being cool, which make them lesser. This is done, in my opinion, to stop them from seeming intimidating. It’s essentially Chuck Lorre saying “Don’t worry, these guys may have fancy degrees, they may be more successful and more intelligent than you but they like sci-fi and read comics. They’re socially awkward and can’t speak to girls. You’re much cooler than they are so you’re still better than them.” This isn’t to say that we’re not meant to sympathise with Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard. Chuck Lorre doesn’t want us to hate them. He does, however want us to pity them. We don’t root for Leonard and Penny to get together because we think they’re a good match. We feel sorry for Leonard, we think Penny’s out of his league and we root for the underdog.
This disdain for the main characters taints the show for me. It seems mean, bullying and like I said before, just lazy. I feel like Chuck Lorre is collectively breaking our glasses and stealing our lunch money. You see, this kind of humour only works if in fact you do relate to Penny. If you relate to Leonard, or god forbid Sheldon, you don’t feel entertained, you just feel belittled. The way that even the three guys laugh at Sheldon seems especially cruel. Yes, he’s painted as annoying, as an inconvenience and as just plain rude, however he is also read by many as autistic. So much so that my friend who works at a school for autistic children believed he had Asperger’s Syndrome and once asked me how they got away with ridiculing a character with special needs. I explained to her that no, Sheldon is not canonically autistic and she was shocked. She told me that he was a totally accurate portrayal of someone on the autistic spectrum and had many characteristics of someone with Asperger’s – specifically the inability to recognise sarcasm or understand human emotion as well as the obsession with “his spot” and his distress when routine is changed. Sheldon is consistently positioned as someone to be laughed at. It’s made to seem ok by the fact that his friends are laughing at him too and, of course, he isn’t technically autistic he’s just almost indistinguishable from someone who is.
I relate far more to Leonard, Raj, Howard and yes, even Sheldon than I do to Penny. When the studio audience laughs at the mention of Battlestar Galactica, at the fact that Leonard has a bat signal, at the idea that someone would wait in line to see a new cut of Indiana Jones, they are laughing at me too. They are saying they’re better than me, that I’m silly for liking those things and that makes me a target for ridicule. When I talk about alphabetising my DVD collection, or when I mention the fact that I watch certain TV box sets on certain days according to a schedule my older brother calls me Sheldon. He thinks that because I like organisation, because I, like Sheldon, am a nerd, he is superior to me. I am proud of the things that I like. I am proud of knowing a lot about those things. I am proud of being enthusiastic about the things I love and The Big Bang Theory wants to tell me not to be. It wants me to be like Penny, intellectually inferior but far more socially acceptable.
And all this wouldn’t really matter if not for the fact that The Big Bang Theory targets nerds as part of its fan base. We’re used to being ridiculed on TV but it’s usually by shows which aren’t aimed at us. The Big Bang Theory goes to Comic-Con, it sells its merchandise at Forbidden Planet. The fact that it sells merchandise at all says that wants part of a cult nerd following. The Big Bang Theory is the worst kind of bully – the one that pretends to be your friend and then takes the piss out of you behind your back. It will take your viewership, it will take your money and it will laugh in your face as it systematically puts you down.
There’s a saying which made its rounds in geekdom recently – “Real nerds watch Community”. Now I take issue with the idea of “real nerds” but the sentiment still stands. Whereas The Big Bang Theory sees nerd culture as an object of ridicule, Community celebrates it. Community’s laughing with you whereas Big Bang is giving you a wedgie and laughing at you. When TBBT makes a pop culture reference it uses it as a punchline, it names a show like Firefly and asks you to laugh at it. When Community makes a pop culture reference it commits. Community makes a whole episode based on a trope or a genre, it doesn’t just use paintball as a plot device it takes paintball seriously and bases two season finales around epic battles of paint. Community doesn’t laugh at the idea of playing D&D it bases an episode on it. Parallels can be drawn between the characters of Sheldon in Big Bang and Abed in Community. Abed too has trouble reading sarcasm and emotion, he has obsessions with routine and structure as well and disruptions in routine cause him considerable distress. Abed sees everything in terms of television and film tropes. This is how he understands the world around him and how he figures out how best to react. Unlike Sheldon, it is often confirmed that Abed does have mental difficulties, most likely Asperger’s Syndrome. But, crucially, the main difference between Sheldon and Abed is that Abed is treated as a hero. In the pilot episode Jeff Winger, arguably the most conventionally “cool” member of the group says this: “Abed is a shaman. You ask for bread and Abed gives you soup because soup is better. Abed is better”. In one episode Abed is literally treated as a god. Yes, his neuroses do at times inconvenience the rest of the group but his belief that they see him as a nuisance is dismissed as his own insecurity rather than the truth. Community positions us, its audience, as Abed. It knows that we are knowledgeable about the things we love, it knows that we understand tropes and genre conventions, it gives us the benefit of the doubt and treats us as intelligent human beings who will not only understand the meta pop culture references, but will find them funny and love the show for it. Community tells us it’s cool to be a nerd. If Abed is better then we are better. Community is a warm hug of acceptance whereas The Big Bang Theory is a pantsing and a punch in the face.
And this isn’t even touching on the way TBBT portrays women. Most notably the fact that until recently the only female character on the show had no understanding of science or nerd culture, and the episode in which it’s treated as a miracle that a woman is in a comic book store – “she must be lost” they say. Even Amy Farrah Fowler isn’t the geek girl representative we may have hoped for. She’s portrayed as distinctly asexual and when she mentions sex it’s always played for laughs, because of course intelligent, socially awkward women shouldn’t think about sex at all. Another troubling thing about Big Bang is its insidious homophobia. We are supposed to laugh whenever Howard and Raj do something which could be considered as homosexual. The closeness of their friendship is the target of jokes as is their fear and disgust at being mistaken for a gay couple. Again Amy Farrah Fowler’s frequent references to lesbian experimentation are treated as absurd. We are supposed to laugh at her possible attraction to Penny and at Penny’s discomfort when she alludes to this. Considering Jim Parsons (who plays Sheldon) is himself gay, as is Sara Gilbert (who plays the recurring character Leslie Winkle), you would think – or at least hope for a more accepting attitude towards homosexuality. Similarly, with guest stars such as Wil Wheaton, a champion of nerd culture, you’d think they’d refrain from ridiculing nerds the way they do.
To bring this to a close I think I found my answers:
Why don’t I like The Big Bang Theory anymore? I think at first I was so happy to see people like me represented on mainstream television that I ignored the cruelty behind the humour. As I continue to watch the programme and see more and more repeats on E4 in the daytime it’s become much clearer that actually I’m not being represented. I’m being ridiculed.
Why do I feel uncomfortable watching it? Because whenever I laugh at a joke, and I do sometimes find it funny, I feel like I’m laughing at my friends, like I’m putting myself and the people I identify with down. And that’s not a nice feeling, that’s not how I want to feel when I watch a comedy.
Why do I get so annoyed when I see people singing its praises online? Because it reminds me that however many times people say that geek is cool, that nerd is en vogue, there will always be people laughing at me and making money from me at the same time.
I’m sorry for the huge post. I just really wanted to get my view of things out there and hear what people think, whether people agree or think I’ve taken it in completely the wrong way.