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The Big Bang Theory and Nerd Minstrelsy

July 25, 2012

We at the Tweed have lots of love for all kinds of television. But we’re also not afraid to drop the banhammer on shows that just suck. Sometimes we recognize suckitude almost immediately. Sometimes we go back and forth (usually due to a show’s inconsistent writing). Sometimes it takes a while. I’m almost ashamed to say it’s taken me 5 seasons to decide that The Big Bang Theory is a terrible, terrible show.

Let me count the ways…

It’s 2012, people. Do we still need a laugh track to know what’s funny? Must we depend on the “live studio audience” to clue us in to the jokes? I know it is a sitcom staple, but there are plenty of riotously funny shows that make do without it: Community, Arrested Development, Parks & Recreation, New Girl, Happy Endings, Workaholics, on and on and on. I’d like to think today’s television audience is at least sophisticated enough to decide for themselves what to laugh at.

The biggest complaint overall is that this show does not celebrate geekery, as it claims, but rather lampoons it. The show’s jokes are nearly always at the expense of the geeks. As I say in the title of this post, it’s nerd minstrelsy (“nerdface”!). The Big Bang Theory wants to be the First Show That Revels in Geek/Nerd Culture, but the reality is it’s just as belittling to that culture as any other show before it. Even the characters’ own quips about their loves and lifestyle are depressingly self-deprecating. Such as when Leonard announces that he and Sheldon will be watching Star Wars on Blu-ray that evening and says, “I know, it’s high resolution sadness.” Ugh. And don’t get me started on the character of Stuart, the comic book store owner. Hmm, a depressive comic book store owner who complains about his lot in life and pines creepily for the show’s female lead.  That’s comedy gold right there!

Another staple of ye olde sitcom on display in The Big Bang Theory is a reliance on one-note characters. Characters who don’t grow or evolve, they’re just there to show up, spout their catchphrase (or whatever bit of dialogue comprises the whole of their existence week in and week out), and leave. Howard, Leonard, Raj, and yes even Sheldon are textbook examples of this. Barry Kripke is a tertiary character and colleague of our heroes whose sole identifying feature is his speech impediment (“your wobot has been weduced to wubble.”) Oh sure, it’s a bit of a twist to make the lecherous Howard the first one to actually find a girl and get married. But arguably the only other character who has changed at all is Sheldon, and he only for the worse. I guess the writers of the show decided that if “everybody” loves Sheldon, we’ll give them Sheldon to the nth degree. He is an exceedingly unlikable character whose cartoonish lack of empathy has gotten brutally tiresome.

And finally, the show’s most unforgivable offense: its treatment of women. Again, it’s 2012. Why is a show that ostensibly celebrates intellectual curiosity and academic achievement so alternately dismissive of its female characters or only interested in objectifying them? Neighbor girl Penny (who lacks both a last name and a bra of any kind) is superficially the “straight-man,” the foil of our heroes’ misadventures, yet she is utterly objectified both in dress and manner by three of the male characters and intellectually disdained by the fourth. Sheldon has an attractive twin sister who is introduced, objectified, and eliminated in exactly one episode. Sheldon’s mother is a no-nonsense Texas Christian, and nothing else. Howard’s is a stereotypical jewish mother who we never see; she’s always merely a screeching voice from the other room. Leonard’s mother is a cold, hyper-academic psychologist. Howard’s girlfriend/fiancee Bernadette has an advanced degree in microbiology, but we only know that because the show tells us she has an advanced degree in microbiology. Otherwise she is simply part of a hundred punch lines involving Howard’s sexual proclivities and his dependence on his overbearing mother (see: one-note characters). Amy Farrah Fowler also has an advanced degree in neuroscience, and to the show’s credit is occasionally depicted working in her chosen field. But most of the time her character fills the role of “see? girls can be awkward, offputting geeks too!” In a later season, Raj’s sister Priya arrives from India. She is an attorney, but again becomes merely an object for one of the male characters’ (eventually successful) sexual advances; her intellect and academic/career accomplishments are glossed over as mere “gravy” to her physical attractiveness and then her character is summarily eliminated. Perhaps most depressingly, the ONLY regular female character with an intellect and personality on par with the men is also the show’s most underused. Leslie Winkle, played smartly by Sara Gilbert, is an academic and colleague of our heroes. She has a self-awareness that all the other female characters lack. Intellectually, her character can hold her own against anyone else on the show, and unlike the other women she even manages to retain control of her sexuality. Sadly, she appears maybe once or twice a season.

I’ve written before that I can be very forgiving when it comes to mainstream television. To that end, I’ll say that The Big Bang Theory is not wholly without laughs. And when they do in fact do something cool and geeky, they usually nail it for the intellectually stimulating yet fun activity it really is (such as when they use a subwoofer to excite a non-newtonian fluid). As terrible as I think the show is, I find it difficult to hate. There’s a lot worse out there. But I’ve definitely decided to give it up unless it improves.

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2 Comments
  1. January 8, 2013 8:47 pm

    This is all pretty spot on. To add insult to injury, the producers said they did not know how to write for Leslie Winkler which is why she is not on the show any more. So basically they admitted that they don’t know how to write a “female character with an intellect and personality on par with the men.” The shows dynamic started to improve when they had a female equivalent for all the men (Penny, Amy, Bernadette, and Priya) but that was not planned, it was actually a result of Kaley Cuoco breaking her leg and they had to write her out of episodes.

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