Big Bang Theory (BBT) has gotten a lot of buzz on my Twitter lately, with people talking about it being a “bad show” and making fun of nerds. I get the point of view these people are coming from. But I find it very hard to honestly say BBT is a terrible show and shouldn’t be watched. I am a nerd and I love it.
First off, calling it “blackface” is wildly offensive. Both to the people who make the show and to the historical reference. It’s like comparing anyone on the internet to Hitler. Until they have led to the deaths of 6 million people, don’t make the comparison. BBT is not making completely offensive jokes about an entire race of people who have been enslaved, treated like cattle, and then treated to years of offensive oppression and degradation. It’s not even close to the same.
Also, let’s take a moment to realize what exactly we are critiquing. It’s not high comedy. It’s a sitcom. It’s a 21 minute episodic sitcom. It’s not high art people. Some people say, “It’s not laughing with us, it’s laughing at us.” No, Honey Boo Boo is laughing AT people. BBT is a show about nerds and the absurd situations they can get into and how, even though they are super nerdy geniuses, they still have all the same problems as everyone else.
For some reason, some people watch the show and feel like they are supposed to identify with Penny. Penny’s an odd character, but she is not the one I identify with. I feel the connection to Leonard. No, we weren’t raised the same way. No, I am not a physicist who studies lasers. Have I ever been in love with a super hot guy who ignored me to date super hot girls even though they were dumb as a brick? God yes. Have I ever had a moment where I wondered why the hell I was friends with these clearly deranged people? Yep. Have I ever thought about throwing away all my “toys” and trying to be a “normal adult”? That one too. Leonard is the protagonist, he is the everyman nerd that we are all supposed to be viewing the situations from. And really, the argument falls apart when they realize the guys are far more critical of Penny than she is of them. Remember the entire setup where Penny didn’t go to college and feels inferior so she lies about having gone to community college? It was silly, and absurd, and totally could happen. Likely with much worse results on the friendship than in the show.
People point to the references on the show and comment that a. they aren’t “correct” or b. are purely used as a punchline. When the joke is that these guys are saying if they don’t get to play Dungeons and Dragons then the rest of the group will hate Bernadette, then yes, it is a joke. People aren’t laughing at the mention of D&D, they are laughing over the absurdity of the game overtaking real life concerns and relationships. And what nerd hasn’t been in THAT situation? My parents still don’t understand what I mean when I tell them I have to contact my raid to let them know I won’t be on. What does it matter? It’s just a game?
As for references not being perfectly accurate, sometimes things have to be adjusted to make the plot/joke work. No, you can’t have sex in game in WoW. You can cyber though. And the plot required that Howard had done something absurd and creepy (hey, imagine that, as it’s part of his character to be over the top creepy guy) and they wanted to tie it into an online game. Which online game should they reference? The one with the largest player base and thus the best chance of being recognized? Or the one that no one has ever heard of but actually accurately allows for the plot set up? The writers are doing their best to bridge a gap in knowledge between geeks and those who know of geeks.
Another common complaint is that the characters are stereotypes. Well, yes… it’s a SITCOM. Not a documentary. Yes they are exaggerated caricatures of real people. I don’t work in academia or in serious computer science, I work in games, and yet I have met people that are toned down versions of each of these characters. The super nerd that can’t talk to girls without alcohol? Yep, I know a few actually. The guy that is basically nice but has no concept that many of the things he does comes across as super pervy? That too. And while I have never been friends with someone just like Sheldon, I know several people that if you smushed them all into a single person they would BE Sheldon.
One blog (specifically the one that spawned this post) calls out the Halloween episode as setting up the audience to laugh at the guys for making nerdy Halloween costumes. What episode were they watching? Because the one I saw, had the guys get super excited about a Halloween party, and then they took it about 10 steps BEYOND geeky. They took what could be considered as “normal nerdy”, dressing as Frodo, and exaggerated it to the point of hilarity with the guys running off to sewing machines. Am I laughing at them? Well, yes, but not because I think they are stupid or worthy of scorn, but rather because oh man have I been like that before. I spent HOURS researching and then searching down each and every piece of my Amy Pond costume. I know that feeling. I have BEEN that person. How am I supposed to relate to Penny, the sexy cat costume, when I am totally on the side of Leonard and LOVING his Hobbit costume, and absolutely in awe of Sheldon’s costume which so out nerds my nerdiest it makes me feel like a lesser nerd?!? This episode inspired me to sit around trying to come up with other costumes that could represent abstract scientific theories! The episode even goes a few steps further and has the guys successfully integrating into the “normal” friends Penny invites. Raj sleeps with a lady bug. Sheldon manages to push the guys into interacting with others at the party. Leonard manages to do what we have all always wanted to do and make the stupidly good looking jock look as stupid as he actually is. Not by force or being “cool” on the jock’s level, but with his superior intelligence.
As for the “oh they are nerds and can’t get girls” stereotype, this is the one complaint that has absolutely no basis on the show. At various points all of them have had relationships of varying levels of commitment and quality. Even Sheldon finds it within himself to connect to a female and create a relationship agreement. Are they exaggerated? Yes, but again, SITCOM. People call out how it’s “homophobic” when they make jokes about Raj and Howard’s actions towards each other… but 10 seasons worth of them doing so much worse to Chandler on Friends was just whatever? It’s a low brow joke. Do I find it funny? Eh, it’s amusing. Do I watch the show for that? Nope. Is it making fun of homosexuals? Not that I can see, as it seems like it is making a joke at the expense of those who get uncomfortable in those situations.
The blog also calls out the fact that until Amy, all the girls on the show were “normal” and even goes so far as to make cracks about her being lost to have ended up in the comic book store. Uh, well… Are you a girl that has ever gone into a comic book store? Oh it’s funny on the show, but have you had it happen in real life? Because I have. I have had so many experiences exactly like that, they are common place. They don’t even stick out anymore. I was once asked if I was lost at GDC, wearing a World of Warcraft T-shirt and a Nintendo bag. The joke, the stereotype, is based in reality, and it is absurd. It SHOULD be laughed at. They are also clearly overlooking the multiple instances where Penny has shown her growth. Yeah, in the first season she was pretty and dumb, but as the show has gone on she has shown her ability to grow, and her worth to the group. Who can the guys turn to for help when it comes to fishing? The cute blonde. An absurdity that is a classic sitcom setup. She complains to Leonard that he has ruined her ability to date stupid guys. Penny grows as a person over the course of the show, and clearly shows affection and love for the guys.
Do I find all the jokes on BBT funny? No, but then, I also don’t see them as hurtful. They are simply caricatures of people, exaggerations of reality, to create absurdity and incredulity. They are characters on a show that is written to make people laugh. Do I laugh when Sheldon rattles off a list of increasingly ridiculous specifications on his food? Yep. The same reason I laugh when I stand behind someone in Starbucks who does the same thing, and the same reason I laugh at myself when I do it with eggs at Toast. It’s absurd. It’s silly to be so demanding about our food. But we do it. And it is worthy of being laughed at.
Most annoying is the comparison to Community… *sigh* They point at BBT and say that it’s terrible because it’s offensive, homophobic, and laughs at nerds not with them… Because Pierce isn’t so mind bogglingly racist that I cringe every time he spews what is supposed to be funny. Because they don’t make the exact same homosexual innuendos with Abed and Troy. Because they don’t have a character (Jeff) who openly mocks and belittles the “smart” person in the group (Annie) who then falls in love with him because he’s so “cool” in some weird Stockholm Syndrome variation. OH WAIT. It’s also a sitcom. It reaches for the same low hanging fruit in its humor. The difference is, it’s characters aren’t as likeable. It’s setups aren’t as believable or as likely. As absurd as it is, I have had more experiences that are closer to BBT over Community. Maybe it’s why I like it better.
All that, but I can honestly say, I get the point. People don’t have to find the same things funny. People come to a show with their own baggage and wounds that color the way they see and hear things. I was tormented in school for years about being a nerd, and yet when I look at BBT, I don’t see something where people are still laughing at me and those like me, I see kindred spirits that are so much more absurd than I could ever be, showing me it’s more than okay for me to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars, because here’s these 4 successful and interesting nerds that are just as bad as me. It gives me joy to see these guys doing things *I* do and not feeling even the smallest bit of shame. I revel in the absurd level of nerd and enjoy every minute and every reference. In fact, the one thing I really wish they would adjust, over time and at least somewhat realistically, is getting one of the girls as into all the nerdy stuff as they are. Amy is super intelligent, but she shuns or is kept out of the nerdy things the guys do. Those walls need to come down and they need to bring the girls into the nerd world.