Anime Reporter steers away from anime reviews now to talk about something entirely unanimated, from the good old USA. Nope, I’m not using this time to exclaim with joy about Samurai Jack’s return. I’m not even going to really talk about so many of the great American series that have captivated and entertained me. Right now, I’m going to be talking about some (just some) of the reasons that I so strongly dislike the sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, and why I really think it should have been off the air a long time ago. I know, I know. This is a hugely popular show and people are entitled to enjoy a show they like without some Irish guy online trying to ruin it for them. Agreed. I’m not trying to ruin this show for anyone. I just need to vent about how bad this show is.
Reporter’s Desk: The Geeky Elephant in the Room
When this show first came out, I bought the hype. I was 19 years old at the time, having just left a very rural area in Ireland, and was kind of just adjusting to the idea that comic books, sci-fi and all of my geekier past times were something that could be a part of an open discussion and not something I’d have to keep to myself to avoid embarrassing anyone I was talking with. It was great, seeing these characters talk about X-Men, the Flash, Green Lantern and reference comic book storylines I had read and loved. I couldn’t wait to see how they’d develop and how their love of nerd culture might impact the characters in some way. But it didn’t. It really never evolved in any way. Sure, you occasionally get someone talking to one of the four principal nerds (we’ll get to them in a little while) and say something that boils down to “What would Spock/Yoda/Batman/Green Lantern do in this situation?” to which the nerdier character will either flee like a coward from the situation, emphasising what the audience really knows: these characters love superheroes and RPGs about brave heroes because they aren’t strong or brave themselves, or, the character will rise to the occasion and act like the hero they love so much and any of this character growth will disappear by the end of the episode. The characters’ love of nerd culture is just a bizarre throwaway feature, like Marge Simpson’s hair and, while having nerdy characters as fall guys was a huge staple of sitcoms and kids’ shows in the nineties, most series have moved beyond it at this stage and they certainly wouldn’t have the vast majority of their leading cast be made up of flat stereotypes that, rather than develop as characters, actually sink further into their tropes as the series moves on. I’ve read it many times online that people see this as the equivalent of nerd-blackface, with these characters essentially standing in as the ridiculous caricatures of mainstream society. I can’t pretend that this is a fair analogy. Nerds or geeks have essentially been portrayed as socially inept, ungraceful clowns who overcomplicate base human interaction and live in a world of childlike fantasy (Yes, yes, I’m fully aware that I’m largely describing myself… at least partially, here). This doesn’t really compare at all to centuries of racial oppression and exploitation so this parallel is more than a little forced. I do, however, agree that the portrayals of these characters are about as lazy and developed as blackface. Each of the nerdy characters is dripping with negative stereotypes. I’m not entirely against seeing a character with stereotypical traits. If we removed every trait associated with a major group of people from any given character, then we’d be eliminating a lot of what any given person may have in them. I majorly object to characters seemingly constructed out of stereotypes however. In brief, because it’s been covered by so many other publications, we have: Sheldon- the brilliant scientific mind who’s baffled by the complexities of the social world as though he’s never encountered earthlings before. This is largely ridiculous and even self-defeating, given his fixation on television, film, comic books and literature. Sheldon can’t have reached adult age, surrounding himself with these things and still need a crash course on why humans give each other birthday presents or to, as he so often does, misinterpret common sayings and phrases through over-analysis. Then we have Raj, whose characterisation amounts to: he’s shy around women and he’s also foreign so let’s throw a whole mess of Indian/any given foreign culture stereotypes at him. Raj’s character is a true shame. The way his character is written serves more to show how mass American media is willing to portray other cultures by the laziest of tropes and surface assumptions. One of my all-time favourite moments on the show was when Raj did a pretty hilarious American impression “Hey my snow-white American brothers, let us all eat cow meat until we’re obese!”. The way he did it felt like a brilliant nod from the writers, saying ‘yeah, this can work both ways’, until it was completely undermined seconds later by Howard pointing out why he felt it was a terrible American accent. The same Howard who regularly does a truly offensive Indian accent regularly, which Raj often accepts as being pretty accurate, even though it’s cartoonish and feels so dated as to be embarrassing for everyone involved. Howard’s character amounts to: “he’s Jewish, he thinks he’s good with women. He’s really desperately lonely.” There’s so little redeeming about this character. His jokes fall flat, he’s overly obnoxious and lacking in any characteristics that might actually make him a good friend. Leonard… oh dear lord, Leonard. Leonard is “the Nice Guy” nerd. I’m not using this in the popularised feminist sense of the term, more to mean that that’s pretty much all of the characterisation they did on him. Luckily, they compensate for that by occasionally making him insufferably clingy and paranoid, while all of his jokes amount to hearing Sheldon say something angry/paranoid/enthusiastic/weird and then replying with a heavily sarcastic “quip” of “Oh, well that’s not angry/paranoid/enthusiastic/weird at aaaaalllllll”. Leonard exists to be ‘the one who might deserve Penny’, but that’s mostly because he’s by far the most passive and benign of all the stereotypes. The women portrayed in this show have even more shallow development. Amy: female Sheldon. Howard’s wife whose name I’ve forgotten: quiet, then loud, utterly benign. Penny: not a nerd.
Ultimately, what I dislike so much about this show is that it seemed to be a show about geeks for the member of geek culture. It was delivered as something from the points of views of those characters that might actually attempt to show them as people. What we got was Saved By the Bell with all the cool kids missing. The geeks and nerds are still exactly the same geeks and nerds they’ve always been in the background, except now the cameras are pointing at them all the time. I also get a wave of irritation whenever anyone refers to TBBT as “intelligent comedy”. It’s not. It’s really not, I’m sorry. This show is the most formulaic, repetitive form of humour. If the word “Bazinga” (I can’t believe I just referred to it as a word), is worthy of ten seconds of live studio-audience laughter and it’s used 6-8 in a given episode, then there’s really no point in defending this as a clever show. If a character gives a quick speech about Newtonian physics and the punch line is that another character looks stumped and says “It’s bouncing crud?” or something equally bland, then the joke isn’t clever. The joke is “I don’t get it” and that’s not new or original. Since the Big Bang Theory has started, it’s basically had the same jokes over and over again:
- Smart person says something smart. Other people don’t understand it.
- Smart person doesn’t understand everyday things that we understand.
- Smart people are bad at social situations.
- A geek made a comic book reference and that’s weird to the people in the scene who didn’t get the reference.
- Toilet humour.
- Howard’s mother screams a lot.
- Sheldon has a weird knock.
- Soft Kitty.
- Indian people are different to American people.
Now, you might be asking yourself why I don’t simply stop watching this show if it bothers me so much, why I don’t just turn away and ignore. The simple answer is, I haven’t watched an episode in a very, very long time. Any time I happen to catch a glimpse, I might stick around for long enough to confirm that the characters are very much the same cardboard cut-outs they’ve always been and check to see if all the jokes are insanely-diluted sarcasm with a laugh track to let the audience know what’s supposed to be funny. Have you seen the Youtube videos where the laugh track is removed from clips of TBBT? It’s amazing how awkward and un-jokey the jokes are. They’re just pieces of fairly bland conversation that happens to contain people looking uncomfortable at the prospect of dancing or hugging or being near people. Now, I’m not campaigning to have this show taken off the air. I don’t assault people who say they like it and I’m not trying to belittle anyone who does like it. I also no longer wear my Green Lantern t-shirt in public, because people will ask me where I got the Sheldon shirt. The fact is, I could write another few thousand words on exactly why I feel like this show is tripe, why I feel like it’s the laziest writing and acting on television at the moment and why it’s such a woeful missed opportunity to do something different and creative. But I won’t. What I will say is this: It’s a fundamental shame and mark on current society that when I googled “big bang theory” before writing this article, I had to look to the bottom of the second page of search results before I found a single page relating to the actual physics theory.
Thank you, Big Bang Theory, for giving another generation the greenlight on deciding that being smart, liking science, sci-fi and comic books makes you a perfectly suitable figure for ridicule. Thank you for pointing to what you clearly see as the social underdogs and lonely, pathetic souls of our world and making sure people have a widely publicised reason to give another sharp kick or two. I’m no longer embarrassed to tell people that I read comic books or that my favourite superhero is the Flash, but I do tense up ever so slightly after I tell them, just in case I have to hear that “Penny…Penny…Penny” knock reference.