Last night heralded the return, after a mid-season Christmas hiatus, of The Big Bang Theory, that wacky comedy about four science-loving nerds, their attractive female friend, and, recently, two other women who sort of cross into both camps. And, boy, has the programme received some ire from professional and amateur reviewers alike. Although Big Bang Theory is clearly very popular, it’s also much derided: search ‘why geeks hate the big bang theory’ on Google, for example, and you get 472,000 results. But I for one am pleased it’s back, because I LIKE IT. I’m getting that out there now, so that there can be no confusion about what kind of approach this piece is going to take. Obviously it’s not the perfect show (what is? Answers on a postcard, please), but I firmly believe that its critics are seriously misguided in their scorn and hatred for something that is, after all, designed as 25 minutes a week of light amusement.
One principle reason giving for not enjoying Big Bang Theory – nay, hating every fibre of its being – is that it isn’t funny. Well, there’s not much I can say to argue against that. Either you find it funny or you don’t, and tastes vary. My husband sniggers at Family Guy; my best friend finds 2 Broke Girls hilarious; my sisters LOLs at Made in Chelsea; my grandfather loves Doc Martin… And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by the way I’ve set this paragraph up, I don’t find any of these remotely amusing. So if you don’t simply don’t find Big Bang Theory funny, then you can stop reading and go and watch a programme that you do find funny. (Don’t stop reading, though. Seriously. I need the clicks.) I’m not saying it’s ever made me laugh until I cry, but it invariably provides me with a few smiles and the odd snigger, and sometimes, yes, it does make me splutter with laughter.
Another reason for getting up in arms about the show, often combined with the first, is that it has a laugh track (by which I mean it is actually filmed in front of an audience). I’ve talked about laugh tracks before, and, yes, sometimes they’re a bit annoying (especially if you’re not laughing yourself). If I was making a comedy, I think I’d err on the side of audience silence. But audience laughter is, ultimately, a simple presentation feature that you can pretty much blank out and ignore. Also, for those people saying that the theme tune’s annoying (examples: here and here), two words: Who cares? It lasts about 30 seconds and then it’s gone. Mute the damn thing.
But some of the other criticisms are a bit more debatable. Perhaps the main argument is that the audience, far from empathising with Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj, is laughing at them. One blogger puts it thus:
“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.”
Another blogger comments that:
“All the lazy tropes of geeky characters – weedy, unable to function in society, terrible with women, mummy’s boys – are present and correct. […] In short, this is a TV show where the premise is ‘lol look at these losers!’. And depressingly people seem to lap it up.”
“The Audience sees that these anally-retentive misfits are inferior to them, and this pleases The Audience no end, because looking down on people and laughing at their shortcomings is one of our favourite things to do as a species.”
Now I have a serious issue with baldly stating that the audience is against, not for, the ‘geeky’ characters: it’s not accurate to position Penny against all the others and claim that she’s normal and they’re not, nor is it accurate to imply that the four guys are one homogeneous nerdy mass made of “lazy tropes”. They’re clearly different people, with different personalities. Certainly, most shows with a geek or nerd character squeeze every geek stereotype into that one person. Take Moss in The IT Crowd, or McGee in NCIS. Good with computers? Check. Bad with women? Check. Chubby and/or otherwise weird-looking? Check. Likes role-playing games? Check.
But because there are four scientists in Big Bang Theory, they all have their own personalities, and it’s absolutely untrue to say that all of them are the same, particularly that they’re all “weedy, unable to function in society, terrible with women, mummy’s boys” (for one thing, one’s married and two are in stable relationships. How truly awful with women they must be). Leonard is a physicist, clever, independent, musically talented and fairly socially switched on, but also boring and whiny. Sheldon is a theoretical physicist (the distinction is important), probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum, leading to behaviour that seems childlike, obsessive and self-centred, but is actually a refreshing change from Leonard’s martyr-like puppy dog moping. Howard is a short creepy Jewish astronaut, and although his pervy tendencies have declined since he got married, his dress sense has not improved. And Raj is an Indian astrophysicist recently recovered from selective mutism, who is self-centred, fairly camp and tends to get ignored and forgotten by the others. What’s more, in later series, two female scientists have added to the mix: Bernadette is small, pretty, shrill, bossy and practical, and is Howard’s wife, while Amy is socially inept, possessive, possibly bisexual and madly in love with Sheldon. The whole glorious spectrum of human emotion is covered here, that’s what I’m saying.
So, because of these (and many more) differences, the characters spend a lot of time making fun of each other. For example, Sheldon is teased by all the others for his obsessive habits and his failure to be tactful in social situations; Raj is mocked for pretending to be a poor Indian boy when his parents are actually loaded, and also for his weird intimacy with his little dog; and Penny gets stick never having been to college and for her complete inability to have a girls’ night in without drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Because the thing is: mocking each other is what friends do. Remember how often the other characters in FRIENDS made fun of Joey’s eating habits or Ross’s dinosaur obsession. Recall how much stick Ted got for be a soppy romantic or Robin got for being Canadian in How I Met Your Mother. Think back to the intra-group mockery in The Simpsons, Blackadder, M*A*S*H, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Scrubs… Gentle mockery is the lifeblood of a friendship group.
And the reason I feel I can claim the mockery in Big Bang Theory to be gentle is that I really believe that we empathise with the characters (not Leonard, though, ugh). Again, the Internet disagrees with me on this, panning the “shallow, one-dimensional characters assembled by a collection of overpaid Hollywood screenwriters” and arguing that they’re all “thoroughly hideous”. OK, I’m totally onside with the claim that Leonard is “weak and whiny”, but for the other characters, their negative traits don’t suddenly negate their positive ones, nor do they preclude us from engaging with them. Ever heard of an anti-hero, guys? And I would argue that there’s been some actually quite convincing character development, especially in the cases of Howard and Sheldon. Howard used to be “horribly sleazy” (see also this previous blog post) but he’s (mostly) grown out of it: he has a wife, and a job full of responsibilities. And Sheldon’s struggles with commit to an adult relationship with Amy are heart-breaking. For example, in an episode just before Christmas, the group set up their own prom, and Sheldon was worried that this would result in him having to sleep with Amy, and he wasn’t ready, and that scared him. Maybe he’s annoying, maybe you wouldn’t actually want him as a friend, but that’s an emotion even the most cynical viewer must be able to relate to?
Because that’s the thing about Big Bang Theory – even if some of the characters are annoying, and not everything they do is realistic, and they sometimes fall into a lazy joke or stereotype, there are enough moments of recognition, and of humour, that it’s worth watching. So sue me.