Tag Archives: Big Bang Theory

The Geek Proliferation: In Defence of The Big Bang Theory

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.”

Finally, this:

“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.”

Ouch.

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.

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The Rise of the Meta-Celebrity

Since film and television began, actors and other famous people have been paid lots of money to pop in unexpected places, say a few lines, and disappear again, leaving the audience going, “Wait, was that…?” Increasingly, though, celebrities are rendering the question moot by appearing as themselves, or at least grotesque, exaggerated versions of themselves. Of course, some of these Meta-Cameos* are egotistical puffery, but others nail it, pulling off the neat trick of proving themselves funnier and more likeable by pretending to be an awful human being. In celebration of the people in this second group, we now present a highly subjective, mostly arbitrary, vaguely ranked list of celebrities playing themselves on television: The Official and Definitive List of TV’s Best Meta-Cameos Ever!!!**

10. Trudie Styler in Friends

The appearance of Trudie Styler (AKA Mrs Sting) was brief but fruitful. Although Styler was a good sport, the storyline involving her was slightly underwhelming (mainly because it also involved the entirely forgettable Ben Gellar), and Styler herself wasn’t especially humorous. Nonetheless, her presence sparked hilarity anyway because it opened the gates to some eve-more-insane-than-usual behaviour from Phoebe, including a series of Sting-related puns (“Look, I just pressed a button triggering a silent alarm. Any minute now the police will be here.” “The Police? Here? A reunion?”) and a song that gave even Smelly Cat a run for its money.

9. Stephen Hawking in… well, pretty much everything

Stephen Hawking’s brain apparently works so fast that even explaining the universe only takes a couple of hours a week, because he’s played himself in more TV programmes than you can shake an event horizon at. Particularly entertaining appearances include The Big Bang Theory, where he causes Sheldon to have a mini-meltdown, and The Simpsons, where his wheelchair can fly, but perhaps the most notable is his appearance as a Star Trek hologram (of himself, so it totally counts) that plays poker with Data (Brent Spiner). It was, as Spiner himself put it, “the most notable moment in television history since Albert Einstein guest-starred on Gunsmoke”.

8. Emma Bunton in Neighbours

Neighbours has had its fair share of Australian celebrity cameos, from Shane Warne to the Wiggles, but British viewers had a field day when Karl and Susan came to London to get married (for around the ninety-seventh time). They ran into Michael Parkinson, Julian Clary and Jo Whiley – as I do every time I go to London – but cream of the crop was Emma Bunton, who found Karl’s lost engagement ring and was rewarded by Karl having no idea who she was. Fortunately Susan made up for it by screaming with joy at recognising her. After all that excitement, Dr K and Susie Q got on a boat and were married by Neil Morrissey, because why not?

7. Josh Groban in Glee

Just so we’re clear: I’m not a Gleek, but I am a Grobanite. Groban’s appearance on Glee was short and not-so-sweet: he turned up to an a-capella performance given by Mr Shue and his cronies, insulted everyone who took part and then left to seduce Mr Shue’s mother, all the while referring to himself in the third person. The fact that he didn’t sing is pretty infuriating, especially since everyone else in the programme sings non-stop; but we did at least get to look at him. In the words of Mr Ryerson:  “He is an angel sent from heaven to deliver Platinum Records unto us”. Amen to that.

6. Matt LeBlanc in Episodes

Matt LeBlanc is pretty damn famous now, so in a way it’s bizarre that his most successful post-Friends role has been playing himself. But he does it with flair. Opting squarely for the ‘sex-mad actor who also played a sex-mad character’ archetype, LeBlanc gives it a slightly sinister edge by getting rid of all of Joey’s puppy-like innocence and replacing it with cold calculation and world-weary cynicism. Do we like the Matt LeBlanc who sleeps with every woman he can get his hands on, including a slightly psychotic stalker and his best friend’s wife? Not as such. Do we like the Matt LeBlanc who plays him? Yes.

5. James Van Der Beek (and Dean Cain) in Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23

Ignoring for a moment the bizarre new trend of giving your show a title that can’t actually be spoken on air (see also: S*** My Dad Says), James Van Der Beek has been quite enjoyable as a slightly whiny version of himself who hangs out with normal, non-celebrity people. But the last few weeks have seen him shoot up the list due to his acceptance into (a fictional season of) Dancing With the Stars, the USA’s version of Strictly. For one thing, his main rival is Dean Cain, aka Clark Kent, aka Superman, who is already awesome. For another, Van Der Beek can actually dance. Very nice.

4. Wil Wheaton in The Big Bang Theory

One of many Star Trek actors to cameo in The Big Bang Theory, Wheaton made a stylish first appearance by enraging Sheldon, which is always funny to watch (see ‘Stephen Hawking’, above). Since then, the development of the rivalry between the two has worked really well, particularly when Wheaton’s horrible behaviour induces us to feel sympathy for Sheldon (because nobody messes with Sheldon’s meemaw). And for those of us who are familiar with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the bitchy remarks about the whining and uselessness of Wheaton’s character Wesley Crusher are bang on the mark – he really was THAT annoying.

3. John Prescott in Gavin and Stacey

You might be surprised to find this one so far up the list (that is, if you’d forgotten that this list was (a) official and (b) definitive). Prescott only appears for a few seconds and barely says a word, but this appearance was brilliant for three reasons. First, it’s an unexpected but good-humoured (and probably quite savvy) move from a man who was the butt (no pun intended) of a lot of negative jokes at the time. Second, it’s a great moment for Nessa’s character development – the audience has always been a bit sceptical about whether she really did sleep with Richard Madeley and Goldie Loookin’ Chain, roadie for The Who and sing with All Saints, but this finally vindicates her. Third, it’s John Prescott. In Gavin and Stacey.

2. Shaun Williamson in Extras

Extras, by its very nature, was full of actors pretending to be themselves, which made this one a very difficult call. Other contenders were Kate Winslet’s cynical nun, Orlando Bloom’s miserable failure with women, and Daniel Radcliffe’s sex-mad teenager – but in the end the award must go to Shaun Williamson, primarily because he manages to hold his own against Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, both very talented people, by wringing every last drop of sympathy out of being constantly overlooked. Plus, Williamson’s character, Shaun Williamson, also responds to the name ‘Barry from Eastenders’, which make him the only Meta-Meta-Cameo on the list. Kudos.

AND THE WINNER IS…

1. Adam West in Family Guy

Let’s be clear – the man who played Batman in the original TV series is already a legend and can almost certainly do no wrong (if proof was needed, I offer you this clip of what can only be described as a surf-off). But Adam West goes one step further and hits the top spot because his character in Family Guy is genuinely inexplicable. He’s the Mayor of Quahog and therefore nominally in charge; but instead of going down the megalomaniac route, West produces the dippiest, most surreal and probably most heavily doped up character on television. Plus, he’s 95% helium.

~

*Patent pending.

**30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, SNL and Entourage are excluded because, although they’re famous for exactly these kinds of shenangians, I haven’t quite got round to watching them yet…

Legen – Wait For It – Giggidy!

The current TV schedules mean that it’s a good time to talk about a character type that seems to be in endless supply at the moment: The Player.

"Eyyyy!"

“Eyyyy!”

Now obviously The Player is not a new invention – the Fonz could make girls appear with a simple ‘Eyyyy…’, Captain Kirk was a hit with women of all ages, races and species and, of course, Lord Flashheart stole his best friend’s bride while acting as best man at the wedding (complete with pocket canoe). But just at the moment barely a day goes by when you can’t switch on and find a comedy complete with The Player chasing the ladies: Tuesdays give us New Girl and the painfully metrosexual Schmidt, Thursday is a double bill of The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz and How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson, Tony DiNozzo pops up on NCIS several times a week, and every night, it seems, is Quagmire night (Family Guy).

 

Everyone's favourite Friend

Everyone’s favourite Friend

But what makes The Player interesting is not that he exists in so many forms, but rather that viewers seem to love him. Bearing in mind that The Player is a character who makes a life’s work of finding new ways to chat up, flirt with, entice, trick and ensnare women, it seems crazy that he should be popular, especially with female viewers – but he is. Take Joey Tribianni. He only ever had two things on his mind (the other being food) and was, not to put too fine a point on it, two eggplants short of a lasagne; yet he was an incredibly popular character, so much so that the Internet is still producing articles about how wonderful he is. And as for Barney Stinson, AKA The Barnacle, AKA way-past-borderline sex addict and least PC man ever to don a lobster bib in New York City: he has nearly four million likes on Facebook, his own real/fictional blog, several books, and a vast array of T-shirts and other apparel so that you too can totally suit up.

 

Howard Wolowitz's least horrifying shirt

“Howaaaard!”

Of course, not every Player is a popular Player: see for example Howard Wolowitz, the tiny Jewish science geek with the worryingly tight trousers. Far from being adored and admired, he’s the watchword for sleazy chat up lines and was recently described by the Radio Times as the “King of Creep”. Howard speaks, and every female part of me runs away to wither and die in a corner. So what makes Howard hideous and Barney awesome?

 

Awesome.

Awesome.

One obvious answer, albeit a worrying one, is that Barney is attractive, and can therefore get away with his awful behaviour. Maybe we just don’t notice the terrible things coming out of his mouth because we’re too busy looking at his angelic face and natty suit. The same applies to Kirk – beam me up, captain! – and DiNozzo – ahoy, sailor! – as well as to other well-groomed Players such as Grey’s Anatomy’s Mark Sloan, who came into the show sleeping with his best friend’s wife and who has nonetheless managed to steal it. Contrast Howard, whose absurd bowl haircut only seems to be emphasised by his atrocious taste in clothing, and Quagmire, who has one of the most inexplicable faces known to man or cartoon and has the dubious honour of being even more horrifying than Howard.

Dr Guy Valerie Secretan

“Rocket ma–a–an!”

But then there are exceptions. For example, Don Draper of Mad Men is quite the looker – again, note the snappy tailoring – but he’s also an awful human being (Sixties morality notwithstanding) and quite frankly I wouldn’t want anything to do with him. On the other hand, Green Wing’s Guy Secretan famously resembles a certain animated equine, and yet who would say no to a quick round of Guyball and an Elton John singalong with him? So perhaps the world isn’t quite as shallow as it sometimes seems.

Maybe, then, something else is at work here. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with whether a Player is actually any good at playing. You might think that a Player who doesn’t know how to play (what TV Tropes calls a ‘Casanova Wannabe’) might be less threatening, and that’s certainly the case for those inept Players like Guy and Schmidt – and, if Marshall’s arithmetic is accurate, Barney – who are actually pretty likeable. Meanwhile, Players with game are more, such as Don, Quagmire and Two and a Half Men’s Charlie Harper (who wouldn’t be a catch even if the actor who plays him hadn’t recently gone completely insane). Yet Joey, Kirk and DiNozzo are also pros at the dating game and fans love them to bits; and Howard, though generally appallingly bad at picking up women, remains objectionable.

Just... NO.

Just… NO.

Ultimately I think we judge fictional Players in the same way that we judge real people – the ones we like are the ones whose good points outweigh their faults, and the ones we shy away from are icky to the bone (no pun intended). Quagmire and Howard are one–trick ponies: all of their other characteristics pale into insignificance when compared to just how creepy they are (which is one of the reasons why Howard has become so vapid and pointless now that he’s hitched).

Schmidt happens.

Schmidt happens.

The good ones, on the other hand, have a bit more substance. Sure, Schmidt takes his shirt off a lot and makes so many slimy comments that his friends have instigated a Douchebag Jar – but he’s also generous and thoughtful (how many men do you know who’ve designed a girl her very own perfume with “base notes of cocoa because of your brownness and sea salt because it kind of sounds like ‘Cece’”?). Sure, Joey eats off the floor, but he’s a fiercely protective older brother who takes a cuddly penguin to bed. Sure, Guy keeps a league table of his female colleagues, but he cries when he finds out his best friend is dying. Sure, Kirk has slept with half of the known universe, but, hell, HE DRIVES A SPACESHIP.

Even Lord Flashheart’s canoe can’t compete with that.