Thursday, March 09, 2017

Thinking Too Hard About the Big Bang Theory


The Big Bang Theory has been on for 10 years now, and has spent the last 5 being the #1 rated scripted show on network television, which doesn't mean what it used to mean, but is still something.

Despite (or, as this discussion may demonstrate, because of) being a bit nerdy like the main characters, I've never been much of a fan. I won't leave the room if it's on, but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it.

But why? It's a show about people somewhat similar to me (though I would much sooner spend a weekend on a retreat or watching basketball than at Comic-con) with attractive wives and girlfriends, successful careers, and quality friendships, which has top-level resources devoted to it (this isn't a "Christian" movie). What's not to like?

Then, I saw this video:


Now, I've written before about how, for a piece of entertainment like The Big Bang Theory, what is being sold isn't so much the show as an artifact of artistic achievement, but the experience of watching the show. So, the fact that there's not really a well-crafted "joke" here to go with the laugh track does not, in itself, convict the show.

But it does raise the question of what is being sold here.

And the conclusion I come to, is that the experience is of laughing at these characters, not with them, and by extension, me and other "nerdy" people.

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Let's stipulate that the Big Bang Theory does not represent some crowning pinnacle of comedic or dramatic achievement, but just something that people enjoy the company of for a half hour a week.

Now, for a show to work this way does not require the characters to be people one would either admire or choose to hang out with in real life. The four Seinfeld characters were, of course famous for their antisocial behavior. All six Friends had traits that would be grating from a real-life friend. The Crane brothers would be insufferable for longer than a half hour. And so on...

And I think the pattern holds true for The Big Bang Theory. The characters aren't presented as malevolent, but they are not presented as particularly likable, either. We root for them, but I don't think we are supposed to want to hang out with them.

Penny is our audience-surrogate. She started the series as their neighbor, and now is married to Leonard, the least nerdy of the bunch. She rolls her eyes with us as the guys nerd out. She is also unrealistically attractive for someone who would spend any time with this group.

A typical episode's "A" plot these days will involve Leonard committing some obvious relationship blunder that gets Penny angry at him (say, not calling when he was going to be late or changing plans without consulting her first). At first Leonard will be indignant at how this innocuous action (or inaction) could possibly provoke this type of response, but by the final act, he has recognized his error, made some grand gesture to atone, and pledges not to repeat the error.

So, the non-nerdy fans get to feel superior to the nerds, who might be book-smart but are oblivious as far as relationships go, plus we're way hotter than they are. And the nerds are pacified because Leonard gets to keep his hot wife/girlfriend, even if it comes at the cost of his personality being gradually ground down.

A similar thing happens with the sequence above. Non-nerds (and milder nerds like me) laugh that the nerds care about all this stuff. Nerds are (supposed to be) thrilled to see someone who shares their interests represented in a sympathetic manner on a highly rated network television show.

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The made me recall the Twitter fight between Scott Alexander and Freddie (which I can't find right now), which started with Freddie asserting that the commercial success of Star Wars proves that nerds aren't oppressed. Alexander responded that the prominence of blacks in entertainment didn't prove that blacks weren't oppressed, which Freddie uncharacteristically took as a cue to mock the idea that anyone would compare the experience of nerds to the experience of blacks, ending any productive conversation.

The point wasn't that the experience of nerds is in any way analogous to that of blacks, but simply that this was a bad way to demonstrate it. (And I probably wouldn't choose the word "oppressed" to describe the experience of nerds).

The fact that Hollywood is willing to portray things we like and take our money doesn't mean they respect us, any more than copying our homework in high school was a demonstration of social esteem.  Yes, Hollywood devotes a lot of resources to comic book and Sci-Fi movies, but as the Oscars demonstrated, this isn't really what they respect. They'll happily cash the checks and use them to make dramas celebrating themselves.

With The Big Bang Theory, I feel like I'm being made fun of, and also expected to be thankful for the privilege.

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Of course, this made me wonder how other groups feel. Shows like Will & Grace and Modern Family are often praised for their positive portrayal of gay characters, to the point where some credited these shows with changing their position on same sex marriage.

But are/were they really so great? Weren't the portrayals a bit stereotypical? And weren't we invited to laugh at their fussiness?

Maybe some gay people did think so, but were afraid to make much noise about it since it was so much better than what came before, and were thankful for the progress.

And maybe that would be a good attitude for me to cultivate as well.

So I'll muster one cheer for The Big Bang Theory.



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