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EDITORIAL BY DAVE BAKER.
Big Bang Theory is one of the worst shows on television and let me tell you why. The show isn’t about celebrating geek culture or placing nerds in the spotlight, it’s about putting a bunch of nerdy characters on display and then constructing jokes around how inept or socially incapable they are. The show is the epitome of laughing at someone as opposed to laughing with someone.
Let’s do a compare and contrast, shall we? Take two shows both featuring a rag tag group of misfits who theoretically solve problems, grow as people, and have complex relationships along the way– Community and Big Bang Theory. Each show has an odd person who struggles to connect to those around him and has signs that he may or may not be on the spectrum.
Big Bang Theory has Sheldon and Community has Abed. Sheldon doesn’t connect with people because he’s… well, he’s rude and obsessed with science and Star Trek. The show often uses these qualities as a punchline. Obviously the writers are utilizing the abrasive side of his character to instigate drama, build tension, and point out Sheldon’s flaws. 9 times out of 10, a Big Bang Theory punchline is just Sheldon making a declarative statement.
On Community, Abed is also socially inept or challenged but in his environment he finds general acceptance with those around him. Obsessed with movies, Abed uses his lore of film to navigate his way through the many problems he finds himself confronted with. We’re never laughing at the character Abed, we’re laughing at the situation he’s in and how he gets out of it. We’re not laughing at him as a person. And that’s where there’s a distinct line to be drawn in the sand and it’s one we should take notice of.
Big Bang Theory has done geeks everywhere a disservice. It gives characters interests which have been traditionally viewed as “geeky” and then makes those interests the butt of the joke, often using the characters’ interests, talents, and the kind of work they do as punchlines. This joke writing structure implicitly says, “There’s something to be made fun of here.” The show claims to be about normalizing nerd culture, however, what they’re doing more of is exploiting it to people who aren’t nerds. In short, it’s a minstrel show. A carnival barker routine if you like but instead of The Bearded Lady it’s a dude in a Planet of the Apes costume saying, “Live long and prosper,” while spastically waving a light saber.
Community has an eclectic group of characters from all walks of life. They get into adventures, get out of scrapes, and even have whole episodes that are themed around nerd-y interests, which is a much more organic and respectful way to portray nerds and norms coming together. If you’re putting nerd characters into a G.I. Joe themed episode or a horror movie, the audience members who aren’t necessarily into those things will be exposed to them and the enclaves of nerds watching will find themselves represented on screen.
Building a TV show isn’t easy. However, in my opinion, building a TV show better than Big Bang Theory is.
Which brings us to the question, why oh why is it so successful? Why do people continue to watch it? Take into account who the show is aimed at. It’s produced for middle America, aimed at people who have no interest in physics, Star Trek, or science in general. Nor is it concerned with handling the portrayal of people with disabilities in a sensitive manner. The Big Bang Theory demystifies nerd culture and even “nerdy” i.e. mentally challenging pursuits. It makes nerd culture or rather cultures appear to the masses as something that can be appropriated and had by reducing it all to something stereotypical and worthy of being snickered at.
We can do better, can’t we?
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