Sep 13 2013

Why Does Everyone Like…The Big Bang Theory?

Published by at 12:00 pm under Columns,Television

big bang

Welcome to “Why Does Everyone Like…?” a new segment where I try to experience something massively popular in pop culture that I’m just not familiar with. Whether that means playing Candy Crush or reading 50 Shades of Gray (already did that one), I’ll try to “get into” something that everyone seems to love, despite any initial or ongoing objections to it I might have. You really can’t criticize something without experiencing it for yourself first, right?

The inaugural column here will focus on The Big Bang Theory, a hit so big for CBS it almost doesn’t even make sense. Over the years, the show has climbed the ratings ladder, recently topping out at a mammoth 19.3 million viewers with a crazy 6.1 in the 18-49 demographic. It’s literally the biggest show on TV, reality or otherwise, and I thought it would be a perfect jumping off point for this series.

Contrastingly however, I could have easily titled this article “Why Does Everyone Hate The Big Bang Theory?” In “my world,”  meaning the world of geeky video game and sci-fi loving internet users, the show is almost universally despised for many reasons. Some will say it’s lowbrow comedy, some say it’s offensive to nerds, some say it’s offensive to hot blond girls, some say it’s overhyped, some say it just isn’t remotely funny. Many say some combination of all of these. The Big Bang Theory, at least inmy circles, appears to be a show that it’s “cool to hate.”

I hate when things are “cool to hate,” as it’s about as hipster as you can get, but I wanted to see what sort of truth there was to these allegations. And contrastingly, I wanted to understand what the general public at large loved the show just so damn much.

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I’d never seen an episode before I started on this quest. Having the show playing on mute at the gym while I’m on the treadmill doesn’t count. I had a completely fresh look at it, other than the influence of everything good and bad I’d heard about the show previously.

To sum up the story, which is really easy to do, The Big Bang Theory stars Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons and Leonard and Sheldon, two nerdy physicists with sky-high IQs and a passion for anything nerds have ever liked through history, from Star Wars to Star Trek and all that lies in between. Their lives are altered when Penny (Kaley Cuoco), an attractive blonde, moves in next door. This delights Leonard and his friends Raj and Howard (Kunal Nayyar and Simon Heldberg), but has little affect on Sheldon, who sees her as more of an inconvenience than a potential mate.

The running joke of the show is that Sheldon doesn’t understand social relationships to the point of borderline autism. But it’s supposed to be “fun” autism, because this results in nearly all of the show’s best jokes as Sheldon attempts to become less Vulcan and more human from time to time. If you view him more as a cyborg learning how to love rather than someone with a diagnosable personality disorder, it makes things a lot more lighthearted. Meanwhile, Leonard has an eternal crush on Penny, even dating her briefly, while Howard hits on her and everything else that moves and Raj can’t even speak to a woman unless he’s drunk.

I understand why this show is supposed to offend nerds like me, but honestly, after a season and a half, I just can’t take it seriously enough to truly be wounded by its portrayal of “nerds like me.” The concept of the show is supposed to be that nerds are funny because well, they’re nerds, and that’s lame. The view for the general public is supposed to be through Penny’s eyes, a “normal” girl who is constantly bemused by all the geeky stuff these guys do. This does result in some of the show’s lamer laugh track jokes, like when the guys reveal their Friday night plans of playing “Klingon Boggle.” Doing nerdy stuff isn’t in and of itself funny, and that’s where the show can lose its way.

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But otherwise? I’ve actually found the show quite funny, which I suppose means I have to march down to Starfleet headquarters and turn in my nerd card. Sheldon in particular is the singular character that makes the show work, and I now understand why he’s a two time comedy Emmy winner. He’s so bizarre he’s not even a parody of a nerd, he’s just in his own little universe, like an alien visiting our planet and attempting to learn about its customs.

In what’s perhaps my favorite episode I’ve seen so far, Sheldon is horrified to learn that Penny’s bought him a Christmas present. “You haven’t given me a gift, you’ve given me an obligation!” he shrieks, and goes on to bemoan that now he has to go out and find a gift of comparable value and “level of perceived friendship.” He ends up accumulating a dozen different lotion and scented candle gift bags from Bath and Body Works, and decides he’ll give Penny the appropriately sized one once he learns what she’s gotten him, and will return the others.

It’s revealed that Penny has gotten him Leonard Nimoy’s signature on a used napkin (which also has his DNA, Sheldon realizes) after the Star Trek actor came into her restaurant. Sheldon is so overjoyed he blows a circuit, and stumbles into the room with every gift basket he’s bought, yelling that it’s still not enough. Eventually, he decides to give Penny the most precious Sheldon gift of all, a hug, something he’s never bestowed to anyone on the show to this point.

This episode was an example of the show combining nerd references with actual comedy and a bit of heart in a way that worked really, really well. Not every episode is this well structured, but when the writing and acting and story do all come together, it’s a genuinely funny show, at least to me.

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I still have four and a half more seasons to watch, and I’m hoping there are some changes as time goes on. Leonard is an alright straight man and nowhere nearly as annoying as say, How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby, but he’s a bit whiny and his storylines are only ever interesting because of Sheldon. Penny is a bit too reliant on skimpy outfits that feel like too-obvious viewer baiting, and she too needs more to do than have an endless parade of boyfriends and a will they/won’t they vibe with Leonard, though the two really don’t have chemistry. Raj is also not a good character, and the running joke of him being too scared to talk to women got old after two episodes, and definitely after thirty. Howard? Howard is perfect.

I like this show. No, it’s no Cheers or Seinfeld or Friends, but I understand its popularity. It’s accessible to the general public and funnier for reasons other than simply “nerds are being made fun of” as real-life nerds will have you believe. If any nerd, geek, dork or other such person is actually offended by this show, they may be taking themselves a bit too seriously.

I’m glad I discovered this show. No, it’s not the five course meal of Arrested Development in terms of intellectual comedy, but it’s a nice bag of chips when you get a craving for a bit of salt and grease.

There’s nothing wrong with light, relatively mindless comedy if the characters are likable and the scripts are good. And I really can’t argue with the amount I’ve laughed over the last few weeks here catching up on this show. Perhaps that makes me dumb, or The Big Bang Theory is actually pretty…good, and 19 million people are onto something.





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33 responses so far

  • JB

    I dont understand all the hate for this show either. I like it alot. Is it the greatest comedy of all time? No. But for a CBS sitcom there are alot of funny sweet moments to it.

  • Lyle Smith

    I don’t like it myself at all, but I can definitely see the appeal and also people like different things!

  • nickro

    Good article. I don’t really understand the hate for BBT but you’re right about it being mainly about hating for the sake of the fact that it popular. It really is the sitcom equivalent to a bag of chips.

  • Charlotte

    I agree with you, I actually quite enjoy this show. However, I did get a bit sick of it after a while, eventually they seemed to run out of ideas and every episode was the same with few funny jokes. I wish they could go back to their roots. I’ve never found it offensive, and Sheldon does work really well in the lead.

  • Filosoraptor

    I think it’s great that you start doing this segment, as I agree that there is a lot of undeserved hate for a lot of popular things coming from people that haven’t experienced it.

    I used to like The Big Bang Theory. A lot. For the exact reasons that you just mentioned. I hope you get to go through the next seasons, which is where the show lost me. In an attempt to develop the characters I think they lost some of the most important aspects that defined them. And while they changed the characters and expanded the cast the show really stayed the same and it got old (for me) shortly after that.

    Hope you get to do a follow up on this show to see what you think of it nowadays.

    Great article!

  • Ben

    Jim Parsons makes the show in my opinion. But lately I have found that they have just pushed Sheldon so far into the “Android” role that it has stopped being effective. That is just my opinion though.

    My favorite episode is when they are attempting to teach Sheldon to drive. It just reminded me of my sister who is incredibly intelligent. So much so, that common sense and instinct were at a disadvantage and she struggled with driving for the first 5 years of her having her license.

  • ryan

    I watched the show as it aired for the first season and a half. It came out during my Junior year of college. I enjoyed the first season because the show was a new idea and it was funny… for a while. It kind of got repetitive for me after the first season and I stopped watching. It also didn’t help that I went to Illinois Tech and I lived the life.

  • Frank

    I have to admit, the first couple seasons weren’t half bad. It was never at the top of the comedic ladder, certainly, but it was passable entertainment. As time went on though, I’d have to agree with Charlotte and say they just ran out of ideas. The show slowly begins to fall back on lazy comedy; Sheldon misunderstands some sort of social convention, acts as we would expect, we all have a good laugh. The writers go so long without adding dimensions to the characters and end up painting themselves into the Home Improvement corner where you are just throwing wacky scenarios at established characters because you have nowhere to go. You may call it the “Tim Taylor Coefficient” (TM)

  • I dont like it

    People like big bang theory because if they laugh at people saying “smart” things they can pat themselves on the back for “intelligent” humor.

  • E. Lee Zimmerman

    Great article. I’m not really what you would call a ‘fan’ of the show, but I think it’s passable entertainment for a somewhat non-traditional half-hour kinda/sorta sitcom. My wife LOVES it. Me, I get jazzed about every third episode (or so), but otherwise it’s passable. It’s a great ensemble formula show, and, on that front, I give it a polite nod. If I miss it? No big deal.

    Dare I say the real reason fanboys watch is for Kaley Cuoco?

  • Syden

    It’s not a laugh track actually the show is filmed in front of a live studio audience. It sounds like it sometimes but if you watch the blooper reels you can see the audience and listen to them laugh when the actors screw up. To me this actually made the show better.

  • Chris

    I too have had an on again off again relationship with the show. Hooked me at the beginning, but lost me after a few seasons, got me back after I had taken a long break.

    As to it’s popularity, what currently running sitcom is there to compare it too? There is nothing out there that portrays men in a favourable light. This comes the closest.

    Sure the guys are socially inept, but they are intelligent, have integrity, are kind and thoughtful. I find it refreshing to watch compared to the usual drivel pushed out as sitcoms, ie King of Queens, Mike & Molly etcetera.

    Then again, I don’t watch much mainstream tv, so maybe I’ve been missing something.

  • Tenacious EJ

    I love the show, but alternatively, I disliked it when it first came out. I refused to watch it until it had been on for about 2 1/2 seasons and heard my wife watching it while working in the kitchens. I think its gotten much better over time. Also, how can you hate Raj? He steals the show, if you ask me, though the later introduction of other characters is nice as well. Its a comedy show, that actually has nerd influence and introduces the masses to genuine scientific discussions and theories. But most of all, it speaks to everyone out there that struggled to talk to girls, be accepted, or fly their freak flag just because they liked comics or Star Trek. Its full of pop culture references, which I personally love, and quite honestly I’ve been waiting for new episodes since summer began.

  • kasper

    I have probably seen just about every episode of this show because it is perfect for what it is….

    a show that is always on some channel, relatively funny, and not deep at all. This is a great show to have on while you are doing something else. I will usually laugh a few times an episode, but I never have to worry about whether I missed something (not like, Community, where there are so many in-jokes and references you are really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t pay attention).

    It is pretty convenient to know that when I come home I can quickly throw on BBT while making dinner without having to search through the entire guide. I am never going to rush home to catch this show, but it is an enjoyable distraction.

  • http://nope hallamq

    An alright show and you nailed it in the head about what’s the best it has to offer with the Christmas present storyline. I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed as the seasons keep going, because while Sheldon remains Sheldon, the other characters lose whatever charm they had. Penny becomes a dumb, poor and drunk punching bad. Leonard is given too many (and too hot) love interests to keep things happening on the show and becomes an unrealistic character (the Seinfeld effect), because eventhough he gets plenty of “helplessly lame” lines, he also gets a lot of ass. And the other characters do make the show colorful, but none of them can carry an episode. I got tired of it, but never thought it was a bad show.

  • IngridToday

    Women (it’s generally women) wearing skimpy clothes always bothered me, not the fact it’s sad they feel they need to half dress them in order for audience to want to watch them, but it’s the fact the male characters are usually in pants and sometimes a long sleeve shirt.
    All I can think is that one person is very cold or the other characters are very hot. You can’t have that much difference in appeal without someone being uncomfortable.
    Like the picture posted of all the guys wearing suits and she’s wearing a black see through shirt (I think I can her black bra) and dress booty shorts. Either the guys feel a little wear with that many lays or she’s cold with a thin see through shirt and essentially no pants.

  • Chris

    The episode you reference with the Nimoy napkin is still on our DVR. I rewatch that scene every so often. It’s pure comedy gold for all the reasons you state. I love the show too. And when uber nerd Wil Wheaton blesses our show, it’s cool.

  • Rodolfo

    I don’t understand the hate to the show, but I don’t understand also all the praise and love. It is just an OK show, there are better comedies on TV.
    I dislike the cliche representation of nerds, the laughing on nerds rather than with them, especially in the erlier seasons (and unlike The IT Crowd where we laugh with the geeks).
    I think that the latests seasons rely too much on the ackward Sheldon, borderline ridicule, and to a point that it is not unexpected or funny as it used to be.
    The addition of the other girls, nevertheless, gave the show some fresh air.

  • David R

    I’ve only seen a few episodes, and I couldn’t tell you what season they were from, but in general it seemed pretty lukewarm to me. The nerd references came off to me like the sort of things you could pull off Wikipedia, not necessarily ones born from a deep understanding of the material. I mean, I’m sure that many of the folks on the show ARE fans of the stuff they’re talking about, but it doesn’t ring sincerely to me onscreen.

    Plus, although there’s some talent involved in the acting department, the show just isn’t all that funny to me. Again, based on what I’ve seen. It has that same “desperate for a laugh” tone that a lot of sitcoms have that I really struggle to enjoy.

    I’d still watch it over Two and a Half Men, though.

  • Rob J

    I enjoy watching it when I finish my other weekly airing comedy shows and need something to watch, it can be good fun but it also has it’s problems that many in the comments have already mentioned. Namely that 6 seasons later, there hasn’t been a huge amount of character development with with the exception of 2 out of 5 of the shows main characters and the show basically relies on the same comedy for 6 years but hell, it is still good for a laugh a couple of times an episode even if I won’t be roaring laughing and endlessly quoting lines with my friends.

    I’d say its biggest flaw by far is that the “Sheldon giving Christmas gifts” episode is probably the best of the entire series and they haven’t really done anything like it since which is a true shame. The only other similar moments they attempted to add a bit of heart to the show worked on the relationships between a couple of the characters but since as you say, the characters lack a certain capability to be relatable at times, they never worked very well or had any lasting appeal.

    Finally, I stopped watching for a while in season 6 because the writers pulled the greatest dick move I have ever seen on television, they ruined another show.

    To elaborate, there is an episode in season six where Leonard and Sheldon are fighting for the entire episode and each threaten to move out because Sheldon spoilers the ending to the sixth Harry Potter book for Leonard. This was pretty funny but should not have been a problem for Leonard because the ending of Harry Potter 6 is a widely known pop culture fact that practically every knew at the time of the books release, it’s like the way everyone knows Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

    Anyway, at the end of the episode, the two friends make up and Sheldon asks Leonard if he wants to catch up on the latest Walking Dead episode, Leonard agrees then Sheldon, having learned nothing, promptly gives away a certain character death from an early season 3 episode which had only aired 3-4 months previously.

    For everyone who wasn’t caught up with the Walking Dead including myself, that was a massive kick in the balls and complete dick move and considering the size of the shows ratings, probably gets some kind of spoiler world record.

  • Trista

    Meh. My husband Loooves this show but I just can’t seem to get into it. “Oooh, let’s name-drop some obscure geek reference, that dumb audience will lap it up!” That’s not how you craft a good punchline, it’s just lazy.

  • MegaSolipsist

    I saw a couple of episodes and I honestly couldn’t stand it. The jokes are terrible, it’s Lowest Common Denominator humour at its worst and it’s just designed so that people can feel like they’re watching ‘intelligent humour’.
    Just awful.

  • Mando

    I personally don’t like it due to having met classmates with many of the same characteristics as the actors on the show. I just don’t find it funny when I went through four years of spending time with people who may not be autistic, but think of themselves as much more intelligent than anyone else.

  • Kong1965

    Swear I’m not trolling. Get rid of Sheldon, and the show might actually be funny. It has it’s moments, but the Sheldon character seems like Larry David if he was obsessed with science instead of well… Larry David. I guess that’s the whole thing. Any show where the primary character makes sure that everything that happens is about their ego in the most obnoxious way possible and then simply tries to make you squirm for nervous laughter, gets boring after awhile. It got old with Larry on Curb, it got old with Michael Scott on The Office, and it got old really fast on this show. Funny moments? Sure. Grinding most of the time. Definitely.

    Flame away.

  • bowski

    I just think the show is intellectually insulting to the point where it hurts. It’s just someone saying something weird and wildly exaggerated – wheter it’s Sheldon saying science stuff, the others saying nerd stuff or Penny saying girl stuff – until everyone is just a caricature. There are no people in this show, no characters.
    And no, writing the occasional ‘sweet’ episode,
    which is true, if the writers want to they can write actual human interactions (I think that just makes it worse),
    isn’t enough to build real characters.
    So they have these stupid setups of weird behaviour and instead of it just being there, being mildly funny maybe, they have to point it out every single time. They ride their jokes into the ground so quick it’s fascinating. Howard’s mother is screaming at him from the other room for over a minute and the audience is constantly losing their shit like it’s coming out of nowhere? Raj looking at a girl who just talked to him stupidly because he can’t talk to girl? How many times is that supposed to be funny?
    As you can see, I’m quite passionate about my hatred of this show and I could go on for hours. I’m a “let people like what they like/opinions are opinions” kind of guy usually, but when it comes to this show, oh god. Maybe it’s because so many people think it’s funny where I just see this pile of crap a la Stan on South Park, or maybe it’s because there is actually some potential here to make it a good show – I like the actors and like I said there are some occasionally really good moments – or maybe it’s just because here in Germany it’s on TV for like 2 hours a day, every day, but goddammit if you think this show is superfunnyOMG we can’t ever be friends.

  • uriel

    All I can say about this show is that it’s one of the series that have started to put me off sitcoms, the other being How I Met Your Mother. (My one exception, however, is Coupling.) It’s just that from watching so many non-comedy shows, I grew to expect too much of every series I watch when it comes to character development or plot advancement, and I find that both shows suck at either of them.

  • jake

    If this show were a cartoon with everything else the exact same, I don’t think it would get nearly as much (or any) hate. I think it’s too close for comfort for some people and they don’t want to laugh at their own insecurities.

    To me the characters all represent various stages of social(ly awkward) development-
    Sheldon: is the child that has no filter, fear or social understanding
    Raj: has the fear and over-filters himself out of lack of understanding
    Howard: isn’t fearful or filtered, because he’s over compensating for his lack of understanding
    Leonard: is the emotionally mature, filtered, humble, and patient result of what the rest (whether or not they’d own up to it) aspire to- but he still has some growing up to do, as do we all.

  • http://3rdworldgeeks.com/2013/09/10/defending-the-big-bang-theory/ Fiefo

    I don’t think it’s a series that makes fun of nerds and geeks. I’ve always thought of The Big Bang Theory as a sort of parody of geek culture in general. The characters are pretty much caricatures of nerd/geek stereotypes so I find it hard to take seriously. It just magnifies it to the point of ridiculousness.

    I think it’s kind of like “This Is Spinal Tap.” Popular musicians like Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler and Eddie Van Halen just couldn’t see why people thought the movie was funny because it hit too close to home for them.

  • LikeYouButBetter

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImxoW9jYY8o
    This video sums it up perfectly.
    Really, this show is beyond terrible.

  • Baelzar

    To me, it committed the cardinal sin – it wasn’t funny enough. There is so much entertainment out there now…it doesn’t just have to win it’s time slot, it has to win vs. Vine and YouTube and Facebook and the IT Crowd and Spaced and anything else I can download or watch at that moment.

  • MegaSolipsist

    I have no idea why everybody likes it. To me it is just pandering to the lowest common denominator humour and pretending to be nerdy because that’s fashionable these days, and because it makes idiots feel smart when they watch it (as they get told when to laugh).
    Maybe I’m being harsh, but that’s my opinion on it.

  • LV

    I think the big problem is that people seem to be under the impression that the writers are “trying too hard to make it nerdy/clever”. Whereas actually, surely it’s the other way around? Of course the humour is aimed at those with only about a high-school knowledge of science – that’s the majority of its television audience. Like the author of this article said, I think people take it all too seriously.

  • James

    The show doesn’t work, at all, for my wife and I. We both have PhDs and are quite nerdy. It isn’t that the show is “offensive” to nerds, its more like its taking some of our favorite nerdisms and exploiting them for crappy jokes. It is reducing them to cliches, wearing them out, its disgusting.

    The joke you give as an example:

    ““You haven’t given me a gift, you’ve given me an obligation!” he shrieks

    This is just way too predictable to follow with a laugh-track. Sheldon’s character just doesn’t work in a sitcom with a cheesy laugh track. If you want to see this type of character done correctly watch Abed on Community, or Maurice on The IT Crowd.

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