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.
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.
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.
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.