When it comes to sitcoms in our household, the line of demarcation between myself and my wife couldn’t be clearer. She’s a fan of traditional laugh track sitcoms like Friends, while I’m partial to the one-camera, laugh track-free setups of Arrested Development, The Office and 30 Rock. Obviously, I have better taste (no, people who read this and are friends with both of us on Facebook, you do NOT need to report this statement to her), but comedy is very much a matter of personal taste. You like what you like, and you can’t be forced into thinking something is funny when it doesn’t strike you as such.
The only crossovers we’ve had between our preferences are Scrubs (which she ended up liking, mostly for the physical comedy) and The Big Bang Theory. Of course, Big Bang Theory is basically geek Friends, so it’s of little surprise that there’s something for both of us here.
Part of the instant success of BBT is in the timing. We’ve crossed some sort of critical threshold that separated geek culture being a fringe activity and that of it being accepted by a majority share of the youth and younger adult population. People get these jokes because most of us are geeks, in one way or another — book geeks, movie geeks, gaming geeks, pop culture geeks. Big Bang Theory shifted the focus of most sitcoms from work or family to geek culture, and that not only was refreshing, but relevant.
It’s not to say that BBT is that daring with the traditional sitcom format, oh no. It’s all about five friends who end up spending a ton of time together despite holding down full-time jobs, and who are unattached and pause appropriately for laugh track cues. The format isn’t different, but the focus is. In this case, four of the five friends are genius-level scientists who work at CalTech and wallow in all things nerdy on their time off. The fifth friend is a buxom babe who moves in down the hall and becomes their link to the “normal” world, whatever that may be.
Leonard (Johnny Galecki, Christmas Vacation) is probably the most well-balanced of the nerd squad, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune to geeking out over games and comics like the rest. The Ross-and-Rachel unrequited romance of the series is with his neighbor Penny (Kaley Cuoco, Virtuosity), which is a topic that was tired and sadly stereotypical by the time the pilot episode ended. Seriously, do we need to perpetuate the whole “nerdy geek gamer has superhot friend who eventually falls in love with him” motif we’ve seen in every webcomic and far too many movies to boot?
Anyway, rounding out the cast is Sheldon (Jim Parsons, Garden State), Leonard’s Asperger Syndrome roommate; Howard (Simon Helberg, Old School), a sex-crazed engineer; and Raj (Kunal Nayyar, S.C.I.E.N.C.E.), the token minority.
There’s a lot to like about BBT, but a few things hold it back from the rave reviews its received from other sources. The first problem is that the only truly interesting characters are Leonard and Sheldon. Howard and Raj are mostly there to hit their one-note character traits (Howard has an overbearing mother and hits on all the girls without success, while Raj can’t speak in front of women and… well, he sits on the couch a lot). Seriously, who’s bright idea was it to have a character who is mostly unable to talk when one of the five main cast members is in the room?
Penny is another problem, because she’s not that good of an actress. Sure, she looks good on the eyes, but I fear that’s gotten her more leeway from critics who overlook how badly she telegraphs half of her lines like she’s a beginning theater student. Sometimes she slips into a believable personality, but I’m not a fan of her. To make matters worse, the show’s writers seem to have no constant idea of what to do with her. Is she an outsider who is fighting to be accepted by the group? Is she an antagonist for Sheldon? Is she just there to be a sexpot? Is she a romantic interest? Is she one of the group but present only to make the geeks seem more normal? From episode to episode, the show can’t seem to figure this out.
Perhaps I’m too harsh on those three, as they do have their moments and I certainly don’t hate them. Happily, I don’t feel as conflicted with Leonard and Sheldon, who are both superb in their roles. Leonard isn’t purely a straight man — his science nerd side comes through quite often, and he isn’t afraid to be passive-aggressively snarky to his friends. He’s simply likable, especially since he’s such a short guy compared to the rest of the cast.
Sheldon, on the other hand, is anything but likable in the conventional sense. If I knew a guy like this in real life, I’d be tempted to wing him out of the window after a couple of minutes, so fortunately for him, he’s on the other side of a glass screen. Sheldon is a melting pot of anxieties, OCD, extreme logic and social inadequacy. He’s a genius who isn’t constrained by social mores and a conscience, but instead is purely selfish and immodest to the point of self-mockery. A bulk of the humor of the show comes from his dominating personality (he has to have everything his way or else he pitches a fit, so his friends usually let him) contrasted against his almost helpless childish nature (he can’t drive, can’t fend for himself when alone, and has no idea what to do with human relationships). He is, for all intents and purposes, an alien in the middle of a human cast, a Mr. Spock (who he so admires) trying to logically analyze the events around him.
I think he’s awesome.
Moving on from the characters, what overcomes the traditional sitcom format and setup is the treatment of geek and nerd culture. BBT’s approach isn’t to laugh at the nerds as if the audience is comprised of outsiders, but to assume that everyone watching is — in some way — a geek, and most likely to relate to and get many of the references and jokes in each episode. So characters are constantly arguing comic books, quoting Star Trek, watching Battlestar Galactica, spouting high-concept science, playing Rock Band, getting addicted to MMORPGs, attending Comic-Con, obsessing over their cosplay outfits, and using the internet for various nefarious purposes (usually involving robots). There’s a little something for everyone, really, and even Penny brings her own worldly humor to the mix. You either get the jokes or you don’t, but the show doesn’t usually stoop to explaining them. I appreciate the lack of condescension here.
In short, if you don’t like The Big Bang Theory, then Sheldon has just one word for you:
Leonard: I just know that moving all day can be stressful and I just thought that good neighbors and some Indian food might be just what you need… plus, curry is a natural laxative and I don’t need to tell you that a clean colon is one less thing to worry about.
Sheldon: Oh, well, this would be one of those circumstances that people unfamiliar with the law of large numbers would call a coincidence.
Leonard: [discussing Sheldon’s work] At least I didn’t have to invent 26 dimensions to get the math to work.
Sheldon: I didn’t invent them. They’re there.
Leonard: Yeah? In what universe?
Sheldon: In all of them, that’s the point!
Howard Wolowitz: If it’s “creepy” to use the Internet, military satellites, and robot aircraft to find a house full of gorgeous young models so I can drop in on them unexpected, then FINE, I’m “creepy”.
Sheldon: [to engineers] Hello, Oompa Loompas of science!
Sheldon: I’m polymerized tree sap and you’re an inorganic adhesive, so whatever verbal projectile you launch in my direction is reflected off of me, returns to its original trajectory and adheres to you.
Raj: I don’t like bugs, okay? They freak me out.
Sheldon: Interesting. You’re afraid of insects and women. Ladybugs must render you catatonic.
Sheldon: I made tea.
Leonard: I don’t want tea.
Sheldon: I didn’t make tea for you. This is my tea.
Leonard: Then why are you telling me?
Sheldon: It’s a conversation starter.
Leonard: That’s a lousy conversation starter.
Sheldon: Oh, is it? We’re conversing. Checkmate.
Penny: I give up. He’s impossible!
Sheldon: I can’t be impossible; I exist! I think what you meant to say is, ‘I give up; he’s improbable’.
Sheldon: Good Morning your honor, Dr. Sheldon Cooper appearing in pro se – that is to say representing himself.
Judge: I know what it means, I went to law school.
Sheldon: Yet you wound up in traffic court.
Penny: So what do you say Sheldon, are we your X-men?
Sheldon: No, the X-men were named for the X in Charles Xavier. Since I am Sheldon Cooper, you will be, my C-men.
Penny: Wait, wait, Sheldon come back, you forgot something.
Penny: This plasma grenade… HA look, it’s raining YOU!
Leonard: They’re gonna get beaten up at that club.
Penny: They’re gonna get beaten up at Walgreens.
Sheldon: Everyone at the university knows I eat breakfast at 8:00 and move my bowels at 8:20.
Leonard: Yes, how did we live before Twitter?