Last night, Jim Parsons took home an Emmy for his role in The Big Bang Theory. The Internet being what it is, expect a lot of whining about that. But while Parsons shouldn’t be begrudged his award, for reasons we’ll get into, The Big Bang Theory, as a show, is loathed by real nerds, and really should be loathed by anybody who cares about not being condescended to.
Instant Show, Just Add Premise
The most basic problem with The Big Bang Theory, both in terms of being genuinely funny and in terms of the world it pretends to portray, is that it’s generic. The show is allegedly set at CalTech, and its four characters are supposedly scientists, but it’s created by Chuck Lorre, who you might remember as the guy who picks fights with Charlie Sheen. Lorre isn’t a scientist, to say the least, but he is a purveyor of formulas.
And therein lies the problem: The Big Bang Theory could take place anywhere, with the characters doing anything and having any interest. You wouldn’t even need to change the jokes beyond a few words. Take, for example, two characters, Leonard and Leslie, breaking up over a scientific dispute. It could just as easily be a premise revolving around sports teams, and, in fact, that’s entirely how the episode is written; the science itself is irrelevant, one side is Team String Theory and one side is Team Quantum.
It’s not that The Big Bang Theory needs to be Nova with jokes, it’s simply that the premise is so fundamentally unnecessary to the actual plot and characters, that you wonder why they bothered. And speaking of the characters…
Fake Geek Cast
Parsons actually deserves his award, I think, because he’s had to try and work out a way to deliver the same basic joke for more than a hundred episodes without it going stale or making us worried he’s a serial killer. The show’s been accused of mocking autistics, but really, Parsons can only do so much with his material.
The show gives its cast, and it must be said it’s brought on some pretty experienced journeyman actors, nothing to work with, and what’s irritating is how fundamentally uninterested it is in changing that. This is a show so concerned with getting its depiction of a subculture right, the nerdy interests of its main characters are quite literally for sale. The show’s writers don’t know enough, or care enough, to make a joke feel real. Futurama mocks nerds all the time, but it earns it because it’s pretty incisively observed: Their Star Trek episode is full of hilarious in-jokes only a hardcore Trekkie would get, but the greatest Star Trek fan of all time in that episode is an unemployed virgin who lives with his mom.
Is it a stereotype? Sure. But the show earns it because it’s clearly written by people who have been to the conventions, who have spent far too much time obsessing over the show, and who one day realized they were too obsessed and let it go. The message isn’t “Ha! Look at the loser!” but is instead “There but for the grace of God.”
Getting It Right
One can make a fairly valid argument that the show isn’t aimed at nerds, but rather at that mythical creature, The Average Television Viewer, which is fair as far as it goes. But for those willing to defend the show, I’d simply ask this: If the writers don’t care, and think you won’t notice… what does that imply that they think about their audience?