A friend recently sent me The Big Bang Theory (BBT), as a surprise treat. I was finishing up a big project, and, at the end of a long day, a sitcom seemed like just the thing for unwinding. Episode One: our two heroes, theoretical physicists Sheldon and Leonard, enter a sperm bank, but they flee before making a deposit. The lighting is so bright, the laugh track so loud, the sperm jokes so tired. Why did my friend send me a mass show, when she knows that I am a niche viewer?! Having watched 30 Rock (until it started to suck), The Office (UK version), and Sponge Bob Square Pants (until creator Steve Hillenberg left), how could I go back to such seemingly conventional comedy?
On the other hand, Battlestar Galactica was over, there was no new Trek on the horizon (What rebooted Star Trek movie? J.J. Abrams, you are dead to me!), and I hadn’t started watching the new Dr. Who yet. Maybe it was time to leave the safe haven of sci-fi niche nerdom and dip my toe into a mass program. BBT had just won a People’s Choice award. Could all the people be wrong all the time? I’d give it a chance. I kept watching and was soon delighted to see the boys play Klingon Boggle, order the time machine from The Time Machine on eBay, and discuss “the problem with teleportation.” In one episode, there was a double-cameo: Summer Glau and Nobel Prize winning physicist George Smoot. Whammo! This show was nerdtastic. I even accidentally spotted a spoiler from season 3: Will Wheaton would emerge as Sheldon’s nemesis! Though touted as “from the creator of Two and a Half Men [Chuck Lorre],” this show was not letting me down, and it didn’t really seem so “mass” after all. This was a conventionally shot and structured (A-story, B-story, tidy resolutions, etc.) show that was apparently pitched to people who usually gravitate to the Sci-Fi Channel. (What the hell does “SyFy” mean? SyFy, you are dead to me!) Except then the show did let me down.
I should back up. Season 1 was a slow build. I smiled a lot, but rarely laughed aloud, and the premise that Leonard was in love with the hot girl living in the apartment across the hallway was pretty thin. Hot girl’s lines were mostly limited to “huh?” Horny friend Howard’s attempts to score by letting chicks drive the Mars Rover via remote control were maybe a little funny, but not really. Then, season two turned hilarious. The writing got tighter, hot girl Penny managed more resourceful retorts, peripheral characters at the comic book shop emerged (soft-spoken Stuart, non-speaking Captain Sweatpants), and sci-fi references got funnier and funnier. Leonard Nimoy came up a lot.
Then, season 3. Penny and Leonard become a couple, but Penny doesn’t even know who Stan Lee and Adam West are. Sheldon is perplexed and asks, “what do you talk about after coitus?” It’s a good question. And what about before coitus? The most distressing moment comes when Leonard and Penny have a fight because she believes in psychics, and he says it’s all hokum. Leonard asks Howard how he can stay with someone whose beliefs violate all that he stands for. Howard says he can stand by his principles and break up, but his new girlfriend will be . . . his hand. Ow. So Leonard stays with Penny.
We soon learn that Penny doesn’t even count Klingon as a legitimate foreign language. To top it all off, Will Wheaton’s acting has not only not improved since his ST:TNG days, it has gotten worse. But the biggest problem is that by the end of season 3 it is clear that the show sees women strictly as sex objects. And I use this dated language quite deliberately. When a show gets this misogynist, it’s time to whip out the Women’s Lib. The Sheldon character remains brilliantly conceived and executed, with not a little queer subtext, but, still, this really is a show “from the creator of Two and a Half Men.”
I thought BBT was a niche show disguised as a mass show, but it was just the reverse, and I do think this raises several interesting questions. As media scholars, we often seize upon “complex” dramas, taking them as emblematic of post-network possibilities, but what role will the three-camera sitcom—rumors of the death of which have clearly been exaggerated—play in the post-network era? Why did CBS create a show that pretended to target a geek demographic, when it was really looking for lads all along? Is BBT laughing with or at nerds? I think it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too. And, finally, is it really beyond the networks’ ken to imagine a funny show about nerds in which women are not short-changed? If progressive (or even slightly interesting) gender politics are only viable in the world of niche programming, and if the decidedly niche Comedy Channel is determined to pitch its programming to young males, where does this leave women in TV comedies? Screw TV. I’m rooting for Felicia Day, on the Internet. While The Guild is not Trek-centric, I suspect that all the central characters on the show, male and female, would be comfortable with the notion that Klingon is a legitimate foreign language. Kaplah!