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The Big Bang Theory

The American sit-com The Big Bang Theory1 is not the show many people seem to think it is. On the face of it, it seems to be a mainstream comedy aimed at geeks, and given that shows such as Spaced, Futurama and The IT Crowd exist, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Big Bang Theory is of the same ilk.

It isn’t, and this is why it confuses nerds. Though the show is about a small band of science geniuses who are heavily into super-heroes, Star Trek2, table top gaming and all the other sort of things one can find at a comic-book store, this is not a show about any of those things. Despite the WhiteBoards covered in equations and an apartment covered in all sorts of merchandise, this is a sit-com about socially awkward (but clearly intelligent) men not having the first clue when it comes to relationships.

Almost3 all of the characters have critical social flaws and weaknesses, and though some are more self aware than others, this is a romantic comedy first and self-referential treat for the easily obsessed second. Take, for example, Penny4, who is neither a science nerd or sci-fi geek and seems to be the most switched on character on first glance. However, she’s a huge mess, not knowing exactly what she wants (or needs) from relationships or indeed, life in general. All the characters are equally flawed, and these flaws are large and cartoonish, because it’s a mainstream sit-com and you have to squeeze in the gags somehow.

As cool as this prop is, the TARDIS is still better.

The main plot of each 22-minute episode is almost always about one character being unable to communicate their emotions to another character. Often one of these characters is Sheldon5, who is most obviously flawed character, being a super-genius with a laundry list of disorders and obsessions. However, every person in this drama has problems, and these are mined for comedy. The Big Bang Theory does not have a go at nerds, instead it makes it clear that relationships can be hard work, regardless of how smart you may think you are.

In the background, they’ll be a science conference, comic-book signing or we’ll meet a celebrity such as Stan Lee or Stephen Hawking, but all of this is just window dressing. The show owes more to Friends than it does to Spaced, and that’s a good thing, because it what that means is these things are as much an obvious part of society as sports or soap opera, even if some people haven’t noticed yet.


1: Now in its sixth season with no sign of stopping. I have to confess that only until very recently have I actually watched the show. I tend to store up series and then binge, rather than faithfully tuning in every week. The exception to this is Doctor Who; as someone in my mid-thirties I can’t shake the deep-seated fear that if I stop tuning in every time it’s on, then the BBC will cancel it.

2: Recently I was looking at the back of the box of Star Trek: Catan (A Trek themed Settlers of Catan game) and noticed it was licensed by CBS, which also owns the rights to The Big Bang Theory and that is perhaps why the sit-com favours Spock and chums over other aspects of geek culture.

3: I’d argue the parents have a clue, which can also be a source of conflict and thus humour.

4: Played by actress Kaley Cuoco who is, in real life, a bit of a geek, being into things like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Doctor Who (well, Matt Smith). She isn’t the biggest nerd however, that goes to Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy Farrah Fowler (and is also known for her role as the lead character in Blossom. She has a PhD in neuroscience (as does her character in the show).

5: ‘Sheldon’ is also going to be the show’s legacy. Not the character, but the practice of using the name to describe someone who is rude, socially awkward but actually a good person. The show’s producers have trademarked the word ‘Bazinga’ (which means ‘gotcha’), but this isn’t as useful as using Sheldon as short hand for describing a certain sort of person.

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Categories: TV
  1. jfs
    October 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Ed – “However, she’s a huge mess, not knowing exactly from relationships or indeed, life in general.” – is there a ‘what she wants’ missing from between ‘exactly’ and ‘from’?

    Myself, I think the BBT is actually a little anti-nerd – the geek references are thrown in in such a way that it’s still possible to look down on them, and the geeks aren’t allowed to be successful in any way – Stewart, who was introduced as a successful comic shop owner who had no problems asking Penny out in the earlier series is a pathetic loser in the most recent episodes, without anyone even commenting ‘Hey – we used to look up to you!’.

    I still watch it, but I’m not sure why.

    • October 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm

      I knew I had a typo somewhere. 🙂

      Stewart does make a point that running a comic shop barely pays the bills, a lament I’ve seen from many a comic shop owner. I can guess where the Rajesh/Stewart relationship is going, and that’s sort of my point; the reason I keep watching is because of the people drama, not the geek window dressing.

      • jfs
        October 15, 2012 at 4:08 pm

        Oh, I know – a friend was a successful RPG shop owner in Brighton – ‘successful’ meaning he stayed in business for 5 years – he wasn’t rolling in it.

        I guess I don’t actually believe that they guys who write BBT _like_ geeks and nerds, unlike ‘Community’ where the nerdish character is far more positively portrayed.

    • October 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      “…the geeks aren’t allowed to be successful in any way…”
      Howard just got married and became an astronaut – I’d call that successful both socially and professionally.
      Meanwhile, Penny the token “non-nerd” is a failed actress whilst the main nerds are all relatively successful in their chosen careers.
      I don’t find it anti-nerd at all. It only pokes gentle fun at those kinds of things us nerds will poke fun at ourselves.

      • jfs
        October 15, 2012 at 5:55 pm

        Howard is an astronaut called ‘Fruit Loops’ by the other ‘jock’ astronauts and who is currently going through a nervous breakdown in space to the point that he’s being sedated by the rest of the crew. And he’s married to a woman who is going to turn into his mother.

        Hardly a raging success story.

  1. January 28, 2013 at 4:57 pm

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