Let me begin by noting I know a few people peripherally (writers, producers, actors) involved with the creation of the show “Big Bang Theory” (BBT). I also know many nerds who are the subject of, impacted by, or otherwise in the orbit of the show itself.
BBT, as has been typical in the past, was nominated for some Emmy awards. The show is a prime time big market television show about nerds (geeks) and geek (nerd) culture.
Let us stipulate for the moment that all of the above are facts.
I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the show itself over various topics. In fairness and out of a sense of nerd completionism, I will list the prominent ones here. Please click and read the arguments to understand my points later.
As a side note and personal pet peeve, many people have characterized the show as “geeksploitation” or “nerd blackface”, which are actually pretty terrible descriptions from a hyperbole standpoint. Society didn’t spend centuries lynching, enslaving and demeaning nerds so to use the “blackface” term is a disservice to how hurtful and horrible blackface is from a racial perspective. It also speaks to a level of defensiveness I’ll talk about in a second.
Big Bang Theory is now in its 6th year. And while there’s always been a small undercurrent of nerd criticism it strikes me that its amped way, way up in the past year (as the show has reached a critical level of popularity) from “it’s not a funny show” to “it offends me and exploits my culture.”
The latter sort of mystifies me.
To be clear, I’m not asking anyone to find the show funny, nor am I saying you’re wrong for not liking what I like. However the sense amongst some people that the show is insulting and exploitive strikes me as a bit defensive. I feel somewhat like an ER technician watching a doctor rant about how exploitive Scrubs is.
No one that I know involved with the creation of the show would want to make a single new episode of it if they thought they were creating it A) for money and fame to the detriment of the subject matter and/or B) if the show itself caused material harm to the subject matter. The sheer amount of effort alone they put into the math, science, comic continuity, etc are not throwaway references and I think really speaks to the dedication of getting things in the culture right. They might stumble, but it’s not for lack of effort.
Likewise I take issue with the shorthand criticism that the show is laughing “at” geek culture rather than “with” geek culture. Comedy is not a zero sum game. Prime time comedy has to do a lot of both laughing at and with the things it is examining. A show that did nothing but laugh “with” geek culture would actually not be all that good.
Even moreso I wonder if the defensiveness of insisting geek culture shouldn’t be mocked or poked fun of (the "BBT laughs ‘at’ geek culture and that’s wrong!”) comes from the fact a lot of geek culture has routinely been mocked and made fun of since we were kids. Maybe it’s hard to believe that in the end Big Bang Theory isn’t some sneaky plot by the jocks to make us all feel bad. We’re all geek versions of Carrie at the prom, just waiting for the pig’s blood.
Here’s the reason I don’t think the show is exploitive: The people I know who watch it (who aren’t what I would call geeks) tune in to see if Leonard will get back with Penny, or what is going to happen to Walowitz in space. They don’t tune in to “see what those stupid nerds are up to this week.”
They watch it for the characters, because they like them.
Over the course of the six seasons the characters have meshed and grown, pulled together and pulled away. Like most long lived sitcoms, the setting could really be anywhere. The nerd culture aspect gives me something to enjoy on top of the melodrama. Granted the arcs are shallow. We’re not talking deep level social commentary here. It’s a sitcom. But I really struggle to find the harmful exploitation. You want to see exploitation of a genre, watch some episodes of Archer. They spin exploitation into comedy gold over there.
If you don’t think the show is funny that’s one thing. Certainly the humor variant over the six seasons goes up and down like any other comedy. If you think it’s sending the wrong message in character development about gender or orientation roles that’s fair criticism. Penny bothered me for a long time until I really got it that she’s a caricature of counterbalance to the caricature of nerds. The hamhanded “in the closet” references between Rajesh and Wolowitz are so telegraphed sometimes they can’t be forgiven as commentary. And don’t get me started on the laugh track.
But offense over perceived exploitation just strikes me as a bridge too far. People point to shows that “do it better” like Community. I argue I don’t think a show like Community would have been greenlit if Big Bang Theory hadn’t had three seasons of success before Community aired. Keep in mind how prime time works. If broadcaster A has a hit formula it’s not long before B and C come out with their own flavor. Furthermore Community does its own share of laughing “at” things, it’s a formula all shows have to use at some point.
In the end I suppose I’m not going to sway any opinions here. And again I’m certainly not saying anyone should like something they don’t like. If it’s not funny to you it’s not funny to you. I remain puzzled by the reaction that a highly rated popular prime time comedy lasting six seasons that centers around geek culture should be dismissed or is offensive because it is exploitive at its core.
Isn’t this the cultural victory we kind of dreamed of when the rest of the world dismissed us? Millions of people nerds and not laughing about Lord of the Rings and science jokes!
Tell me what you think in the comments.