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The Big Bang Theory and the Revenge of the Geeks

on Mon, 02/08/2010 - 00:00

On a very basic level, the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory could be dismissed as just another cookie-cutter sitcom adrift in a sea of other cookie-cutter sitcoms, replete with an overdone premise and the requisite laugh track. But if you dig a little deeper, what you see on the surface is not what you get inside. While not groundbreaking in style or original in concept, The Big Bang Theory still manages to rise above the mediocrity of network television sitcoms to be both genuine and funny, a true rarity in recent years.

The series revolves around two brilliant scientists, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki). While Sheldon is the underlying star of the show, it is Leonard who is the rock of the series. Although neither as brilliant nor neurotic as Sheldon, he is still a geek, but one who wishes to rise above his status in life. Enter Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the hot-and-hip female who lives across the hall. Leonard inevitably develops a fixation with her that is more than merely sexual—he truly yearns for Penny, despite the fact that they come from different worlds. Although their attraction is obviously real, the relationship between Leonard and Penny is prevented from truly blossoming because of perceived personal obstacles nonetheless. Could someone as physically attractive as Penny ever really care for a geek such as Leonard? And on the flip side, could anyone as intelligent as Leonard every really love a mere high school graduate who works as a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory?

As for the two male leads, Sheldon and Leonard have difficulty figuring out every day routines and simple tasks even though their IQs fall into the realm of genius, and are often oblivious to the ways of the real world. For instance, Sheldon can’t drive. Not only does he not want to, but he literally cannot figure out how. His friends develop a computerized virtual “car” in order for him to learn, but Sheldon continually gets into accidents—or worse. “I was on the Pasadena Freeway and missed my exit, flew off the overpass and one thing led to another,” he explains when Leonard asks how he ended up in the Glendale Galleria.

While there have been other television sitcoms that have relied on the will-they/won’t-they premise of two opposites attracted to each other—Cheers immediately comes to mind—as well as the time-honored “fish-out-of-water” scenario, The Big Bang Theory is able to overcome such simplistic comparisons by not relying too heavily on the first and by turning the second on its head. Who exactly is the “fish-out-of-water” on the show? Initial observation would point to Leonard and Sheldon, but Penny is just as much of a fish as she is introduced to a foreign environment of her own.

The world of Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper is filled with comic books, video games and Battlestar Galactica. Along with friends Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), the quartet have weekly Halo nights, play Klingon Boggle, build killer robots and regularly debate the merits of various sci-fi superheroes. The true brilliance of The Big Bang Theory is that it does not shy away from the geekness or scientific smartness of its main characters but embraces them instead. Call it the “Revenge of the Geeks,” because despite such non-traditional emphasis the CBS sitcom has still risen to be a ratings hit for the network.

The major reason, of course, is that the comedy is actually funny as well as intelligent. Most television sitcoms follow a “lowest-common denominator” guideline for its jokes, dumbing them down so as to attract the largest possible audience without alienating any potential viewers. The Big Bang Theory doesn’t adhere to that principle, but instead follows a more simplistic “Is It Funny?” approach to comedy by taking the “situation” part of sitcom and then adding the comedy around it. Thus lines like, “I can’t keep your secret, Penny—I’m going to fold like an energy-based de novo protein in conformational space,” still come across as humorous regardless of whether one understands how de novo proteins react or not.

“The challenge is to have these characters speak in their own language,” co-creator Bill Prady told Television Without Pity in 2008. “And for sort of the rest of us—the civilians, of which I am one—for us to still get the intent and comic intent of what’s going on even if we don’t get the minutia of the math. You don’t need to understand the math to get the intent.”

“Their own language” goes beyond science and traditional geek, however, as it also incorporates the latest Internet trends and services. From blogs and eHarmony to Facebook and Twitter, The Big Bang Theory routinely makes passing references to the World Wide Web. In season two, for instance, Penny becomes addicted to an online game called the “Age of Conan” and continually seeks advice from a frustrated Sheldon. “I told her, I texted her, I sent out a very emphatic Twitter,” he tells the others. “I even changed my Facebook status to ‘Sheldon Cooper wishes Penny would leave him alone.’ I don’t know what else to do.”

Another reason The Big Bang Theory has found success is the fact that it is a product of its times. While television ratings have been unkind to science fiction this century for the most part, DVD sales and online viewing patterns suggest that what was once the realm of geeks is actually becoming mainstream. At the same time, what we consider to be mainstream itself is changing, with both Facebook and Twitter becoming part of the norm. The Big Bang Theory taps into that cultural transformation as much as any other show on television.

“Our society has undergone a paradigm shift,” Leonard Hofstadter tells Sheldon Cooper in season one of The Big Bang Theory. “In the information age, Sheldon, you and I are the Alpha Males.” Although the full implication of that statement may not be accurate, there is no doubt that when it comes to traditional television sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory is an Alpha Male in its own right.

Anthony Letizia (February 8, 2010)