I’m not a fan of American comedy in general, but Big Bang Theory has really impressed me. I presume no one in my readership is ignorant of the basic idea behind this show, but just in case: it’s about a group of nerds – three physicists and an engineer – who are completely out of touch with ordinary life, and one completely ordinary, normal, un-nerdy girl called Penny. In later seasons two additional extremely nerdy (and very, very funny) women join the group as partners of some of the boys. Two of the characters, Leonard and Sheldon, live together. The rest is classic American situation comedy, except that it’s all filmed from the perspective of the four nerds. There are no dufus macho American men like in Friends or your standard run of crappy sit-coms, clapping each other on the back and putting their feet on the seats: this is the kind of show where the main characters play D&D, or Settlers of Katan, and look on conscious displays of machismo as a kind of vice.
The humour is simultaneously smutty and sophisticated, which is unusual for American TV, and the characters are excellent. Even Sheldon, who is clearly an arsehole by anyone’s lights, is really funny and endearing, and Howard – who if he were a normal guy would be a horrible person – is quite sweet in his own crazy way. The central character, Leonard, is also the most normal of the group, in that all though he is a nerd’s nerd – nerdier than you or I can ever hope to be, young Jedi – he understands ordinary human interactions sufficiently to be able to pass as a normal human, and his gentle manner means that he regularly manages to pull quite hot women (without ever intending to). The rest of them, however, are lost in la-la land. And this is the central conceit of the show: everything that is normal and coherent is reversed, so that the social relations, interests and even dreams of ordinary people are seen as weird and outre, while the warped social dynamic of nerd-dom is recast as the norm. This show reverses the role of insider and outsider, so that designing an app to solve ODEs is a normal Friday night activity, while going out drinking with your buddies is weird and unenjoyable. Instead of having the nerd or the freak point out the social contradictions and oddities – as happens in, for example, The Breakfast Club – in this show it’s the ordinary Nebraskan woman, Penny, who is constantly confused and challenging the social norms. This reversal in itself offers a lot of entertainment, as we see what would happen if the things we know are weird and unusual were normal, and the things we know everyone expects to be normal were considered a waste of time. It also occasionally offers some quite interesting insights into what is wrong with the standard social order.
At the same time, however, the main characters are acutely aware of their status in broader society, and we are regularly reminded of their experience of bullying and social exclusion when they were younger. Now, of course, within the world of the university where they work, there is no such problem, and it is Penny – representative of ordinary society – who is cast as the outsider. But when they venture outside of their small group we are reminded of the fragility of their social setting and its fundamental defensiveness. Howard, out on the pull at a club, tells us in one memorable scene that if he waits until 3am all the cool kids will have scored, and he will be guaranteed success with the ugly and desperate social loners who remain – this is his conscious tactic. They occasionally have run-ins with people from their past, and are reminded of how weak they are in other social settings. Sometimes they try to do the right thing in broader society, to defend their rights as nerds or just to be moral, and it always comes back to bite them because they are weak and hated. So they return to their cocoon, aware that they are looked down upon by the rest of society but happy in their safe world. This isn’t really much like adult life as a nerd at all – nerds tend to be much more respected in adult life than they were in childhood, and this part of the show is very much about reliving childhood trauma in an adult setting – but it’s fun and in some ways (especially the parts about women and sex) still true.
The show does have a few weaknesses. The treatment of Raj, an Indian, I would consider to be racist at times, though also the way that he takes the piss out of the image of India as a poor and backward country is quite funny. The characters never seem to successfully get back at the people who bullied them in their school days, which is frustrating, and the gender relations are typically conservative in that weird American way that mystifies the rest of the world whenever we see it (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post). Also, at times Sheldon is so annoying as to be offensive, and you kind of wish that he would relent a little. But these are minor flaws, considering that this is a show where people quote Star Wars, play Klingon word games, regularly visit the comic shop, and quite frequently have carefully rendered debates about quantum mechanics. The scene where they play D&D is brilliant, and every episode is a gem of good humour. Also, Penny’s dealings with the boys – the way she is affectionate towards them but understands how completely weird they are – is a thing of beauty, sufficient to give all nerds everywhere the hope that they, too, will one day be able to lose their virginity.
I recommend this show for all nerds everywhere, or for partners of nerds who need to get an insight into their partners worlds without having to face the horror of actually participating in that weird shit. I also promise that if you, a nerd, watch it, you will be reassured of your normality in comparison to the freaks who populate the show. It’s a balm for the soul, if you’re into playing D&D in Elvish but don’t want to think you’re unusual. So if you haven’t already, give it a go…