We Asked People Who Watch ‘Big Bang Theory’: Why?
America’s most popular show is also one of its most hated.
“The Big Bang Theory” is officially the biggest series in America. Last year, the show about nerds was the top regular prime-time program, beating out “NCIS,” “The Walking Dead” and NBC’s Sunday Night Football, for God’s sake.
But when “The Big Bang Theory” debuted, its success was far from a sure thing. The show is about two dorky physicists whose lives are changed when a beautiful woman moves into an apartment on their hall. Michael Robinson, an animator, had a hand in creating the show’s opening sequence before it launched. He tells Dose that he remembers one of his “Big Bang Theory” co-workers predicting the show “probably won’t last one season.”
So far, it’s lasted nine. I wanted to find out why, so I talked to some fans of the show to ask why da fuq people still watch it.
“I enjoy the writing,” says Barry, a retired chiropractor from Chicago. “It’s intellectual comedy.”
Josh, an editor, agrees. “The writing is tight and funny,” he told me. That dialogue is brought to life by masterful acting. There’s Kaley Cuoco as Penny, the decidedly non-nerdy woman who moves in next door. And there’s Jim Parsons in his breakaway performance as Southern freak genius Sheldon.
Neil, a wine seller and self-described “wine geek,” says Sheldon realistically portrays the kinds of nerds he’s met:
“I know a guy who, after complaining he had no girlfriend, proceeded to explain that his litmus test for a woman was that she had to be able to explain how the Millennium Falcon ran the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs despite parsec being a measure of distance.” (If you don’t know that explanation, it’s detailed here, you muggle.)
My friend Justin is a software product manager in San Francisco, of Indian descent. He says his whole family are fans of the show, including its Indian character: “Raj himself is a typical Indian that you would see from India?—?although he may be a bit dated from about 10 years ago when the fashions were a bit more crazy. I know lots of peeps like Raj so I find him relatable. There is probably a part of me that is just happy to see an Indian have a major role on a major show.”
“I love the show. It’s the only sitcom I watch,” says Susan, who runs special education at a high school system in Arizona. “As a teacher of gifted & talented, I can say that they nailed the personalities.”
Many people disagree with that. “The Big Bang Theory” attracts hate?—?like, a lot of hate?—?especially from the kinds of people it depicts. Mike, a comic book store employee, says everyone who works at his retail chain hates the show: “The phrase I hear most is “Blackface for Nerds.”
Others compare the show to the derisive stereotyping of geeks from the 1984 film “Revenge of the Nerds,” whose geeks spy on naked women. One nerd deceives a cheerleader into having sex by disguising himself as her boyfriend.
“‘The Big Bang Theory’ feels very dated?—?like I could be watching a show from the late 80s or 90s,” says Angus, an acquaintance of mine who’s a video game developer. “The nerds shown feel utterly unreal; like they were created by people who’d never really met nerd culture, then went online and researched a bunch of memes. Then made it so you laugh AT them, not with them. Compare that to the nerd kids in “Stranger Things”?—?who are protagonists and portrayed as being helped by their oddities and hobbies.”
“To me at least, their geekiness comes off as hollow and false,” agrees Nathan, a writer of tabletop roleplaying games. For example, he says, “the games they play are largely amongst the most widely-known and mainstream of their ilk, from Halo and Warcraft, to Settlers of Catan and Dungeons & Dragons. The comics they read are well-known classic characters. The cult TV and movies they watch are mostly the franchises people outside geekdom will know?—?‘Star Trek,’ ‘Star Wars,’ etc.?—?and seldom any expanded universe material or theories about the franchises.”
“I find the hate for this show baffling,” confides Neil. “They are all exaggerated caricatures, aren’t they? Modern scripted comedy thrives on that.” He points out that Sheldon and the gang are not “girlfriend-less losers a la ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’” but actual protagonists “who routinely hold their own against the jock boyfriend and end up with the girl?—?not because of some trickery, but because they manage to change the mind of the beautiful girl next door.” Neil says a show like this should be encouraged.
Mike, the comic book store staffer, says (I’m paraphrasing here) fuck that noise.
“Yeah, they’re ostensibly the protagonists, but also awkward pedants, those on the socially unskilled portions of the autism spectrum, dressed badly, etc. The audience is supposed to be laughing AT them, not because of them. They are Urkels,” a reference to the stereotyped black nerd in the 90s sitcom “Family Matters.” “Anyone who was shoved into a locker for having glasses and using big words should probably hate this show,” he concludes.
“I think we, as a culture, are still terrifyingly afraid of being made fun of, in any fashion,” observes Neil. “Like there is some residual playground bully effect on us all.” He also points out that the mockery cuts both ways on the show: “The nerds are also often making fun of the ‘normals’ that they interact with?—?Penny’s boyfriends, whatever?—?and often get the best of them.”
Justin agrees, recalling an anecdote about his father, an Indian chemical engineer, “On the flip side, my dad also calls them nerds, and he’s more like Raj than anyone I know!”
The over-the-top stereotyping on the show could just be because it’s the first show to really “mainstream” geek subculture. After all, Jon Inman’s ultra-campy gay character on the 1970s BBC series “Are You Being Served?” arguably opened the door for less stereotypical portrayals of gay life in “Will & Grace,” which was in turn followed by even more realistic shows like “Orange Is the New Black” or HBO’s “Looking.” After the success of “The Big Bang Theory,” we’ve seen more nuanced send-ups of geek culture in shows like “Betas” and “Silicon Valley.”
Angus thinks that argument rings hollow, because geek culture has been dominant ever since nerds took over the world in the internet boom of the 90s. “‘The Big Bang Theory’ is the kind of thing that nerds thought?—?after getting the keys to the kingdom?—?was dead after the ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ series,” he says.
So is the show, in part, a backlash against geek culture? Does it provide an avenue for “normals” to laugh at the tyranny of the tech revolution, that’s put so many people out of work, and elevated the high-school dork to the CEO chair? Is “The Big Bang Theory” the “Revenge of the Non-Nerds?”
It’s an interesting question. Whether you’re laughing at or with the geek protagonists, there’s no doubt the show’s subject matter reflects science and geekery, and occupies a higher intellectual plane than other mainstream comedies.
In his final assessment, Josh (the editor) concludes that “The Big Bang Theory” “basically identifies with the lead characters, and assumes the audience does too. We’re all nerds now.”