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Big Bang Theory

I started watching The Big Bang theory because of Wil Wheaton. When I read that he had a recurring guest spot as Evil Wil Wheaton, I got curious. I think the “Bowling Supervillain” one was my first episode.

There’s a fair amount I like about the show. I enjoy seeing smart characters in central roles, roles that try to go beyond the standard sidekick bit of “Smart, wimpy kid gets bullied and maybe helps the real hero.” I like the SF/F references and guest stars. (I’ll watch just about any show that brings in George Takei.) I like the experiments, like non-Newtonian fluid dancing on plastic wrap over a speaker.

But the more I watch, the more certain things bother me…

The Inhaler - How do you demonstrate that a character’s a nerd? Give them an inhaler! Because as the writers know, asthma is a genetically nerd-linked disorder. Dumbasses. (To quote Leslie Winkle…)

Speech Impairments are Funny! - Another lazy nerd stereotype/cliche. But hey, at least it’s okay to laugh at Kripke’s speech troubles, because he’s not a very nice guy, see? His iPhone 4s doesn’t understand him, LOL! Tune in for the next episode, when someone in a wheelchair is mean, so everyone turns around and says, “Ha ha, you can’t walk!”

The Sexism - Let me make this as clear as I can. Social ineptitude does not equal, justify, or excuse sexual harassment. One of the worst examples, which came up in a discussion with some other authors a while back, would be Howard. Especially in the beginning, he was slime, oozing over every female he saw. Boundaries? What are those, except obstacles to be overcome? When Pennie finally told him off, Howard’s friends came together and made her apologize for hurting the poor creeper’s feelings.

The Fat Jokes - Howard’s mother is fat. Isn’t that hilarious? I wonder how many TV writers would be out of a job if society ever decided it wasn’t okay to treat heavy people like shit.

Racial Issues - I guess you could argue that the show is making a statement about higher education being dominated by white folks, but I think you’d be giving them too much credit. We do get get Raj, who’s Indian … and therefore must joke about the untouchables back home, or have his accent mocked by Howard (the person on the phone can’t tell the difference between Raj and Howard doing a bad Indian accent).

The Hick Jokes - Sheldon’s mom lives in Texas, where everyone’s an ignorant Bible-thumper! Pennie’s from Nebraska, land of dumb farm girls!

Having now seen most of the show’s run, some of these problems were present from the beginning. But I feel like as it progressed, it’s been losing the things I actually enjoyed. We see less and less of … well, of anyone actually being smart. With the exception of the current Howard The Astronaut subplot, we see almost nothing of anyone’s jobs anymore. When was the last time the whiteboard came out, or they bounced a laser off the moon?

It feels like, as the show became more popular, it’s been co-opted. The focus has shifted more toward generic sitcom territory. I can imagine the marketing meetings.

“We need to expand our audience! Cut back on the science jokes and the geek bits, and double the sex stuff.”

“We introduced Amy as a foil to Sheldon, socially cold but brilliant. Since she’s a chick, let’s rewrite her to focus on important things like getting a boyfriend and learning to be popular. Throw in some lesbian innuendo too. Guys love that.”

“You remember Ross and Rachel’s on-again, off-again relationship from Friends? That wasn’t at all like beating a dead horse, resurrecting it as a zombie, then beating the undead horse for another six seasons. We should totally do that!”

No show is perfect, but this one is losing (or has lost) the elements that drew me in, and is pushing things that make me change the channel.

Discussion is welcome. However, if your comment includes the following, please don’t bother:

  • Any variation of the phrase “political correctness.”
  • The words “overreacting” or “oversensitive.”
  • An attempt to argue that other shows are worse, as if this in any way invalidates a critique of this one.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 188 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 29th, 2012 02:37 pm (UTC)
I find it interesting that your critique included a lot of important aspects, but that you completely missed the one overarching reason that I can't watch this and most other sitcoms: the laugh track. I sincerely dislike having laughter forced on top of a show. This was not filmed in front of a live audience, and it doesn't need to have it artificially added. I know when I want to laugh, thanks. Imagine what the movie "Blazing Saddles" would sound like with a laugh track. Yeah. No.
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:41 pm (UTC)
Not that I like or am defending the laugh track, but segments of every episode are filmed in front of a live audience.
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Feb. 29th, 2012 02:40 pm (UTC)
My favourite thing about season one of the show was that a lot of the "throwaway" moments, where the four of them are doing ridiculous things, are conversations and/or activities I have actually done with my friends! And then it got all raunchy, so I was less inclined to forgive all the things about it that bugged me (which were many).

(Also, I ADORED Raj's sister Priya, but she had the AUDACITY to not put up with Sheldon, and accordingly she had to go. Someone actually told me I'd like her episodes better, because Penny, Amy and Bernadette all hung out together...but all they did was bash Priya.)

This icon is from my favourite episode, where Penny is awesome and Leonard takes the opportunity to be That Guy.

Basically, yes: you are right. I am saddened, but not surprised.
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:45 pm (UTC)
Priya was interesting ... and you know, thinking about her just snapped something into focus, which is that the writers just don't seem to know how to write smart people. They don't know what to do with them.

I'm still sorting this out in my head, but it seems like they start out with smart characters, and then they all sort of devolve or leave the show. (I rather miss Leslie Winkle.)
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Feb. 29th, 2012 02:41 pm (UTC)
I tried to watch the first episode, I really did. I could NOT get past the squick of watching the two main characters being humiliated by being pantsed. Argh.
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:48 pm (UTC)
Thinking about that makes me wonder again who the writers/producers think their audience is. Because the people who are going to want to watch smart, geek-type characters are also, I suspect, a lot more likely to relate to those bullying moments. Humiliating your protagonists without giving them any sort of comeuppance? Who are you appealing to when you present and laugh at that scene?
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Feb. 29th, 2012 02:43 pm (UTC)
My sister loves this show, so I watched the first two or three episodes, and the things you mention bothered me enough that I left it at that.

Community remains my go-to sitcom.
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:52 pm (UTC)
I've never seen Community. Worth checking out?
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Feb. 29th, 2012 02:49 pm (UTC)
I love this show. I'll admit, the issues you raise are absolutely spot on, and I agree that it isn't as true to itself as it used to be...but I still love it. And compared to most sitcoms, I find it to be the height of class and brains :-)

My biggest complaint, I think, is that they have made Sheldon so unbearable, it is getting harder to believe that anyone would put up with him.
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:49 pm (UTC)
"And compared to most sitcoms..."

I tend to agree, but admittedly, this is not the highest of bars :-)
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Feb. 29th, 2012 02:49 pm (UTC)
You make me feel better about not having been able to keep up with it.

If I do try to watch it again, I'll make it a point to rewatch season 1.

I did watch the first Evil Will Wheaton episode though, and I thought that was funny!
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:50 pm (UTC)
I loved reading Wheaton's blog posts about his experiences, and then watching the episodes with the knowledge of how much fun he was having finding his evil mojo :-)
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:50 pm (UTC)
Lots of people tell me they love this show, and all I see is the points you mention.

Also, I feel insulted by the way Penny is portrayed. I've been hearing dumb blonde jokes my whole life and I'm sick of it. It is not ok to make an assumption about someone's intelligence by the colour of their hair and it is mean to make fun of people who are not as smart as you are.

Edited at 2012-02-29 02:54 pm (UTC)
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:54 pm (UTC)
There are parts that I've really liked, but it doesn't take away from or make up for all of the problematic stuff.
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:52 pm (UTC)
The dumbing down as the seasons progress is really disappointing to me. The same thing happened with NUMBERS (which, yes, had some problems but also had some good images of smart people). By the end of that show's run, it was just another police procedural.

Numbers. Math. Science. Very, very scary.
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:55 pm (UTC)
Intelligence is scary/elitist/evil/communist/wrong/double-plus-ungood!
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Feb. 29th, 2012 02:53 pm (UTC)
I loved this show when it first came out, saw the first couple of seasons (and still loved it), but then I dropped cable, thinking it'd be on the network web site for viewing (boy, did I get THAT wrong - what is WRONG with those people???) anyway I've not seen a full episode for a couple-three seasons now and was thinking I'd have to get the DVDs when they come out. After this post of yours, I'm not so sure. Hollywood does know how to screw up a good thing, don't they?

It reminds me of how hilarious all the interviewers and "entertainments reporters" were about David Duchovny *almost having a PhD!!!!" ZOMG!!! Someone with brains!!!! It got brought up without fail for his whole run in The X Files, they just could NOT get over it - LOOK IT'S A SMART PERSON!!! Pathetic.
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:06 pm (UTC)
I really wish I knew who was writing and producing these things. It feels -- and I'm totally guessing here -- like they might have some actual geeks on staff, but all of the head writers, producers, and everyone else in power is doing this from an outsider's perspective, if that makes sense?
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Feb. 29th, 2012 02:56 pm (UTC)
I like the show, but I have many of the same issues you have (in particular, the racism is appalling, and having Raj be the one who can't speak in front of girls in a sitcom--which tend to be all about guys getting the girls--basically dooms him to be a secondary character forever).

However, the H and I are very thankful that they made a concerted effort to make the science right, or at any rate plausible-sounding (and yes, it's a sad thing that we're drowning in a morass of TV shows with utterly rubbish science).
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:04 pm (UTC)
Raj's alcohol/girl issue feels like something the writers threw in for a laugh without thinking through the implications. Not that this in any way invalidates your point.
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Feb. 29th, 2012 02:57 pm (UTC)
I stopped watching the show a while ago because, though it certainly has some funny scenes in it, it has its problems I couldn't stand. Most of all, it is a show pretending to be about Nerds, but it certainly mocks them and our "being enthusiastic about stuff". The points you raised are certainly more important to make better sitcoms in general, but the mocking of nerds eventually drew me away from this show (not that your points didn't bother me at all).
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:02 pm (UTC)
You're right, and that's something another commenter brought up too ... it feels to me like there's a major conflict between "inviting the geeks to laugh about stuff we find funny" and "inviting the audience to laugh at the geeks," and I think it shifted more toward the latter as the series progressed.
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Feb. 29th, 2012 03:09 pm (UTC)
Interestingly, my Aspie husband and son like this show because certain aspects of the characters resonate with them (we're not seeing it in anything but reruns, though). I don't like the way they portray Penny, but OTOH she does get her comeback zingers, and of late she seems to be showing her smarts.

As an entirety, I'm not that thrilled by it, certainly not as much as my husband and adult son. But the small moments? Let me tell you, I love Bernadette's zingers.

Problem is that they tend to fall into Asperger stereotypes. Sheldon is over-the-top Aspie, and yet the Aspies in my life love him. And a lot of those cliches tend to ring pretty true.

As do the hick jokes. Unfortunately, being a genuwine redneck hippie logger girl with a fundamentalist past, I can recognize the hick stereotype and they do call it out right. Some of those fundamentalist tics that show up in Sheldon are pretty legit for someone who was raised in that environment and I've got manipulative hicks like his mama in my own family. OTOH, as the mama of an adult with autism, I've played a few of those just in order to get some space.

I also recognize the Howard stereotype waaaay too clearly from my own experience. Guys like him still exist. I have the ugly slimed memories.

And, uh, I have strong elements of both Amy and Bernadette in my own character. Not as bad, but my early dating days were more like Amy's in some respects, at least with regard to the defensiveness.

What the problem is, is that the show takes the stereotypes way over the top. So far, at least in the early shows I've been watching (well, sort of watching, I don't watch the whole thing), they're grounded enough on the foundation they're stereotyping that they're still wincingly correct. I do know people with autism who act like Sheldon, just not that extreme and articulate simultaneously (actually, I think Leonard is my preferred character and he's closer to my real-life experiences). It does nail the adult autistic sense of humor pretty dang close.
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:18 pm (UTC)
"I also recognize the Howard stereotype waaaay too clearly from my own experience. Guys like him still exist. I have the ugly slimed memories."

Oh, absolutely! What bothers me though is when the show tries to make him sympathetic, like when Penny finally told him off for being a slime, and somehow he was the victim? The slime is out there, but I get pissed off when it's portrayed as sympathetic or just "boys being boys" or any of the other thousand-plus excuses we hear.

Sheldon is interesting to me. I definitely see the autistic traits there, and I can understand how that might resonate. There's a lot to be said for seeing someone "like me!" on TV, even if the similarities are only in certain respects, or exaggerated for comic effect. I think identification-with-the-geek-stuff is one of the things that pulled me in initially.

It definitely has some good moments.
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Feb. 29th, 2012 03:09 pm (UTC)
I've only seen a few episodes. I've loved the guest stars - the Katee Sackhoff/George Takei bit was PRICELESS -- but I couldn't understand why anybody would want to spend time with those characters, week after week. *I'm* a geek, although not as science-clever as that crew. I have some friends who really are. And I have some people in my social circle who are as awkward as Sheldon and Howard. Those guys? Those are the ones my friends and I try to avoid, or at least limit our contact with. It's not that they're bad people, even -- it's just that their presence is *irritating*, even when they're trying to be social.

I have no interest in watching a show about the people in my crowd that I try to avoid at parties. It just isn't funny.
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:15 pm (UTC)
I have no interest in watching a show about the people in my crowd that I try to avoid at parties. It just isn't funny.

Yes. This. I'll watch snippets while I'm working out and my family is watching it, but I'm not watching it on my own.
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Feb. 29th, 2012 03:12 pm (UTC)
I've never seen the show, and I may not bother, now. They did the inhaler thing in Burn Notice, and I thought it was awful. I'm also becoming more and more enraged by mockery of overweight people. I think in twenty years or so, that sort of thing will sound as wrong as racist and homophobic jokes.

I'm sorry to say that Wil Wheaton's involvement tends to be kind of a detraction for me. I've bounced off the Wil Wheaton persona a few times (blog, TV roles, etc.), and always found him...vaguely offputting in a way that's hard to verbalize. Not that he has anything to do with the points you're criticizing here. It sounds like his role is a positive and fun contribution to the show.
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:24 pm (UTC)
I think what I liked most about Wheaton was how open he was in talking about his experiences going back to Star Trek, the mistakes he made and the consequences of those mistakes. He struck me as a lot more down-to-earth than I expected.
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Feb. 29th, 2012 03:20 pm (UTC)
Don't forget the homophobia! In the episodes I have had the misfortune of seeing they constantly make gay jokes, because that would be the worst thing in the world (unlike, oh, having friends who treat you like crap.)

From the beginning the show was about excusing the worst of nerdom: exclusionary, entitled and cruel. No women (one episode had Raj QUIT HIS JOB rather than work with a woman), no gays; just the exultation of total douchebags and cheap jokes.

The only thing I'm glad of is that I could point to it's viewership figures and say to fellow nerds, "see? When 1/3rd of tv watchers watch your show you aren't marginalized anymore."

It did lead me to go back and rewatch 3rd Rock from the Sun on Netflix, though. Turns out, Sally is still my favorite nerd character on tv ever :)
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:32 pm (UTC)
Yay for 3rd Rock (ok, the first season, anyway). "Can anyone else turn their head all the way around" "No. no. no." "Then how are you supposed to lick your back?"
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:35 pm (UTC)
The defects you list were present in my one attempt to watch when I wanted to see the show - and it kept me from watching at all, even for Evil Wil, sadly.
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:44 pm (UTC)
You can always catch differently-evil Wil Wheaton in Criminal Minds...
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Feb. 29th, 2012 03:36 pm (UTC)

When The Big Bang Theory first came out it was funny and smart and clever. I liked it. Sure Howard was an ass (although I don't think there are many who've spent time in graduate programs who haven't met a Howard, so there was a rings-true air about him, even if he was clearly an extreme example of the type he was portraying), but until the Penny-apology disaster his sliminess didn't feel celebrated - I was allowed to be irritated by it. It was a straightforward idiocy that was balanced out by the sort of intelligent references and jokes that made watching it feel like getting together with a bunch of friends and being part-of instead of excluded-from (if that makes sense) even if it was about the hard sciences and not the brand of geekery with which I was most familiar. I know (am friends with, work with, married) lots of brilliant people who possess varying degrees of social comfort, OCD and Aspies and just serious introverts. It was nice to see 'my people' being themselves - when the jokes were about the 'you only have a masters' undercurrent in academia (loved, loved, loved the subtle and not-subtle academic jokes), brands of physics, collections of stuff and take-out and comic cooks and gamer-intricacies... you know, friendship.

Then, as you said, it decided it needed to be more 'mainstream'. And out came the clichés and endless lame romantic subplots (because smart people aren't interesting by themselves, there has to be some far-fetched sexual awkwardness taken to the nth degree to make them look all the more freakish... smart people date but it's not a side-show act, FFS) that led to my turning the channel. I wasn't laughing with, I was expected to laugh at.

I wonder if it's a symptom of the anti-education/anti-smart political undercurrents that have been swirling around the last few years. Context for that musing: I don't come from academics (1st gen univ. graduate) and I'm still picked on (seriously) for having an advanced degree - my father (he who makes mean remarks about 'educated idiots') would laugh at TBBT as it is, now, but wouldn't have the earlier seasons. Are the producers capitalizing on the political sentiments to encourage the mainstream to laugh at the smart kids? (I don't know... maybe I'm just so disheartened by the changes that I'm grasping at straws.)

Loved Evil Wil, tho -- epic LOLz. (ending on a more positive note)
Feb. 29th, 2012 05:53 pm (UTC)
American anti-intellectualism is nothing new, To quote Asimov:
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”
That's from '56, if my source is correct.

Hell, growing up the late 70s/early 80s in rural PA, the 2nd worst insult after "fag" was "brain", because who wants to be smart?
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
I can't stand that show, but I've always contributed that to more of the fact that the type of nerds/geeks I hang out with aren't the ones that the show features. My friends are more socially-conscious geeks, so the whole sexism/racism thing is not on with them.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 29th, 2012 03:59 pm (UTC)
When you say repeat what they hear back, do you mean someone saying what they thought they heard to make sure they understood correctly, or do you mean mimicking the actual speech, impediment and all?
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 29th, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
I admit that I've never liked this show. After repeated reruns on TBS when I haven't bothered to change the channel, it's graduated to 'meh' status (from utter disgust); the same place I put Two and a Half Men (same creator IIRC).

Community's much higher quality. I'm also a huge fan of Parks and Recreation. But my go-to show about nerds is the Brit-made IT Crowd, because its nerds feel ten thousand times more real than the nerds of BBT.

(Also, can we get some geeks and nerds on TV who are NOT math and science types? There are lots of geeks and nerds who are not into science and math!)
Feb. 29th, 2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
I've been horrified by the speech impediment jokes, and I usually enjoy this show. Sheldon is way over the top for me. And the writers don't know what to do with Raj.
Feb. 29th, 2012 04:11 pm (UTC)
I catch random episodes on TV in the evenings, and while some are hilarious and I really enjoy them, some of them aren't. I never put much thought into why since I didn't watch regularly and wasn't planning to, but I think this post and the comments have hit on it. Some episodes are about people who are smart and socially inept and love "geeky" things, and they address those topics with humor. And some episodes are mocking people like that.

As for the way they treat women, I feel both the male and female characters aren't stereotypes so much as caricatures. But this is a problem that seems to be inherent with sitcoms. The first season or two is good, but then the characters devolve into tropes ("the funny one" "the pretty one" "the nice one" "the smart one") instead of evolving into well-rounded characters. Sadly it's the comedies that this happens to most often. The dramas tend to let their characters grow and change without fear.
Feb. 29th, 2012 04:14 pm (UTC)
I've only seen one episode (while on an 'plane) and while I could see it was funny, I also found that it just seemed to be subscribing to every nerd cliche.

I will confess that part of it is me. I don't get on with comedies very well generally - I'm astonishingly easy to embarrass and a lot of comedy crosses from 'funny' to 'embarrassing' very easily...
Feb. 29th, 2012 04:22 pm (UTC)
Just for once i want to see a big ass-kicking badass with an inhaler.

My room mate loves this show, and she's 74. She's very intelligent herself, and I think she's laughing with, rather than at, the characters. I can always tell when something rubs her wrong though: she'll not laugh and she'll grumble a bit.

I get tired of the slut-bashing jokes made at that one girl's expense. Okay, writers, we get it: she sleeps with a lot of guys, and Sheldon feels compelled to point it out to her.

Overall, Jim, I agree: the show was better when we were invited to laugh with the gang, not at them. I'm an intelligent person, but my intelligence leans more towards reading/writing/soft sciences. Even so, I love things like geology, paleontology, and astronomy. I liked the show much more when it was science and geeky humor.
Feb. 29th, 2012 04:25 pm (UTC)
"Just for once i want to see a big ass-kicking badass with an inhaler."

::Makes a note for the current book-in-progress::
(no subject) - barbarienne - Feb. 29th, 2012 06:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - full_metal_ox - Feb. 29th, 2012 10:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nyxalinth - Feb. 29th, 2012 07:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 29th, 2012 04:25 pm (UTC)
Yup, this is pretty much why my wife and I gave up on most network shows some years ago. It has nothing to do with the acting, it's more that the writing feels like it's been phoned in.

(I won't go into how neither of us like shows with deliberately unlikeable characters in the name of trying to be funny.)

Maybe it's just me, but I wish that we had at least one truly silly show like Laugh-In or Monty Python. And I was born in 1971, AFTER both of those shows. ;)
Feb. 29th, 2012 04:28 pm (UTC)
I miss the Smothers Brothers...
(no subject) - joncwriter - Feb. 29th, 2012 04:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jim C. Hines

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