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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.

Comments

( 179 comments — Leave a comment )
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reedrover
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.
talkstowolves
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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jimhines
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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wolfshark
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.
jimhines
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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mastadge
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.
jimhines
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:52 pm (UTC)
I've never seen Community. Worth checking out?
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deborahblakehps
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.
jimhines
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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hand2hand
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!
jimhines
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 :-)
nathreee
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)
jimhines
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.
mindyklasky
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.
jimhines
Feb. 29th, 2012 02:55 pm (UTC)
Intelligence is scary/elitist/evil/communist/wrong/double-plus-ungood!
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threeoutside
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.
jimhines
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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jimhines
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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sajina
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).
jimhines
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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joycemocha
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.
jimhines
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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rikibeth
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.
joycemocha
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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cathshaffer
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.
jimhines
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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sylvanstargazer
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 :)
reedrover
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?"
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