I Hate The Big Bang Theory2,000 words on a show that probably doesn't deserve it.
No, I’m not talking about the actual theory, which is the first joke that people make when I say that; I’m talking about television here. I understand that “hate” may be too strong of a word to deploy against The Big Bang Theory. A more accurate title might be “I Hate Chuck Lorre”, or “I Am Alienated by The Big Bang Theory and Not in the Good Brechtian Way.”
When I was living in China this past summer, a frequent topic of conversation would be television. And when speaking to a native Chinese person about it, their response would be, without fail, something along the lines of: “Oh, I love American television! Do you like The Big Bang Theory? I love The Big Bang Theory! My favorite character is Sheldon. Who’s your favorite character?”
Within my small sample size of Chinese television viewers, there were several near-unanimous favorites. Gossip Girl was one of them; the appeal of a show about the dramatic escapades of hip and sexy American rich kids seems obvious, but my other work for the Hypermodern examines the levels of political and social critique embedded in that CW soap. Prison Break was another, and while there is a certain interest in speculating about how the Chinese live vicariously through a show about the wrongfully-imprisoned fighting against a shadowy government cabal, my curiosity ended there.
The Big Bang Theory, on the other hand, was a conundrum. The CBS sitcom about nerds (Thursdays, 8 PM) is in the middle of its fourth season and is a hit in the States as well. The show comes from television sitcom super-producer Chuck Lorre, whose legacy stretches back to working on Roseanne but more recently includes Two and a Half Men (the title greatly overstates the maturity level of the show) and Dharma & Greg (the television equivalent of punching a small child in the face). The show was co-created by former computer programmer Bill Prady, who previously worked with Lorre on Dharma & Greg; together with physicist and technical consultant David Saltzberg, he’s responsible for the show’s “nerd accuracy.” However, as any nerd can tell you, there is a difference between accuracy and precision.
BBT’s central characters are a group of young scientists and engineers who work at Caltech. Sheldon (Jim Parsons) is the quasi-Asperger’s genius of the group, an eccentric who finds it difficult to understand social situations except scientifically. His roommate Leonard (Johnny Galecki) is the well-adjusted one; his pining for—and eventually, relationship with—attractive girl next door and aspiring actress Penny (Kaley Cuoco) was a main focus of earlier seasons but was eventually downplayed for more of Sheldon’s antics. The cast is rounded out by Raj (Kunal Nayyar), an Indian physicist who can’t speak to women unless he’s drinking, and Howard (Simon Helberg), a self-proclaimed ladies’ man who lives with his perpetually-offscreen mother.
The comedic template of BBT is usually “The nerds try to do something that normal people do but things get wacky Because They Are Nerds.” It’s also often more specifically “The nerds try to interact with women but things get wacky Because They Are Nerds.” This is not an entirely awful premise for a show, and in fact is the basic template for many sitcoms; for example, if you crossed out “nerd” and replaced it with “snobbish cultural elitist”, you’d have the logline to Frasier. The difference is that Frasier was funny.
The problem here isn’t in the performances; they’re mostly serviceable, and the cast does have some level of natural charisma that threatens to cut through the material. It’s admirable in a way, like soldiers sent to the battlefield without adequate supplies and equipment and yet they fight anyway because it’s their duty. If the live studio audience howls at “[Social situation] is like [scientific concept]” or “[Sci-fi, video game, or comic book reference awkwardly shoehorned into conversation]”, the two things that make up the majority of the show’s “jokes”, it must be from these actors’ sheer physicality, from their goofy mannerisms and their wide-open body language. It’s certainly not from anything like plot or dialogue.
Earlier this year, porn distributor New Sensations released Big Bang Theory: A XXX Parody, whose title is self-explanatory. Pop quiz: try to identify whether the following quotes are from A) The Big Bang Theory or B) Big Bang Theory: A XXX Parody.
- “Cultural perceptions are subjective. Penny, to your mind, are you a slut?”
- “You let her drive around in the NASA Mars rover?” “Yeah, and everything went great until she ran that bus full of nuns off the road!”
- “Oh God, that feels so good…oh, oh, oh, that’s the spot. Oh baby.”
- “I don’t want to speak to the FBI!” “Why not?” “I’m brown and I talk funny!”
At times, the parody seems funnier than the show, although part of that is from the contemplation that a porno might be better written than, you know, an actual television show. And it’s difficult to say which is more misogynistic; although Two and a Half Men is your Lorre go-to for a vile parade of women-as-sex-objects, BBT has its troubling moments, not only in the clichéd characterization of Penny but in the way Sara Gilbert’s “girl nerd” character, Leslie, was demoted in the third season and then written off because the writers couldn’t find “quality material” for her. (By the way, quote number 2 is from the parody. The rest are from the show.)
In conversations with and about Chinese viewers of BBT, we considered the possibility they watch the show differently than American audiences do. The character traits on display (working in scientific and technical fields, social awkwardness, an adult professional living with his mother) are perhaps more relatable to Chinese young adults than the vast majority of other American shows. And maybe because of the language gap, the dialogue recedes into the background in favor of the broader and more physical aspects of the comedy. Another element is that it’s a rather inviting caricature of American culture; one English teacher in China I spoke to called it “to them what Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is to us”. But Chinese viewers perceive that they are laughing with these characters, as opposed to American audiences, whom Chinese viewers picture as laughing at the characters instead. It’s not really fair to paint either the Chinese or American audiences with one brush; a show with an enormous audience like BBT has many different groups of viewers with their own reasons for liking the show, scavenging what humor and quality they can. But the show’s template, the pattern on which its episodes are constructed, will guide those audiences one way or another.
The more episodic a show is—that is, the more it tries to have each unit of story be self-contained—the more the show’s template takes on the aspect of law. The draw of the episodic show is the way that its template creates a comfortable rhythm and imposes order; it makes assumptions and places constraints on the world. For example, the specific details of the weekly medical mystery on House are irrelevant; they’re an excuse to watch the characters on that show play some slight Goldberg-like variation on the show’s core themes: that physical frailty is the expression of moral frailty, and that we create illusory realities to hide from the pain of the world.
So if there is something fundamentally wrong with an episodic show, it’s because there’s something fundamentally wrong with the show’s template. In BBT’s case, it’s because the show operates from a foundation of broken caricature. It’s never overtly or actively malicious, and critical accusations of the series being a “nerd minstrel show” are a bit overblown, but the series is less a story about nerd characters than it is a story that uses its characters as vehicles for nerd jokes. When caricature is wielded properly, it achieves through its distortion and abstraction an acknowledgement of our common humanity by pulling performers and audience towards the same comic level. It’s possible to laugh both at and with someone at the same time. It’s the way the animated sci-fi comedy Futurama can take nerdy topics and make them the foundation of great comedy; that writing staff is able to take something as potentially dry as mathematical pairing theory and use it as the premise for brisk, madcap farce. Futurama works because no matter how outlandish or wonky their plots get, their characters feel like people (even if they’re aliens or robots).
BBT pretends to live in that space; the fact that there is any humanism embedded in the writing at all must be attributed to co-creator Bill Prady, who also worked on shows such as Gilmore Girls that tried to tell stories about actual thinking, feeling people. Lorre sitcoms are aggressively unfunny because they operate from a narrow vision of humanity where the pettiness and brokenness of people are on display; but rather than locate some semblance of story or humor there, they cruelly use them as vehicles for a disconnected series of stale jokes. These shows try to sugarcoat their misanthropy with the slick, colorful stylings of the traditional sitcom setup and try to wipe your memory with rapid sound-and-color transitions between their short scenes, but these things can’t mask the utter detachment the stories have from the characters in them.
It’s telling that there is a clearer voice and real humor to be found on Lorre’s “vanity cards” at the end of each episode which have various thoughts, stories and rants written on them. When Lorre personally writes about himself or his actors or real people he knows, as opposed to pushing bundles of cliché through the sausage grinder of his writers’ rooms, there are some actual sparks. One card this season was a list of “new rules” for his actors following Kaley Cuoco’s horseback riding accident:
1. No friggin’ horses. This includes those found on merry-go-rounds and in front of supermarkets.
2. The only motorcycle you can get on is the one you’re accidentally crushing in your big-ass, air-bagged SUV.
3. All cast member motor vehicles must adhere to U.S. Army guidelines for attacking Kandahar. (Galecki’s Tesla is a terrifically fuel efficient vehicle but is essentially a hundred thousand dollar go-cart. From now on it is only to be used for backing down his driveway and retrieving mail.)
The whole list flashes by so fast you need to pause the video to read them, which means the funniest parts of a Lorre show last for literally half a second.
It’s almost tragic how you can see the cast of BBT try to fight against the hegemony of the Lorre sitcom mold. When you have a strong actor that can rise above the material (like Cybill Shepherd in her eponymous sitcom, also created by Lorre), the tension generates something that’s at least watchable. On Two and a Half Men, you can see the leads being complicit in their own dehumanization. And when you have weak actors utterly dominated by the material, the purest form of Lorre’s vision is realized in a grotesque stillbirth like Dharma & Greg. The actors on BBT are somewhere in the middle, and you can see in the show’s few moments of actual warmth and humor their active resistance against being treated like soulless joke-delivering automatons. Perhaps it’s a bit Brechtian after all.