I was once a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory. It was funny. They made jokes that only geeks would get and it included cameos from Wil Wheaton (and other geeky celebrities). The first few seasons of this Bill Prady/Chuck Lorre show was a breath of fresh air: a fun, relatively intelligent sitcom that played absolutely to the strengths of the sitcom genre. We knew what to expect and we liked what we were given.
Situation comedies have been a popular television staple since the BBC’s Pinwright’s Progress, gaining true mainstream success after I Love Lucy. A central element to sitcoms is their circular nature – no matter what happens in the episode, the status quo remains. Of course, this happens within reason. Characters retain their main flaws and will continue to make the same mistakes, but they might experience slight growth, most commonly in relationships with other characters.
One of my favourite phrases regarding television is ‘jumped the shark.’ Too many great shows eventually jump the shark in an attempt to revitalize a tired construct. Where does this phrase come from? Believe it or not, classic sitcom Happy Days actually featured Fonzie jumping over a shark on some water skis. The beginning of the end.
In the last few seasons, the ratings for The Big Bang Theory have increased exponentially. Some might argue that the show has found its stride. I would disagree. What once was an intelligent, fresh sitcom is now another bog-standard, uninteresting, unintelligent show for the uneducated masses. Sounds too harsh? Well, here’s why I think The Big Bang Theory has most definitely jumped the shark.
The representation of geeks
The original pilot of The Big Bang Theory failed to get picked up by the studio. Why? The original female character was not as friendly and kind to the boys as Penny. To me, it seems obvious that a set-up like that would not have worked. It would be far too easy to rely on mean humour, where the jokes were always at the expense of geeks and their interests. Penny, played by the lovely Kaley Cuoco, did tease the boys and didn’t understand or share many of their interests, but she was never mean to them (or if she was, it was only as part of the conflict within an episode, and always resolved by the end).
While there certainly was a lot of humour centered around the boys being ‘losers’ – science nerds and geeks for anything that is usually spoken of in derogatory terms by the ‘popular kids’ (such as comic books, science fiction, video games, action figures, etc) – it was not represented negatively overall. They were good guys who tried to help Penny when she needed it (even if Leonard’s motivations were less than chivalrous); socially awkward nice guys trying to get by and make friends just like anyone else.
Unfortunately, the series is relying on jokes that laugh at the geeks rather than laughing with them far more as time has worn on. Even Penny has started to get exasperated with what she perceives as them being stuck in childhood, liking childish things, and behaving in childish ways. And the central character of the ‘geeks’ in the show? Leonard. He is by far the least stereotypically geeky of the lot, willing to allow for more ‘normalcy’ in his life, something we are told to think of as a good thing. And Sheldon? His main purpose is to be ridiculed – ‘oh, isn’t it funny that such a clever man is so socially awkward!’
The problem with Raj
Raj and Howard are both opposite extremes of geek stereotypes – the slimy one that can’t pick up on social cues when people wish he would just shut up and leave them alone (completely overconfident) and the one who is shy and unable to talk to women. They made Raj so much of an extreme stereotype that he could not speak at all if there was a woman in the room (unless it was a member of his family). This, of course, proved difficult for his character to be included in the action of a lot of episodes, so they invented a new issue for the character: alcoholism. If Raj was drunk, he could talk to women. The problem with that was: a) he became an obnoxious asshole; and b) he became an alcoholic.
Of course, the fact that this was a psychological issue was emphasized, particularly in the episode ‘The Terminator Decoupling’. Summer Glau is on the train with the boys, which Raj and Howard see as a competition. Raj starts drinking in order to participate. Raj does better – come on girls, let’s face us, Kunal Nayyar is a good-looking guy, and Raj is sweet (underneath all the psychological issues). Howard is sent away, despondent, to get Raj another beer. But low and behold, the beer is non-alcoholic. It is acting as a placebo for Raj, giving him false confidence. Once the truth is out, Raj slumps back to Sheldon and Leonard, defeated by his own insecurities.
At the end of the sixth season, it finally seems that the show’s producers have worked out how much of an issue Raj’s alcoholism has become. While torn up over a woman (the wonderful Kate Micucci), Raj is able to cry into Penny’s arms and open up to her – without alcohol. This is a good start. Where will Raj’s character go from here? Who knows, but hopefully this is a positive step.
The S.N.A.G. – A Sensitive New Age Guy
The joke from the beginning of the series is that Raj is effeminate to the extreme. But he isn’t gay. For a while, these jokes centered on the pseudo-homosexual relationship between Raj and Howard. What I liked about the Raj/Howard relationship was that they were so close and they weren’t afraid to express their emotions to and about one another. But the joke started to wear thin once Howard found himself Bernadette, and the butt of the jokes were solely focused on Raj.
What are the writers and producers of The Big Bang Theory trying to say about Raj and his effeminate ways? It seems that they rely far too heavily on a homophobic style of joke, suggesting it is very ‘gay’ to act the way Raj does… oh, but isn’t it funny that he isn’t actually gay? Hmmm, I’m just not sure how this kind of a joke is a good thing. Firstly, they are relying on the stereotypical construct of a gay man as womanlike, which just isn’t the case. And why is it a problem for a straight man to show his emotions, to like to cook and clean, to love his dog and his best friend, etc? Please, someone explain to me why these are bad things, and why we should laugh at them?
Who said growth was necessarily a good thing?
As mentioned previously, sitcoms work because of their circular structure. The characters don’t learn from their mistakes, their flaws remain unchanged, and the equilibrium is always restored at the end of the episode. We aren’t talking about a film, or even a drama series – if Back to the Future were a sitcom, then Marty would never learn not to be chastised into doing stupid things when people called him ‘Chicken’. And a lot of the action of the show would be derived from that very flaw.
But The Big Bang Theory has changed – quite dramatically so. The guys get girlfriends, even Sheldon. This changed the dynamic and action of the show completely. It is no longer a group (or family) of geeky men hanging out with their nice but unintelligent hot neighbor, but a group of girls and a group of guys, hanging out, dating, and trying to stay friends. Hang on, when did this show become the same as every other popular sitcom?! Wasn’t it interesting that it wasn’t the same as Friends? Oh well, I guess that ship has sailed.
A lot of the reviews and puffs for the show since the third season (when the show really began to be a major ratings hit) like to emphasise how the show matured and grew into something really special. I have to downright disagree with that. What was great about the first two seasons in particular was that the show was creating comedy for a mostly unrepresented demographic (in tv comedies anyway): the geeks. Most comedy is mainstream, for middle-of-the-road audiences who don’t like to be challenged. You know the type, the Two and a Half Men fans. The Big Bang Theory could have been special: a new way to tell funny stories in a sitcom format (something that the limits of sitcom make it difficult to do).
I still enjoy The Big Bang Theory; it has a lot of laughs. But I’m disappointed that it doesn’t take better care of the people it started out trying to appeal to… you, me… the geeks of the world. Nerd chic is happening; geeks are slowly taking over. Maybe The Big Bang Theory just came a little too early. Hopefully we will get a truly funny comedy that appeals to geeks – without making fun of them – before too long.
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