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Matthew Belinkie, Peter Fenzel, and Matthew Wrather overthink sitcoms, what The Bing Bang Theory was really about all along, and how half-hour comedies help the society come to terms with its changes and irresolvable conflicts.
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Nerd culture has become difficult to describe outside of lazy stereotypes because it’s such a large umbrella now that it’s rarely representative of itself. Are English majors nerds? Maybe, but they’re not nerds in the same way that STEM majors are. And neither of them is necessarily into sci-fi or fantasy or video games or comic books or building miniatures or deep-diving into politics or conspiracy theories (or, often-times, the weird intersections between the two). Are people on Twitter who argue for social justice nerds? What about Redditors? 4Channers? What about environmentalists? Antique coin collectors?
I went to a museum for miniatures the other day. Saw some really incredible recreations of ships, buildings, aircraft, houses. Some of them had placards describing the process of the craft or the specifics of the larger physical object that was being represented and at what scale. One of them, in bronze, proudly bore the expression “a ship is like a woman: the riggings are more expensive than the hull.” I confess, I have no idea what that means other than the obvious sexism. Nearby, there was an Imperial Star Destroyer. Actually, there was not. Actually, it was a model built of a starship belonging to an alien race which apparently walks among us and flies around in unfathomably advanced craft that just so happen to look pretty much like Imperial Star Destroyers. Go figure. The placard here had a few snippets of paranoid delusion followed by “he suggests that you Google the phrase ‘Star Warriors’.” I declined.
But those people are probably nerds, right? And most of them are old. Ancient, in fact. Retired and bored. Much too old to know what a “Thanos” is, probably, although maybe I’m assuming too much.
Are all autistic people nerds? No, don’t say that! That’s awful! Are all nerds autistic? Jeez, of course not! Do we still act like that’s the case? Well, sometimes, yes, when we’re not thinking about it very deeply. Or when we’re watching Big Bang Theory, I guess.
But again, nerd culture is rarely representative of itself. That’s part of the problem with defining it. Does Captain America read Captain America comics? No. He works out and gets in brawls. He’s a jock. Most nerd heroes are jocks, actually. Barbarians, captains, knights. Because they’re not nerd heroes at all. They’re just regular heroes that got co-opted over time.
Is Buzz Aldrin a nerd hero? Sure. But he used to just be an American one. Probably still is, most days. His name is “Buzz”, fer chrissake.
So, okay, when we’re talking about nerds then we’re really just talking about different, maybe safer, kinds of “others” here. I believe there’s a CSI show, for example, that’s very proud to have a woman dressed up in lightly gothish makeup. She can take the makeup off and it’s not really that thick in the first place and goth as a fashion has been pretty acceptable since the ’90s but hey, maybe that’s the extent of how far that part of Middle America is willing to go with their introspection. And by Middle America, I of course mean statistically-average, on-the-level, medium-cooked, not-too-spicy, missionary-til-death-do-us-part and just all-around dull, dull, dull, thank-you-very-much America.
Which is probably not what most people are, most of the time, statistics be damned. I’m sure that a lot of the audience for experimental, outdoor, pornographic musical theater (their adaptation of Waiting for Godot is transcendent!) also watches CSI and Blue Bloods and Fox News and American Football and… wait, is the Home Shopping Network still around?
So there is no real “other” just like there is no real “tribe” to be a part of. We all jump from one to the other all day long as it suits us. We code-switch. Yes, even the white folks. And especially the hetero ones.
But we know all of this already. And yet still, I doubt that Big Bang Theory addresses any of this. More to the point, I don’t really care if it does. Its job is to be a codifier of unhealthy ideas for others to push back against. I’m sure it does its job reasonably well.
Oh, and as long as we’re here, I’m sure that it’s a lot easier for some people to talk about how strange nerds are than how uncomfortable black people make them. But, you know, Middle America.
So wait, is Young Sheldon a period piece? Like That ’70s Show? Does it center its episodes on events like the introduction of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the SNES? Because that could be interesting.
Home Shopping Network still exists enough that my mother will occasionally call me to tell me that she saw some product on it (recent example, shampoo that ships as soap-bars) that excited her so much that she ordered one and is having it shipped to me…
Dudes who still have hair, bar shampoo will change your life. It’s the one thing I miss since embracing hair loss and shaving my head.
Never expected an episode on the Big Bang Theory (or any episode for that matter) to end with me buying bar shampoo over the internet, but here we are…
I tried watching The Big Bang Theory early on, I think because it was on between How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men, back during that dark period when I still thought Charlie Sheen’s antics were funny. There were a few bits that I enjoyed, but my overall feeling was that it (a) had a very Billy Joel approach to “nerd culture,” as in, rapidly list a lot of terms that nerds will recognize and declare victory, (b) was deeply anti-intellectual, and (c) was deeply sexist and kind of racist. A couple of moments worked for me, but mostly the show just seemed like cynical filler.
The show I’d contrast it with is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Both shows feature a new person who doesn’t fit in with the in-group, a one-sided romantic attraction that kinda-sorta works out at times, and trade heavily on nerdiness. But the latter is a much more inclusive model, with characters being invited into the in-group and the obscure references being exciting things to share. Notably, the show even makes the effort to show stereotypical rich, fit, white guys learning to fit in, rather than being left to the side as a lot of people fear and a lot of pop culture like Lorre’s reinforce. It’s much more interesting (and fun) than the gate-keeping Sheldon and company constantly seem to engage in. Plus, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has something like a hundred and sixty musical numbers.
Cybill is also an interesting point of comparison, I think, in that it’s also a Chuck Lorre show, features quite a few heavily cynical characters, and has an “inside baseball” undercurrent (Hollywood instead of science), but even when the characters are mean-spirited, the script somehow never seems to be.
As for How I Met Your Mother, I’m still disappointed that they didn’t end with just a scene with Ted bumping into an unseen young woman and introducing himself. Roll credits, the mother has been met and the kids’ (edited) reaction shots are now shock at listening to a nine year long shaggy dog story.
How I Met Your Mother’s “secret” tension is related, as I read it, and interestingly also a theme that the show overtly explored: The tension between real life and narrative structure. After all, we know that a good chunk of the story concept is very literally the lives of the creators and we also know that the show ran for quite a few years beyond what they expected, so they needed to keep opening up new storylines even while knowing what they decided the ending had to be from the start, requiring the story to backtrack to the version where it’s about wearing the girl down until she goes on a date, decades after learning that’s bad, which…creepy.
How I Met Your Mother, along with Lost and Battlestar Galactica, is a case study in how NOT to end a series. The show stretched out too long and the red herring Barney-Robin romance got a lot of people invested in a relationship that was thrown away with one line and undercut the very premise of a nine-season series. The producers got greedy and killed a golden goose.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend knew its scope and stuck to it. While I thought the fourth and final season was a little too Afterschool Special-ish, it knew what it was and didn’t compromise.
I have seen nearly every episode of The Big Bang Theory because it is one of the few shows my wife and I can watch together. She is not a nerd but she is nerd-adjacent. She married a nerd. She raised a nerd. For half her career she taught nerds.
When watching the show together she will laugh at some joke with a very specific nerd culture reference. I will ask “How can you laugh at that? You can’t possibly know what they are talking about.”
She will respond, “But I know that you got it. That’s what makes it funny.”
So this reinforces Fenzel’s theory that Penny is the centerpiece of the show. She is the audience surrogate into the subculture. She is there to remind the nerds that they are nerds. Without her the show is The IT Crowd or Silicon Valley which are much more niche shows.
Which brings up another point. BBT is not about nerds. It’s about sex. Chuck Lorre’s formula is [Blank] plus Smutty Jokes.
Two and Half Men – Charlie Sheen and Smutty Jokes
Mike and Molly – Fat People and Smutty Jokes
Mom – Recovering Addicts and Smutty Jokes
Dharma and Greg – Hippies and Smutty Jokes
There is a through-line here. BBT started with some of the worst possible stereotypes of sexually frustrated men. It was a veritable catalog of incels with the worst being Wolowitz as a rapey pick-up artist type. The show’s blatantly misogynistic sexism has been discussed many, many times. Perhaps most thoroughly in this You Tube video:
Whenever I push the theory that BBT is a minstrel show to normie friends the pushback is “But Sheldon is sooo adorable.” They sincerely don’t see what is offensive about it. So I just give up.
My one defense of the show used to be that at least they got the geek right. The science was semi-plausible and the pop culture discussions were ripped right from Fidonet flamewars. But even that has gone by the wayside. The current finale season centers around Sheldon and Amy doing joint physics/neurobiology research which puts them in the running for a Nobel Prize. Disregarding the very woo-woo science babble, that is not the way ANY of this works. Nobel prizes don’t get awarded until decades after the research is done and confirmed and vetted and made a cornerstone of other research. It’s just quit caring. Like Game of Thrones they are marching to an endgame and all logic and plausibility are being thrown to the wayside.
The show it most resembles in its 12-year arc is M*A*S*H where all the sharp edges have been worn away in softening the characters of all their objectionable traits. As the show goes on it strays further and further from its original focus as everybody becomes nice and safe and relatable. There are no villains and every show has a happy ending. It’s run its course but at least it is going out on top until they spin-off their AfterMASH or Joey.
Little noticed is that the show is being ended because of Jim Parson’s Broadway ambitions. I’ve seen his two recent Broadway runs. Dear God was a jokey one-man-show which traded on his Sheldonesque delivery. Much more ambitious was the revival of The Boys In The Band with its all-star all-out cast including new Spock Zach Quinto and Magic Mike’s Matt Bomer.
Both of these productions ran just after Tony eligibility for the year ended because of Parson’s BBT shooting schedule. Boys In The Band got no Tony nominations this year. Parsons and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the cast have Friends-level never have to work again money which allows them to do passion projects to their hearts content, much of which will be to break away from their career-defining dork roles.
There is a single one-hour finale left and we need to see if it sticks the landing (a very oblique reference to Melissa Rauch’s The Bronze) of if it crashes and burns.
Speaking of celebrating an inexplicably popular television program… Will OTI be doing any Eurovision coverage this year??
I’m sorry to say that we skipped making videos this year. A combination of professional and personal life events made it unfeasible.
We will be at The Liberty in Herald Square, NYC watching the contest — drop a line if you happen to be there and you want to come hang out.
Sadly, while attending the OTI Eurovision party has been a dream for many years, finding time to travel to NYC in mid-May has never worked out. :( Maybe next year!
(Any recommendations for other sources to get coverage? I didn’t realize how much I relied on OTI’s background research until it was absent.)
Hi Liffer! I’m partial to wiwibloggs.com. The best and worst thing about them is they post WAY too much stuff. Like, they exhaustively cover each and every national selection show. They’ll follow up on when Eurovision competitors put out albums, years later. But if you ignore like 90% of their posts you’ll get the gossip and analysis you crave.