Geek chic is all the rage. 60 Minutes spotlighted the trend back in January, and just last week, Kathy Griffin strolled the Emmys red carpet with Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak while Beauty and the Geek entered its fourth season. Need we even mention OK Go’s treadmill video for “Here It Goes Again”?
At first look, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory appears to be jumping on the geek heat train. But its translation of Beauty and the Geek to a sitcom format is not nearly fresh. In its formal aspects, Big Bang is a relentless string of set-ups and giggedy-goo punch-lines. True, the premiere episode’s primary scribe, Chuck Lorre, has had mad success with the similarly formulaic Two and a Half Men, whose popularity has long escaped me. But if predictable gags and a disciplinary laugh track are what you like, The Big Bang Theory is your show.
The fun begins when uber-geeks and roomies Leonard (Johnny Galecki, woefully overacting throughout) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) are surprised to find a hot blonde moving in to the apartment next door. Penny (Kaley Cuoco) is, the boys agree, much preferable to the previous tenant, a “200-pound transvestite with a skin condition.” Leonard is immediately crushing hard on Penny, and begins to devise ways to spend time with her and get in her good graces, much to Sheldon’s confusion.
Sheldon’s a bit more realistic about things, apparently. He realizes they’re geeks and that Penny is therefore totally out of Leonard’s league. The Big Bang Theory dramatizes this social gap through the most simplistic of stereotypical characterizations. Sheldon and Leonard play “Klingon Scrabble” with colleagues from “the University” until 1 am. They nitpick each other over their respective quantum physics calculations prominently displayed on the whiteboards scattered around their apartment. They discuss the “Bourne-Oppenheimer Approximation,” love Battlestar Galactica and online gaming.
And of course their social skills suck. When Leonard suggests they invite Penny over to lunch, so they might “chat” with her, Sheldon quips, “We don’t chat. At least not off-line.” Penny’s acceptance of their invitation leads to a series of tedious jokes based on the boys’ ineptitude: Sheldon is horrified that she takes his usual spot on the couch, then rambles on for several minutes about why that is the perfect seating location in the room. These boys aren’t just geeks. They are social toxins.
Leonard’s case isn’t made any better by the unannounced arrival of their colleagues and fellow physicists. Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) has a tragic Prince Valiant pageboy and obnoxious forced bonhomie in Penny’s presence, and Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) is a brilliant India-born researcher who “speaks English,” but “just can’t speak to women.” Geek stereotypes all, the boys are occasionally charming (or more precisely, endearingly pathetic), but the show isn’t set up for any one of them to “develop.”
Penny is just as one-dimensional. She moved to California to become an actress, but ended up a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory and fully believes in and rambles on about astrology. A vegetarian who loves steak, she dates big meathead men who cheat on her and steal her television. And she’s totally unaware of her effect on the geeks: because the shower in her new apartment is broken, she asks to shower at Leonard and Sheldon’s, then proceeds to traipse around in nothing but a towel. All the while, she misses the billboard-sized clues that Leonard is hitting on her.
If only Penny could see (like Kathy Griffin) that a geek on your arm is the totally hot accessory du jour. But she can’t, which is to say the show and its writers can’t. While The Big Bang Theory acknowledges geek chic, it can’t imagine geeks in any but the most conventional ways, as the butts of jokes for “normal” people. Other shows do complicate and elaborate the geek mystique (CSI and Bones come to mind), but all we’re likely to get from The Big Bang Theory are missed communications, fumbled opportunities, and general yuckety-yucks.