‘The Big Bang Theory’ and the Rise of the Pathologically Nerdy in Sitcom TV

Sheldon Cooper is arguably a man of whom I see too much. With his mantis jawline and sinewy physique, imported from the US for syndication on E4 after a monster domestic run, he and his associates are now the staple of UK evening television. That a character famous for social inadequacy should form such a large part of my primetime existence is, I believe, a sign of the times. By virtue of its very popularity, the Big Bang Theory has become a social force beyond the remit of the box in the living room. It has joined an exclusive club which acquires a new member once every decade or so: it’s a super-sitcom.

Since the grayscale days of I Love Lucy, sitcom has been a friend to the lonely; a dependable evening comfort; a place where — contrary to some subtle misinformation in the ’80s might indicate — you know everybody’s name. Repetition, formula, and the long exposure to individuals we come to know intimately, (“actually, it’s Miss Chanandaler Bong”), give the rhythm and security of real platonic coexistence. The tacit hand-me-downs from show to show allow writers to rehash jokes without remorse or repercussion, and the narrative overlaps between Friends and How I Met Your Mother — which evoke images of chain-smoking monkeys at antique typewriters — don’t ruffle an audience that’s into the gentle swing of routine.

More than any other cul-de-sac of entertainment, the sitcom invites a lasting emotional attachment, with diverse cohabiting groups sustained intact for decades at a time; bitching, silent treatments and financial woes are presumably off-camera affairs. We judge the characters not so much by their relationships with each other as by imagined connections to ourselves. Everyone identifies with Chandler, we all know a Rachel; we are seduced into projecting ourselves as members of the crowd. Canned laughter, which has weathered many a spell of cynicism to survive to the present day, is the crudest show of collectivism on offer.

Sitcoms serve as opiates to a greater or lesser extent, but those which cater most effectually to our base, Ben & Jerry’s-type desires are the ones that will cash the ratings cheques. People become more esoteric in their higher tastes, and thus more sophisticated comedy, however sharp, will corner only a segment of the market. The hyper-promoted Girls scores around 4.6 million viewers per week in the United States, while its panties-in-a-twist predecessor, Sex and the City, peaked at a 10.6 million finalé. Conversely, The Big Bang Theory is regularly racking up 20 million slack-jawed observers. It turns out that the generation Girls is credited with defining is only a fraction of a whole — the fraction, presumably, that have HBO subscriptions.

The Big Bang Theory is the third highest-rated show — not comedy, show — in the US, behind The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune. Sitcomically speaking, this is a serious cash cow. The bored and the ignorant, usually a safe ratings bet, cannot account for the entire Big Bang brigade — the numbers are just too large for that kind of segregation. It targets 18-49-year-olds, such that, unlike the gameshows’ model, the thumb-twiddling retiree factor is lost. The show must, then, have an umbrella appeal which speaks to some universal traits. Of course, there are questions of network and timeslot, but with an audience that renders the competition irrelevant, this is the super-sitcom of the day.

Despite a recent upswing in laziness, introversion and thus the available TV audience, The Big Bang Theory was not the first such show to hit the big time. Former evening institutions Cheers, Seinfeld and Friends have, in decades past, all earned their popularity stripes. The club of super-sitcoms is predicated superficially on certain common features — the young, lost and lusty, cohabiting in the big city — but these prerequisites would equally apply to innumerable lesser-known shows. These conditions aside, the Big Four of The Big Bang Theory are individuals, operating in different eras under quite different circumstances, but each capturing some essence of their decade. It follows that in looking back at these shows we may see a picture within a picture; an honest mirror of the social makeup of their time.

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The Pasadenans of The Big Bang Theory represent a break from previous stock characters. Where Seinfeld revolved around figures who were deeply but individually flawed, Raj, Howard, Leonard and Sheldon, the four academics who provide the bulk of The Big Bang‘s laughs, share a common pathology: they are terminally nerdy. The joke on inadequacy in gender roles is The Big Bang Theory’s (note the title) unwitting strength: it has stumbled, presumably by chance, upon an era-defining personality type.

The new masculinity embodied by Leonard and co. is heavily ironic. The social isolation which supposedly defines intellectual types is in fact ebbing in the West with each sale of those nauseating ‘GEEK’ shirts, and the contention that booksmarts kill one’s pulling ability is, these days, considered a downright lie. What formerly passed for inadequacy is now a covert strength, and therefore we must shop elsewhere for our neuroses.

The age of the introvert is best viewed from the past. Reconsider Seinfeld’s George Costanza, the stout, balding misanthrope. He’s a loser by any definition. Although a miserable SOB from pilot to finalé, it’s implied that George’s demeanour is a reaction to a world which overlooks him. He exists without redemption for nine seasons, winding up with the rest of the characters in a metaphorical jail, where, the audience might agree, he belongs.

Thirty years later, the Beatle-cut Howard Wolowitz moves in equivalent circles. Howard, like George, is stupider (no Ph.D.), shorter and altogether less desirable than his immediate friends. Yet his constant emasculation (his mother features heavily) is this time endearing, and the physique, which by any traditional metric would be romantic kryptonite, bags him an inconceivably attractive girl, which is flaunted with alacrity.

A fixation with superheroes is becoming socially kosher in the same God-forgive-us way as is the current fad for Game of Thrones. The new man-child supplements his interior nerd with an appeal to external testosterone, supplied, conveniently, ad nauseum by Marvel and DC Comics. The newly-machismoed Andrew Garfield typifies this contradiction. Had he auditioned for Spiderman ten years ago, he would have been escorted by his little chicken arms from the premises. The Super Man complex is a tongue-in-cheek passion which eases the rise of the nerd into positions of societal and sexual power, but which draws attention by way of dissonance to the real, weedy, state of affairs. Again, masculine inadequacy is a source of pride.

It is perhaps our reliance on technology, which has accelerated in the post- Friends era (Apple was still on the slide back then), that has defined the type of person we now relate to. It’s telling that The Big Bang Theory is situated in the new centre of American industry. Men of the knowledge economy, where brains rather than brawn are advantageous, find themselves unexpectedly on top of a power ladder, which in no way represents the old torments of the schoolyard. This can yield unpredictable adults. Mark Zuckerberg, for example (according to Aaron Sorkin at least), is a prime example of power thrust into the hands of the unprepared, and a living a lesson in being careful what you wish for.

Parenthetically, the character of Ross Geller is a useful counterpoint. Consider a sitcom crossover in which Ross appears on The Big Bang Theory. Ross and the Caltech kids are kindred spirits on paper, but in actuality they share virtually no personality traits. He’s an anachronistic nerd, a ’90s minority whose career choice was based not on social obligation and a presumed way of living, but on a niche passion he chose to pursue. He was no different from Monica with the cooking or Rachel with the clothes.

Leonard and co., by contrast, are part of something bigger, a movement based on lonely childhoods, where computers stood in for friends. With no reason to interact with other people, these kids achieved intellectually what they lacked socially, and our resulting iCulture owes them a great deal. In a sense, technology created the geek — and vice versa, of course.

Where men of the 2010s must find a new sub-masculine persona, women exist in a similar state of conflict. Amy Farrah Fowler is an extreme example of the tendency of the girl on the street to de-sexualise herself (jumpers, nerd glasses, beanie hats) in order to be taken seriously. Amy’s latent housewife is the source of many a laugh, buried so deep in professionalism that she is almost unable to engage with other people.

The moronic Penny is an interesting character because of her assumed role as the ‘normal one’. Socially at ease and sexually… liberated, Penny is the new Rachel, a relic from decades past. But the joke is that her go-getting gets her nowhere. She’s less successful in work and, arguably, love, than the four reformed wallflowers. She’s perhaps less of her time than we are led to believe.

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The Big Bang Theory sits, then, in a transition period in which irony is heaped upon irony, such that the very uncertainty over what constitutes ‘cool’ gives us the social fluidity which defines our world today. We are still looking for the New Normal, so to speak.

The need for togetherness, though, does not discriminate by decade. Fifty years of situation comedy has gifted us all manner of imaginary playmates, and yet the means of their delivery has moved with the prevailing mood. Friends, which operated on the premise that apparently incompatible groupings would become bonded over time, and that therefore the big city was inherently communal, relied on an audience that would be receptive to the sincere. Deviant characters were celebrated for their foibles and integrated into the most functional of relationships (Chandler found Monica; Phoebe found Mike). So far, so Sesame Street.

Friends was inward-looking, largely disregarding social or political issues (the occasional gay wedding notwithstanding) and based on an innocence and immaturity upon which the most enduring jokes are based — the episode, “The One with the Chick and the Duck” comes to mind. It argued that the family unity of small-town America was being replicated in major urbanisations as young people migrated without the maturity or streetsmarts to live alone. Friends‘ childishness is rooted in the economic confidence of an era in which there was no hurry to grow up. Kids raised on Friends have been destined for disillusionment in jobs, relationships and downtown square-footage ever since. This Peter Pan tendency, which resurfaces in the Girls era, is now a gloomier B-side to that of Joey and co.; a hangover from the boomtime ’90s, which is no longer compatible with putting food on the table.

Where the quirks of the individual were rewarded in Friends, five years earlier, the Semitic neuroses of Jerry Seinfeld served only to isolate him. His self-titled and ironic portrait of late ’80s Manhattan took a sideways glance at group living, giving us the belonging we craved but without the gooey conclusion. Seinfeld, unlike Friends, took solitude as a given, and Elaine, Kramer, George and Jerry were really collaborative loners, never constituting a real, cohesive group in the fuzzy Central Perk sense. Redemption was found instead in a common appreciation for the absurd: the same solution offered by Monty Python decades earlier, when John Cleese and the rest of the Flying Circus overcame the dry individualism of British culture with a laughing nod to the ridiculous. Python urged us, despite our isolation in the face of mortality, to ‘always look on the bright side of life’. It’s fitting that Seinfeld makes a living from observational comedy.

Television may catch our interest in many different ways, but no other artform impresses itself so definitely upon the public. The choice, in the average living room, is not whether to watch, but what to watch, and it’s therefore inclusive (if antisocial) by nature. The true social weight, if any, of The Big Bang Theory will be judged only in hindsight, but it’s (copious) shortcomings as a TV program do not diminish its influence over the millions that watch it. The Big Bang Theory provides a feeling of ‘inner fuzziness’, if you will, that comes in an irrepressible, Pavlovian, sort of way upon the sound of scripted nerdisms, e.g., “What exactly does that expression mean, ‘friends with benefits’? Does he provide her with health insurance?”). These geeks were selected by the people, for the people, and it’s only right that they have become part of the furniture.