There are a lot of negative feelings towards The Big Bang Theory in the nerd community. There are a lot of articles out there, a lot of reddit posts, all about how any self-respecting nerd would hate the series. It’s been accused of perpetuating nerd stereotypes, misrepresenting nerd culture, and making fun of nerds for cheap laughs.
And… I have to say, they have a point. Sometimes. The series has some major flaws it would need to iron out before it can get the nerd community at large on its side. There are times when I’ve watched the show, and I’ve found myself wondering why they they played the laughter track after Howard references Doctor Who. Or when Sheldon tells Leonard about his idea for a 3-person chess game. Or when Sheldon doesn’t understand a social norm. And there are a lot of people who find the running gag around the implication that Sheldon is on the autistic spectrum offensive. While there are times when The Big Bang Theory gives us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, there are others when it feels like it’s laughing at us, and not with us.
Then, there is the fact that the “nerds” are constantly chasing women. They’re obsessed. They spend most of the seasons trying to “get” girlfriends, and when they do, they can be incredibly immature. They all come across as desperate, as if women are the one thing that they can never hope to understand. The writers can’t seem to get out of the mindset that nerds don’t understand women and that they can’t get girlfriends. (Side note: have the writers even considered that not all male nerds are attracted to women…? Don’t make me go into the distinct lack of LGBTQ+ representation.)
But despite these flaws (and others), I still find myself watching The Big Bang Theory, and I still find myself laughing occasionally. I don’t think the series means to be cruel to nerds, but it makes a lot of mistakes. And if I can wince through those, there are some great references and some brilliantly funny moments.
First of all, there are the actors, people like Mayim Bialik, who who plays Amy Farrah-Fowler, and Wil Wheaton, who plays an on-screen version of himself, both of whom are very proud nerds in their own lives. We know that when they’re playing their characters, they’re not doing it from a hateful place. They love nerd culture, and they want to celebrate it. But when you’re trying to create a comedy for the screen, it’s hard to accurately represent the culture you’re basing the show around. You have to exaggerate the funny parts of the culture, sometimes at the price of accuracy and tact.
And sometimes they do manage to hit the nail on the head with a good, well set-up science joke. And it’s hard not to love Sheldon at least a little bit. One of the running themes which makes me smile is the when Sheldon uses algorithms to navigate social situations. For example, when he creates his friendship algorithm to befriend Kripke, or when he offers a person in distress a “not optional” hot beverage because it’s the protocol. Maybe it’s just the fact that I really like algorithms and am similarly useless at comforting people, but these kind of situations make me smile. (They also make me think about creating my own friendship algorithm to navigate the complexities of friendships.)
There are also some brilliant moments when true nerdiness shines through, like in The Bachelor Party Corrosion, when the scientists get a flat tyre whilst on the road, and attempt various scientific and engineering methods to fix it. They end up attempting to use a road sign as a lever, and when that fails, they try thermal expansion, corrosion and an exothermic reaction. This episode reminded me that for all I can tell you about mathematics, or the structure of bacteria, I have no idea how to change a tyre. To me, these are the aspects of being a nerd that warrant a laugh, the parts we laugh at ourselves when they happens to us.
Overall, the show has good intentions, as Kunal Nayyar said at London Comic Con earlier this year:
“We’re really lucky, because it could have easily been a show that made fun of nerd culture, but I think where we got it right, and this is a real testament to the writers, is that we really celebrate nerd culture, that these guys are incredibly proud of who they are – they’re not afraid to hide their colours and what they’re like. They’re an incredible, vibrant culture of people who really celebrate the things they love. I think that’s important about our show… nerds are back and we’re cool and we’re smart and we’re sexy.”
I think he has a point here. People love the characters in The Big Bang Theory – they love their quirks, their flaws, their nerdiness. For the most part, we’re laughing with the characters and not at them. Nobody is watching the show and saying “Ugh these guys are such losers, nerds suck.”
So whilst the show has its flaws, maybe it’s not so wrong if you’re a nerd and you like The Big Bang Theory. And at the end of the day, we know that we’re not just a stereotype, and so will anyone who spends enough time getting to know us. A few cheap jokes from a TV series isn’t going to change that.
Images: Warner Brothers Television/ Chuck Lorre Productions