It is a mainstay of the human condition that one will accept entertainment recommendations from some of their friends without reservation, while answering certain other of their friends with a, “Yeah, I’ll get right on it.” A lot of times, the situation is beneficial: I’ll never forget the day I discovered I would never be a Brony, or the day the spin-off Joey made me realize my favorite Friend was Chandler. But the phenomenon is not limited to television. Back in the 18th Century, you can be sure this kind of conversation happened almost daily:
Amos Miller: Have you read the latest pamphlet by John Dickinson, Levi? It is most provocative; I find it to be exactly in line with your sensibilities.
Levi Humblebum: Gawd, Amos, I don’t know. You thought John Joachim Zubly's An Humble Enquiry was as essential to the socio-political lexicon as Paine’s Common Sense. Methinks you should stick to puppet shows.
If your circle of friends consisted entirely of people with good taste, you’d have a room full of people that all liked The Shins, and not because of Garden State, and that is a pretty boring room. Also, your mom watched Early Edition religiously, and you don’t want to have to unfriend your mom on Facebook do you?
So you learn to tolerate it, you take the bad with the good, the Brickleberries with the South Parks, your a.k.a. Pablos with your Maudes. So what makes The Big Bang Theory different? Why, when a friend recommends this particular show to me, do I feel the need to restrain myself from physically harming them? I know for a fact, I am not alone.
This is a university-educated man, not given to fits of unnecessary punctuation.
The reason this incredibly popular, Emmy-gobbling mega-sitcom summons the bile to an ever-growing population of otherwise sane, pacifist adults has to be its presentation. Whenever a friend offers this show to me as “so perfect for you,” I have to literally bite my tongue to spare her head the same fate. The pitch usually goes like this:
“Have you been watching The Big Bang Theory? It reminds me so much of you! It is so smart, and funny. Just like when I talk to you, and most of the stuff goes over my head, but everyone around me laughs so I know to laugh, too. And Star Trek. You like Star Trek. This show is clearly for you.”
As much as I appreciate a laugh track standing in for my wit, no, the program is not smart. It talks about smart things, but that does not make it smart in itself. A Dennis Miller rant randomly and rapidly fires references at a nebulous cloud of subjects, and some of those subjects are bound to have an element of intelligence in them, if explored in any depth. That does not make Dennis Miller smart.
The Big Bang Theory is a Chuck Lorre show, and all of his shows are exact clones of each other. For instance, a lot of the elderly people in my life love to watch Two and a Half Men, mostly because they think it falls in the Goldilocks zone of raunchiness. Not so sexy as to be improper for ladies of their years, just enough to give them the guilty giggles. But Two and a Half Men isn’t raunchy. It talks about raunchy things, but smothers them in innuendo and moves on before something raunchy is actually said. By contrast, The League is impeccably trashy. It goes there. It shows, it doesn’t tell. If you dipped litmus paper in a beaker with Two and a Half Men in it, and another with The League, the Two and Half stick would come back pink, but the other would not come back at all because it will have vaporized in glorious, disgusting hilarity. For those not tuning in, The League doesn’t mention anything smart, it is smart. Because it is actually funny, it doesn’t need the laugh track letting you know where the jokes are.
Because The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men are Chuck Lorre creations, they follow a specific formula that makes them accessible sitcoms rather than actually touch on the subject matter at hand. The shows are about a bunch of smart guys and a dude who sleeps around, respectively. But the shows are not smart, nor do they… sleep around themselves… Similarly, another of Lorre’s afternoon one-offs (and a superior show to either of the two mentioned above), Mike & Molly isn’t about the challenges of finding and maintaining love while overweight, as advertised, but is more your standard relationship sitcom with surrounding family that happens to star two fat people.
Murphy Brown was more about politics than these shows are about those things.
“Ha ha, you’re fat/nerdy/horny.” Three scripts written before lunch. Can we wheel the Craft Services table over to the Jacuzzi, or do we have to schedule the rest of our day like peasants?
The point is, you could replace “Star Trek” in a given line of The Big Bang Theory with “Ice Road Truckers” and the joke would still land as intended: softly, inoffensively, most of all generally. But would you, my friend, still have me in mind while watching it? And not for nothing, you wouldn’t recommend Mike & Molly to your overweight friend, would you? Just something to think about.
Your harpy of a wife would really like King of Queens.
My friends are right, though, to say that the geeks of The Big Bang Theory do talk about scientists, theories, philosophy, Star Trek… but even that aggravates me somehow. I admit that, yes, many of the references that are meant to go over heads - for the sake of a throwaway joke about dumb blondes - don’t always go over my head as much as they do some other people. That leaves me in the uncomfortable position of feeling less than humble. I’m no physicist or biologist, but I read books and news here and there, and bring them up at dinner parties and Risk nights. This is no reason to place me at the head of what I had hoped would be a round table of chumminess.
And yeah, it does mention a lot of the things I dig, like science and science fiction. But if you did value my intelligence as much as you say you do, you would know I don’t want a half hour list of things I like. My brain can call up that information. If you had presented The Big Bang Theory to me as a half hour of browsing BuzzFeed, I might have shut my brain off, tuned in, and enjoyed. “Aha! Yes,” I might have said. “Battlestar Gallactica is a thing, a thing I enjoyed in the past. Well referenced.” But you’ve already put off-brand cookies in an Oreo bag, and handed them to me. I’m not going to like it.
A final reason that you, if you are like me, might find yourself filled with uncommon contempt for a well-meaning friend - or Emmy Academy member - for suggesting you catch an episode is slightly more egoistic. Which of these characters, you might ask, reminds my friends of me? Surely, it is not the guy that objectively has Asperger’s, and that is inexplicably alright to point and laugh at (Sheldon is an article unto himself). I’m not Indian, and on good days I can talk to women without an intermediary. I’m not the filler nerd with the overbearing mom.
Maybe I remind you of Leonard: the everyman, the one that is also smart, but less so than his friends, and occasionally gets laid? The only guy from Roseanne that doesn’t hate Chuck Lorre and is meant to be a bridge between us lowly people and the intellectual elite? Well, alright, Leonard’s function as a character serves that purpose. You’re supposed to see a little bit of me in him - - and you, and your uncle, and your roommate.
But have you ever seen me cosplay? Or play Dungeons & Dragons? I may geek out, but there’s only so much nerdery a nonfictional functioning adult can maintain before dweeb overload pushes out the realities of modern existence. A real person couldn’t bracket out his week with Halo nights, invention nights, D&D nights, and an occasional date night. Have you ever seen this Leonard guy balance a check book, or get stuck in a grocery store line for 45 minutes? That’s the point of sitcoms, yes, a break from the mundane; but the sheer amount of geekery Leonard engages in that I don’t has to far outweigh the geeky things I actually do, right? Right?
For many of us, The Big Bang Theory serves as a reminder that, for every intelligent thought we have, for every interest we hold that our friends don’t share, we are held at a tangible distance from them. When we are told, “This reminds me of you,” we sense that friends see us in a world they can’t inhabit themselves, the final kick that sets our tiny ice-berg adrift into a cold sea of other-ness. The friendship between the core characters in The Big Bang Theory and their ‘normal’ friend Penny is meant to be the exception, not the rule. Can you honestly say you would be this close to us if we really were anything like Leonard?
The Big Bang Theory is a passable sitcom, an enjoyable distraction when one gets home tired from work. But the element of it that seems to make it exceptional, a unique product worthy of enthusiasm for Emmy judges and my dearest friends, seems to be nonexistent. I’m never insulted that you thought of me while doing anything. I love you, too. But The Big Bang Theory was made for me and my ilk about as much as Skittles were developed for fruit farmers. You don’t have to recommend it anymore, thanks.