Geeks have become a spectacle. Right now being a geek is considered cool. It’s considered fairly trendy. Very few people who self-identify as geeks are the real deal. This statement may cause all sorts of debates, but ultimately it’s fairly inarguable. Things that were once upon a time considered the realm of outsiders have now become mainstream and hyper popular. This isn’t a bad thing, by the way — do you really think you’d ever see a massive blockbuster featuring Thanos if it wouldn’t sell? But it does have a few negative side effects, and they are all The Big Bang Theory.
The Big Bang Theory, for better or for worse, played a part in the rise of the nerd. But the show itself is toxic. While early seasons were more tolerable, recent seasons are increasingly stale and unpleasant. Big Bang Theory is junk food, though; it doesn’t want to be good. The problem with the show is the way it exploits geekery. The word “geek” has ties to freak shows, back when freak shows were a thing that happened. Big Bang Theory is a modern-day, fictionalized, freak show. A huge percentage of the humour is simply derived from the fact that characters are saying vaguely nerdy things. Seriously, watch an episode and keep track of all the times the laugh track cuts in when characters reference super-heroes, or the existence of comic books, or science. To the writers of Big Bang, those things are funny enough that traditional jokes aren’t even needed! Of course, not content to merely use what the show seems to consider an over-abundance of intellect as a source of comedy, other characters, especially Penny, have become increasingly, upsettingly dumb. But it’s fast food. The depiction of geeks is just as bad as the character developments, and in fact, all of the writing. Take the laugh track out of that show and you realize it’s just all the characters being massive dicks to one another. The problem, however, isn’t the show’s existence. The problem is the response.
The problem is that real geeks ate that shit up. Seriously. Attend a comic convention (even a small scale, non-mainstream one), and take a shot whenever you see a shirt that says “Bazinga.” Then, if you haven’t succumbed to alcohol poisoning, leave a comment telling me about the stomach pumping. If you think I’m exaggerating, know this: the last con I attended had about 15,000 attendees a day. On one of those days, I easily saw 30 Bazinga shirts, and I wasn’t there the whole day. Keep in mind those 30 people out of, say, 5000 in the room at any time, are only the people who self-identify with the show enough to present themselves as fans on that particular day. There were, without a doubt, many more fans equally devoted to the show, and many more casual fans.
That’s a lot of people who self-identify as geeks. A lot of people who are geeky enough to attend a local comic convention, who don’t see anything offensive in the way Big Bang represents them. Because Big Bang does represent them. It’s hands down the most watched show that represents Geek Culture. It’s one of the most popular sitcoms going right now, and it’s directly influencing the way the rest of the world perceives geeks. Unfortunately, the thing geeks don’t always seem to realize is that this show doesn’t respect them. At all.
The thing is Big Bang Theory was one of the first hugely popular shows to adopt a nerdy language. There were comic characters referenced and scientific terminology used, and the main characters talk about being bullied and feeling smarter than everyone else. So people clung to the terms, and the comedy, and ignored the tone. They just saw people kind of like them represented on TV and didn’t stop to think about the context.
No episode better displays the show’s understanding of geek culture than season 6, episode 13 — The Bakersfield Expedition. The main plot in this episode sees Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj travelling to a comic con. On the way, their car gets stolen. They have to walk a sizable distance through what is essentially desert to get to the nearest town. No one who drives by offers help, some even throw garbage. We’re told this must be because they’re wearing Star Trek costumes. Apparently, not a single kind person is driving down this busy road. They reach the nearest town, and the show manages to get a lot of laughs out of a police officer hassling them for being nerds. “Do you need me to call someone? I’m assuming your mothers?” Of course Leonard acts all offended right before Howard walks in and says, “I just got off the phone with my mother…” Cue the laugh track. Of course the incident makes the entire group reevaluate their feelings about the things they love. This rings horrendously false, because if you are to believe their frequent whining, most of their lives, right up until recently, has been a waking hell. But this incident is what makes them change their mind? It strikes me that if they were likely to change their minds it would’ve happened long ago in response to something far worse. But I digress.
The B-plot is even worse, and even more offensive. All the girlfriends (why’d they call Howard’s mom anyways?), Penny, Burnadette, and Amy are hanging out. Part way through, they start to wonder how their boyfriend’s could enjoy comics when they’re adults and clearly all comics are intended for children. In case you were wondering, yes, there is a slightly paedophilia-based joke made from this — you can rest easy. The girls decide to find out, and all go to the comic book shop. Of course, no one in the store has so much as seen a girl in there before, and humour ensues. I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain why this stereotype is as maddening as it is. There is a split second where the show feels like it might redeem itself — Stewart, the owner of the shop, suggests Fables, and makes a fairly reasonable pitch for it. The girls ignore this and purchase generic super-hero comics. After a few jokes about how spectacularly stupid Penny is, the girls start arguing the rules around Thor’s hammer. Their epiphany — which up until that point seems like it might be that comics can be adult and interesting — ends up being that comics are stupid but fun to argue about. Believe me yet when I say this show doesn’t understand geeky stuff? Course the boys return to the apartment, hear the girl’s arguing, and immediately change their minds about changing their lives. I think there’s a Star Trek joke afterwards.