Before I hurt everyone’s feelings, let me say that I see the charm of The Big Bang Theory. The show has all the right elements: geeky characters, empowered female scientists, and a running theme about the importance of friendship. I want to like this show so much, it pains me. I’ve kept up-to-date with it, and I’m left trying to figure out why. Maybe I’m waiting for it to get better, or maybe it satisfies the TV-equivalent craving of eating a McGriddle, or maybe I’m trying to connect with my fellow man. To be sure, the show is more interesting than other typical sitcoms, but it has so much lost potential. While the show seemingly celebrates all the things I love—comics, cosplay, smart characters, snarky best friends— it actually mercilessly ridicules them in a way that, for me, is the opposite of fun.
Instead of celebrating geekery, individuality, and being your own person, Big Bang Theory proves everyone’s 8th-grade assumptions about nerdiness. The smart characters may have found success, but they lack social currency. At the beginning of the show, most of the jokes centered on Leonard, Raj, and Howard awkwardly trying to score dates and Sheldon just being awkward. As the show progresses, the guys snag girlfriends (and Howard a wife), but the cruxes of most of the jokes are still the same: the guys aren’t “cool” and they are into “nerdy stuff.” Nerds are so weird and impossible to understand! *Cue laugh track.*
As someone steeped in geek culture, I don’t feel like the characters in Big Bang are representative of me—or any actual people. Instead of introducing complicated, smart characters, the show reinforces preconceived stereotypes, including the fact that geeks are male. While smart women grace the show, none of them share the geeky culture that the male characters embrace. Bernadette and Amy may be brilliant scientists, but they still make fun of the guys for liking action figures, cosplay, comics, and sci-fi, infantilizing these interests to the point of mockery.
Not only is a love of geek culture gendered male in Big Bang, but it’s also marked as dumb, silly, and impenetrable to outsiders. It’s the same old sitcom dynamic as Everybody Loves Raymond or King of Queens or Home Improvement: the wife is smart and smug and the husband is a bumbling idiot. But the difference is that the Big Bang Theory laugh track invites the audience to laugh with the women as they laugh at the men and their childishness—and feel superior.
Throughout the entire run of Big Bang, geekiness is treated as something to be laughed at, rather than something to be celebrated. The stuff that real geeks love is treated as nothing more than laugh-track fodder. To me, this stuff isn’t funny—this is my life. I don’t see someone in cosplay and burst out laughing, because I genuinely think cosplay is cool. I don’t think it’s dumb for adults to freak out over action figures, because my shelves are full of them. I don’t think the idea of ritualistically going to the comic book store every Wednesday is absurd because it’s part of my own routine. And I don’t think it’s ridiculous to talk about the scientific accuracy of sci-fi films or discuss superhero powers.
For me, there’s no punchline where the laugh track wants me to find one—just a laundry list of stuff I like being made to look ridiculous. Normally, that kind of parody is fine, except that in this case there’s no smart commentary, no insider winks, and no substance given to the culture. It seems like the writers are only peripherally aware of geeky interests, and use a formula to plug in various surface-level references. It’s an empty parody that echoes the high school dynamic of the “cool kids” making fun of the “nerdy kids” and little more. If the show ever decides to go ahead and try to reach its potential—to move beyond surface-level quick jabs and the belittling of my geeky brothers—I’ll be waiting.