GUEST ESSAY: AN APPRECIATION OF “THE BIG BANG THEORY”
Writer Steven Paul Leiva drops by the Hero Complex today with an appreciation of the CBS series “The Big Bang Theory,” which airs Monday nights at 9:30 p.m. (8:30 central). Leiva also wrote a Hero Complex essay last year on “The Spirit” movie that could have been.
Even in science fiction, scientists don’t often come off well. Take Frankenstein, for example, remembering, of course, that he was not the monster but rather the creator of the monster, and thus considered by many to be, well, a monster. It’s been 191 years since Mary Shelley’s tale was published but since then, stories written for a whole range of media and genres have featured a plethora of out-of-control lab geniuses (those mad scientists!) who are always mucking around with the laws of nature, creating mutants and doomsday weapons and unleashing man-made plagues, etc. All of it may be nothing more than fever-dream metaphors for what scientists really do — discover the data that generate worldviews that disconcert a large number of people — Copernicus and Galileo telling us that we are not the center of the universe; Darwin telling us that we are not the center of life; the neurobiologists that now may be telling us that we are not even the center of ourselves.
Damn scientists, they sure know how to darken the sunny celebrations of human self-centeredness.
Of course, not all scientists portrayed in media have been mad. Some have just been cold, almost inhuman (or half-inhuman in the case of “Star Trek’s” Mr. Spock), near-robotic creatures uncomfortable with anything that cannot be reduced to an equation. Temperance Brennan in “Bones” is a good current example. A forensic anthropologist, Brennan uses her superior smarts and splendid skills not in the pursuit of expanding human knowledge, but in the pursuit of clues. She is portrayed as so obsessed with rational observation — leaving her emotions out of it — that she can’t see that her partner, the all-heart FBI agent Seeley Booth, is crazy in love with her. She is an indirect descendent of Sherlock Holmes (a fine amateur scientist), both in her smarts and in her lack of warm-and-fuzzy social skills. Walter Bishop of “Fringe” is another example — and he comes with the added benefit of also being an actual verifiably mad scientist.
No, it has not gone well for scientists in their fictional representation in books, film, television, and now even on the Internet (did you see “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”?) Scientists are portrayed as stark raving mad, socially inept or just goofy. This is pretty bad for a subsection of people that have probably had a larger impact on humanity than any other career you could name. Their job description isn’t so bad either: solving the mysteries of the universe.
But then maybe that’s the problem. To solve or even attempt to solve such mysteries, you have to be a whole lot smarter than most of us. And we humble folk don’t especially enjoy looking up to the elite — unless that status is defined by wealth, glamor and sex and comes with the potential of warping into scandal. So rather than thinking that scientists are better than us, we like to think that they are crazy, evil and/or wildly eccentric.
In the face of all that, I would like to put forth the modest suggestion that scientists, as a group, are just as sane and socially capable as any other group of people. Which makes it a wry twist, I suppose, that I would also like to propose that the hit CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” is the finest and best fictional portrayal of scientists in any current media — and a series that is carving out a spot for itself in the annals of television comedy.
Not that this was Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady’s purpose in creating “The Big Bang Theory.” My guess is that their purpose was to create a traditional three-camera sitcom that would generate lots of hearty laughs and big ratings. They have accomplished both those goals, however, and have done so in an era when the sitcom is no longer king. “The Big Bang Theory” has the potential to become a true classic of TV comedy, but it stands apart from most traditional three-camera shows because of what it is not…
“The Big Bang Theory” is not a family sitcom with a wise and knowing (or bumbling and oblivious) father, nor does it feature a single parent. It is not about East Coast friends who are beautiful or urban or beautifully urban. It does not focus on characters defined by their ethnic and/or social class. It is not about aliens or high school students or teachers, and it is not about doctors (not of the medical profession, at least). And it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, about Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. Middle Class, Middle America, Middlebrow — the kind of characters that a vast audience can (supposedly) most relate to most easily.
What “The Big Bang Theory” is is a sitcom about scientists. Specifically, it’s about Leonard Hofstadter, an experimental physicist; Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist; Howard Wolowitz, a spacecraft systems engineer; and Rajesh Koothrappali, a particle astrophysicist. They are not adventurously traveling through space (although I’m sure they wish they were), and they are not searching for clues to a murder. They are working scientists employed by Caltech, daily involved in theoretical, experimental and applied science. At least one of the four, Sheldon, is a certifiable genius; the other three possess superior intelligence and happen to be very good at their jobs. They are all mental giants. But the comic rub is, they are also — not meaning to be pejorative, just extending the metaphor — social midgets. They can wrestle with theoretical tangles but cannot pick up a girl in a bar. They can peer into the structure of the universe, but they can’t navigate simple social situations.
And the scientists’ lack of social skills does not set them apart from humanity, it actually defines their humanity.
Their lack of social skills comes not just from their mental superiority, but also from the fact that they are nerds — they collect comics books, adore video games and gobble up sci-fi and fantasy movies. They take no shame in this; no, they embrace it as their culture, a culture as complex, interesting, and worthy as any other culture on this planet (or any other planet, for that matter). Some might consider separating the fact that the four are scientists with vast mental resources from the fact that they are also culture nerds a useless distinction. But do we really think all scientists are nerds? Certainly all nerds are not scientists. Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Rajesh are nerds more because of their ages — mid- to late 20s — and the era they have grown up in, not because of their lab coats.
The show spends far more time showing them in nerd mode than in science settings; you’re more likely to see them at their favorite comic book store on new-release day than to watch them conduct experiments or pore over data because, well, the other option might be mind-numbingly dull. But their career pursuits are shown in subtle ways during brief moments, which is when we see their passion for their work, the thrill and pride they display when they apply their finely honed minds to the latest challenge. If nerdism is their culture, science is their tribe.
The writers of the series have sculpted full portraits of their characters and polished them with a giddy exploitation of their human frailties as well as compassion for them. Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Rajesh have become completely relatable to the large audience; some of the audience, of course, may connect to the nerd factor, but certainly not all. The viewers may be much like the character Penny, the desirable, decidedly non-nerdy and non-intellectual neighbor who, surprising even herself, becomes Leonard’s lover. Penny is the stand-in for the audience; she is perplexed by the scientists’ high IQs and alternately amused and appalled by their lack of social graces. Penny is won over, though, by the sincerity of their nerddom and by their ego-fragility. She is essentially the Wendy to these Lost Boys.
“The Big Bang Theory” has been blessed with five actors with superb comedy instincts. Jim Parsons (Sheldon) has a bit of Jack Benny about him — not in character, but in understanding the humor in silence. He plays Sheldon’s arrogance in his intelligence for the laughs it can engender, but with the dignity of the understanding that if a man is a genius, he’s probably smart enough to know it. Johnny Galecki (Leonard) is all frustrated sweetness with some vulnerability, and while he’s far less arrogant that Sheldon he is also unapologetic about his intelligence. Kaley Cuoco (Penny) beautifully plays wise-but-dim, which may be a new comedic category. Simon Helberg (Howard) delivers a line like a great musician can play a violin, and Kunal Nayyar (Rajesh) tosses laughter bombs with precision. It’s an incredible ensemble, and in my opinion, ranks with the best in television history.
The writers and actors of “The Big Bang Theory” have combined their talents to portray scientists as they actually are — human. If this can help bring the generalized view of scientists out of the realm of misguided and misunderstood prejudice, the show can be a boon for all humankind. If not? Well, at least it’s an experiment in laughter, and that’s no small thing.
— Steven Paul Leiva
Leiva, a novelist and screenwriter, is currently writing, producing and appearing in “The Old Curmudgeon’s Book of Questions,” a series of Internet VidBits. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Top photo: From left to right, Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg Kunnal Nayyar and Jim Parsons of the cast of The Big Bang Theory (Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times) Bottom photo: Johnny Galecki, front, and costar Jim Parsons (Stefano Paltera/For The Times)