One of the only sitcoms that I make an effort to watch is The Big Bang Theory. It’s also one of the only sitcoms, outside of The Simpsons, that makes me laugh out loud. When I first started watching, I enjoyed that there were socially maladjusted nerds on tv who weren’t just the butt of jokes–yes, their social maladjustment is sometimes the target of humor, but they have well-rounded characters and full lives and, by and large, give as good as they get in the insult department. I like Sheldon and the line he walks between total discomfort with himself and exasperation with the world because it’s not as good as he is. I especially like Amy Farrah-Fowler, one of the newer additions to the show–she’s got Sheldon’s abrasiveness, but her abrasiveness is a front for vulnerability that Sheldon simply doesn’t have. She so badly wants to be friends with Bernadette and Penny, she goes about it all wrong, and I see a lot of myself in her (though I’m not as smart as she is). Her impressions of social gatherings and friendships seem to be gleaned from movies and Young Adult books, and it’s charming.
Amy: Penny, Bernadette tells me you and she are planning a girls’ night.
Amy: …I’m a girl. (She says this in a voice that is so desperately trying to sound casual, I feel legit bad for her.)
Also, I love that Wil Wheaton makes guest appearances and is portrayed as a TOTAL ASSHOLE. Heehee.
I have read some of the bloggery criticism about the show, about how it upholds certain gender and racial stereotypes (it’s interesting to me that gender stereotypes, or the discussions of gender stereotypes, are so entrenched in our culture that even a show centered around four very atypically gender-presenting males [with the exception of walking hormone Howard] finds itself the target of accusations of gender stereotyping). And I don’t mean to dismiss any of them, and they’re valuable discussions to have, but let’s just say that others’ problems with the show aren’t my problems with the show.
People criticize Penny for being a “stereotypical dumb blonde.” I don’t know what show these folks are watching, but I don’t think it’s The Big Bang Theory. Penny’s not dumb. She clearly has a normal-to-high IQ and she has social skills that the guys don’t have and (to varying degrees) don’t want. If anything, she’s too smart for the situation she’s in, working at the Cheesecake Factory and trying to be an actress (how did the show’s producers get permission to use that restaurant in the show? It’s not portrayed very flatteringly). She’s not dumb–she’s bored. And lonely. Typically, the guys don’t talk about things that she cares about, but she hangs out with them anyway. She’s not doing very well in the acting world. Not only does she not have many acting jobs, but she doesn’t seem connected to the acting community. She doesn’t have any mutually-struggling actor friends. In one of the early seasons (I think it must have been the second or third, because it was during the Penny-dating-Leonard storyline) (another thing I appreciate: though Leonard has an ongoing crush on Penny, it doesn’t completely take over the show, in the way that the Ross-and-Rachel bullshit took over and ruined a perfectly good show), she has a group of friends over to watch a football game, but other than that, the glimpses that we have of Penny’s social life outside of the guys tends to be discussions of ex-boyfriends. This is either really unfair to Penny’s character, or it’s an honest assessment–in which case it’s just sad.
It does seem like Penny’s unhappy, and whether she copes with that isn’t a path that a sitcom is likely to take–instead they just make it the object of jokes, which I find sad. I recently watched the four episodes of the show that are available on Hulu (they seem to rotate them every week or so?), and a lot of the Penny jokes centered around how much she drinks. She readily admits to drinking as a coping mechanism, which none of the other characters think is a problem–or, indeed, anything out of the ordinary, which I find sad and disturbing. I guess the writers of The Big Bang Theory subscribes more to the frat-boy-drinking-is-a-fun-way-of-life-party-school philosophy, not sober-consumption-of-a-few-drinks-after-work philosophy, to say nothing of the alcoholism-isn’t-funny philosophy.
On a lighter note, I find Sheldon’s character hilarious and endearing and (in a weird way), just as incomprehensible as Penny when you think about him in context of the wider world. Sheldon is abrasive, completely tied to his routine, and literal-minded (many folks have posited that he has Asperger’s; the show’s producers simply describe him as “Sheldonian,” which I appreciate, because it shows they think about him as a character, not a walking diagnosis). He’s also smarter than anyone he hangs out with, and is the show’s resident evil genius, impatient with those who have a lower intellectual capacity than him.
On the other hand, Sheldon doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time attending conferences, teaching, submitting papers, giving interviews, or any of the other things I see world-renowned physicists doing. He doesn’t get along with his university’s administrators, even though you would think that a brilliant scientist that advanced his university’s reputation would get on great with the administrators, no matter how abrasive his personality (what do you want to bet that Jerry Sandusky got on fantastically with UPenn’s higher-ups?). And he doesn’t seem to be anywhere near getting a Nobel or any other award. Clearly, Sheldon’s Sheldon-ness, or his Asperger’s, or whatever it is, gets in the way of his career. It’s distracting people from how smart he is, or his neuroses are legitimately interfering with his work…or Sheldon isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and simply doesn’t recognize it because he’s never been part of a community that challenges him. Either Sheldon is shockingly under-employed, or he overestimates his own intelligence (considerable though it obviously is). The show portrays Sheldon as neurotic, but not delusional, but the more I watch it, the more delusional-Sheldon intrigues me.
And Amy Farrah-Fowler. There should be so much more of Amy Farrah-Fowler.
“I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I’m baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance.” –Amy Farrah-Fowler