In a television era that gave us Jersey Shore and Sarah Palin’s Alaska, it is refreshing to know that major networks still care about making television shows for smart people.
The Big Bang Theory is a show that brings out your inner super-nerd. The premise of the show is pretty simple: a ditzy blonde moves in across the hall from two super geniuses, and hi-jinks ensue as one attempts to woo her while the other attempts to stay as far away from her contaminating idiocy as possible. The set-up is fairly standard sitcom fare, complete with laugh track, but a few idiosyncrasies set The Big Bang Theory apart as one of the best comedies on television today.
The first is the show’s absolute dedication to its nerdiness. Four out of the five main characters are scientists at a major research university (my best guess is CalTech, since they live in Pasadena). This plot demands a certain level of scientific knowledge to be tossed around during the show. But instead of just phoning it in and making up fake equations to decorate the characters’ lives with, the writers fully intertwine the comedy with the science. In addition to typical sitcom humor—misinterpreted conversations, sexual tension, and best-buddy conflict—the show offers more übernerd humor than a high school chemistry classroom. Actual joke from an episode: “A neutron walks into a bar and asks how much for a drink. The bartender replies, ‘For you, no charge.’” That would’ve killed Ms. Sonderleiter (my AP chem teacher).
To ensure that such brilliant specimens of comic relief are both hilarious and accurate, The Big Bang Theory employs an actual physicist to verify their science. Basically, the writers write all the funny bits of the script with huge chunks missing that just say *insert science here*, and David Saltzberg, professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, does the rest. He also draws the diagrams and writes the equations that the characters use in their jobs. According to cast interviews, Saltzberg sometimes puts his own little physics jokes in these that only .01% of the audience would probably be able to understand. A physicist taking creative liberties. It’s madness.
It is not just the science that makes The Big Bang Theory an awesome show for the nerdy among us. The characters themselves both offer hilarious examples of dork culture and force us to question the underlying stereotypes they define. The show centers around a group of four scientists who each represent a different segment of the nerd population. There’s Howard Wallowitz, a pervy Jew who lives with his mom and fancies himself a lady-killer. Next we have Rajesh Koothrappali, an Indian immigrant with a crippling inability to talk to women except when drunk (and when he’s drunk, he’s a total jerk). Then there’s Leonard Hofstadter, possibly the most “normal” dork, who fully comprehends his social position and copes with his inferiority through biting sarcasm.
“I’m the glue that holds this social group together,” says Sheldon Cooper, the final member of the geek squad, an ironic statement since he has arguably the worst social skills of all of them. But he is, at least in my opinion, the glue that holds the show together. Sheldon is a genius of the highest order: he earned his first PhD at 16 and has an IQ of 187. His extreme intelligence causes him to view all other human life as a necessary evil that must be tolerated at great personal cost. With this huge superiority complex comes a heavy dose of OCD (a running gag of the show involves Sheldon telling others that they are in his spot on the couch, which must not be touched by anyone else), a complete lack of understanding of social norms or sarcasm, and a general disregard for anything not involving astrophysics or comic books.
But behind this condescending veneer dwells the charmingly childlike spirit of someone who grew up so quickly in an intellectual sense that he never grew up in a social one. Sheldon, in typical nerd fashion, loves comic books and video games more than all the other boys on the show. He obsesses over trains and insists on them as a mode of both transportation and entertainment. His kryptonite is his mother, a Texas Christian who lacks a college education but makes up for it with a whole lotta folksy wit. It is Jim Parsons’ ability to bring out both sides of this character that makes Sheldon less obnoxious than hilarious. Clearly I’m not the only person who thinks so, as Parsons was awarded this year’s Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy Series for the role. Sheldon is the main reason to watch this show, but of course I might only be saying that because I’ve garnered a few comparisons to him from friends who also watch it.
Into this bubble of nerd-dom steps Penny, a community college-educated wannabe actress. At first, Penny is the audience’s stand-in as she explores the boys’ way of life, which varies so much from her own “normal” way. Leonard falls hopelessly in love with her from the first episode, while Sheldon regards her as an intruder in their intellectual circle not worthy of his time. As Penny spends more time with the gang, she realizes that there’s something beyond free computer advice that keeps her coming back to the apartment across the hall.
Slowly, the two worlds combine as these members of different social spheres rub off on each other: Penny discovers an innate ability for Halo, becomes obsessed with a World of Warcraft-esque game, and picks up some scientific factoids. The boys learn about America’s Next Top Model, try to emulate dating behaviors from Penny’s suitors, and eventually succeed in the real world as they find love. As one might guess, Penny and the nerds learn that beneath the stereotypes, they aren’t so different after all. As a result of their own Big Bang (ooh, you see what I did there?), they are irrevocably changed.