Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Some Objections to The Big Bang Theory

It's a cause for concern that SF writers are beginning to talk approvingly about The Big Bang Theory as a show that indicates how SF culture has become hegemonic. I noticed Kari Sperring suggest this during a panel at The British Library during the recent "Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as we know it" exhibit, while Paul Cornell suggested the same thing on his blog, and Iain Banks has admitted to identifying with Sheldon. Personally, I think the idea that this show represents a breakthrough for acceptance of fan culture - let alone SF or science - makes about as much sense as the idea that The Black And White Minstrel Show was a great moment in the history of race relations.

First of all, The Big Bang Theory is a thoroughly illiterate little show. There are references to Klingon Boggle, Green Lantern, the Incredible Hulk, HALO and Battlestar Galactica and cameos by Kevin Smith, Levar Burton, Will Wheaton and Stan Lee, but no references to JG Ballard, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe or Ursula Le Guin. The characters are supposed to be geniuses, and yet there's never any indication that they, or the scriptwriters, have read a book. The characterisation is inconsistent: anything that gets a laugh will do. Wouldn't someone of Sheldon's scientific ability be sceptical of the bogus science in Star Trek? One moment he's complaining that Babylon 5 "fails as science fiction", the next he's bemoaning the cancellation of Firefly, which has a good deal less science, and is a people-based drama of the kind of which Sheldon should have no understanding. Similarly, if he has no sense of humour, why does he say "What's not to love?" when someone mentions the sitcom Scrubs? The show confuses science geeks with SF fans (Even The Simpsons managed it a little better with its stereotypical and often problematic creation Comic Book Guy: he's no scientist, but a collector and consumer, with an MA in Folklore and Mythology).

This is because the writers are neither interested in science fiction nor in science: they like the contrast between a bunch of guys playing Klingon Boggle or playing with toy Incredible Hulk hands and girls putting on trendy outfits and going dancing. The people that write this show are the same kind of materialistic cynics that gave us Friends: indeed, The Big Bang Theory inherits that show's mantle as the most gender-essentialist thing on television. "This is what men are like," it tells its audience, "they like nothing other than computer games, comics and mainstream SF, which they discuss in an obsessive ritualistic way rather than holding interesting conversations about them, otherwise they talk in scientific jargon that girls can't understand, they're terrified of human contact and socially inept, they have no knowledge of the outside world, and the only other type of men out there are good-looking but untrustworthy, dumb or unattainable".

"This is what women are like," it tells its audience, "they are attractive, and wear nice, revealing outfits; they love shopping and going dancing; They've never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark or Buffy The Vampire Slayer but have read Eat, Pray, Love; they paint their toenails; they believe in astrology and psychics; they keep falling in love with Mr Wrong and fall back on ice cream when things fall through with him; they don't know anything about science, Maths or SF but can 'name all the Kardashians'; on the other hand, the girls that are into science, who wear glasses, couldn't get a date at the Prom, were bullied at school, are comically sexually frustrated and aren't really feminine, are a different matter of course." Indeed, it's depressing how much Amy resembles Olive from On the Buses: the focus is either on her 'hilarious' bodily details (body hair, etc) or on her expressing  sexual desire and of course it being thwarted (with Sheldon in the role of Arthur.) If Raj is the most racist character on tv - part of a horrible tradition stretching from Hurree Ramset Jam Singh to Mind Your Language - then Amy is the most misogynistic. What makes Mayim Balik's performance and that of Johnny Galecki as Leonard increasingly hard to watch is the sheer contempt they exude towards the type of people they are supposedly playing, their mugging growing more concentrated and frantic as they make their characters apologise more and more for the failings of women and geeks as far as the writers are concerned.

Many people expressing dislike for The Big Bang Theory's UK equivalent, The Inbetweeners, have been met by the response "you've sooooo never been a teenage boy." Both shows colonise, insisting that there is no-one out there other than these archetypes. The world - not a secondary world created by the writers, mind, but the real world as far as the writers are concerned - consists of only these types and no-one else. A typical example of this occurs when Sheldon bemoans the choice of a motorised dirtbike as his childhood birthday present: "What 12-year-old boy wants a motorised dirtbike?" "er...all of them?" replies Penny. Whenever the possibility of a stereotype being untrue is raised, the script crushes it hungrily.

In the 1990s, there was a Channel 4 documentary on Terry Pratchett in which a fan tried to make the reasonable point that Pratchett readers "are not all 14-year-old Boys and they are not all called Kevin." Whoever made the programme then abruptly cut to one of the numerous fans at a book-signing. "For?" asked Pratchett as he took a book from him. "Kevin" replied the youth. It's identical to a moment in The Big Bang Theory set in the local comic-book store in which Leonard suggests: "Just because people are into comics doesn't make them weirdos." "What about the guy over there with the superhero t-shirt tucked into his sweatpants?" replies Penny. "Oh yeah, that's Captain Sweatpants: He doesn't really help the point I'm trying to make," concedes Leonard.

In The Inbetweeners, when the characters visit an old people's home, and one character instantly comments that old people smell, the other chastises him, there's a comic beat, and then he acknowledges that there is indeed an old people smell in the room. The same "denial of cliche/beat/reaffirmation of cliche" rhythm is then used to morally repugnant effect when he tries to engage one of the residents in conversation, urging his companions that there is nothing depressing about old people: "I think I've done a poo" says the elderly woman, the actress delivering her line in as dehumanised and sepulchral a manner possible. In this show, all cliches are truth. When characters in The Inbetweeners crack jokes about a teacher being a paedophile, you can bet that it will turn out he actually is one by the end.

The Big Bang Theory isn't as bad-natured as that, but it shares with its nastier brother a rule that any attempt to challenge a cliche will be brought back down to Earth, and it too is a show that reduces the world. Its opening title sequence tells us everything: we see a montage of the world's scientific history - the most interesting thing we ever see in this show - which zooms into an image of the five characters sitting in an apartment eating take-away food. The take-away food carton, like that vilely cute mirror-frame with the glass missing that hangs over the peephole in Friends, or the gigantic coffee mugs in the same show, is the perfect synecdoche for materialistic, flat-sharing, twentysomething values.

A genuine marriage of science fiction and comedy - as we find in the immortal The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the comparatively underrated and delightful Red Dwarf - enjoys playing with ideas. Regarding the latter, a beautifully orchestrated scenario in the episode Cassandra saw the Dwarf crew confronted with a computer that could predict the future in its entirety, leading not only to some delightful gags, but to questions on the nature of free will, and allowing the writers to once again construct their own narrative shape for a whole episode (as seen in Backwards, in which time runs in reverse, and Demons and Angels, in which the goodness and evil are extrapolated from Red Dwarf and personified).

Red Dwarf also demonstrates how a science fiction element can be used to explore the characters' personalities in interesting ways. The episode Terrorform saw the crew trapped inside Rimmer's mind, having to quite literally conquer his personal demons by telling him they really care about him, only to cheerfully admit lying once they've got out. Dimension-Jump saw Rimmer confronted with the nauseatingly heroic Ace Rimmer, a version of himself from a parallel universe with one difference (one of them was kept back a year at school). Incensed by the others' admiration for him, Rimmer clings to the assumption that Ace got all the breaks he never got, but before leaving Ace reveals to Lister that he was the one who was kept back a year.

Not only is this far more interesting than anything in The Big Bang Theory - raising questions such as whether choice rather than fortune is the cause of decency, and whether we can shape our own personality - but it demonstrates that such enthusiasm for ideas can make for far more affecting characterisation. The relationship between the members of the Dwarf crew is probed in Quarantine, in which Rimmer takes revenge for his shipmates' contempt by keeping them in a spurious period of quarantine, resulting in cabin fever, while the question of whether their lives aboard Red Dwarf as the fag-end of the human race are worth living is raised in The Inquisitor, in which a mysterious droid tries to fix the meaningless of the universe by deleting those he deems to have had worthless lives from reality, spelling bad news for two of the Dwarfers, and Back to Reality, in which the characters are told that 'Red Dwarf' was a total-immersion video-game and their actual lives are much worse. This is a genuinely existential show, interested in the plight of four losers In a cruel universe, struggling to avoid getting on one another's nerves while finding their search for aliens rewarded only by the detritus of Mankind's intergalactic ventures.

Hitchhiker's, too, is a meal of endless ideas: a device that kills you by showing you infinity and an arrow saying "you are here", a planet with a dust-cloud covering the sky whose inhabitants are so terrified by the revelation that there are stars concealed behind it that they are driven to multi-galactic genocide, and a ship powered by Bistromatics: the principle that numbers behave differently in restaurants to anywhere else (inspired by the discrepancy between the amount pooled and the amount billed at the end of a meal).

By contrast, the writers for The Big Bang Theory prefer to have their characters discuss if Mrs Incredible from The Incredibles would need birth control or could use her elastic powers to form a diaphragm, or if Dick Grayson should take over from Bruce Wayne as Batman.

Provided you have no Seinfeld DVDs in the house, I see why so many find The Big Bang Theory a sunny enough way to spend 25 minutes (though less so when Howard, Raj, Bernadette or Amy are the only ones on screen), but its reputation as a show with the slightest interest in SF is ludicrous. It's well-made trash.


  1. Hey, just reading through your stuff - all interesting points, well made. You might have even won me over to finally ungrudgingly liking Family Guy.

    Has anyone pointed you in the direction of the show Community? It's often (well, I've seen it happen) held up as the anti-Big-Bang-Theory: a show containing characters who might be read as geeky in various ways but whose geekiness isn't the joke.

    It's immediately become one of my favourites since watching the three presently existing series through recently. It's not perfect - for all its refreshing attitude to gender and race, it still occasionally falls down on the former front (I don't feel qualified to comment on the latter).

    But I have a feeling, going by your entertaining articles of Family Guy and Father Ted it has the kinds of expectation-subverting humour you might like. And I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

    1. Shall certainly check it out: thanks for the tip.

  2. Yes, yes, yes, to your points on Hitchhiker's and Red Dwarf. (I find Big Bang Theory unwatchable because of the dumb stereotypes you mention, not least offensive of which is the hi-larious Indian guy.)

    For another comedy show whose writers are actually interested in science and ideas-led science fiction, see Futurama.