Shows like the Big Bang Theory (that are also better)

The Big Bang Theory cast

The lesson learned here is that geeks are weird and make girls feel uncomfortable. Sigh.

The Big Bang Theory has something of a mixed reputation, garnering spectacularly enthusiastic fans on the one hand, and bitter, jaded enemies on the other. Despite being a sitcom targeting a broad audience with inclusive humor everyone can understand, it’s still divisive. For those who don’t quite understand the hate, I would recommend perusing this essay as to why “real” geeks and/or nerds have a problem with the show.

The short version? Big Bang Theory isn’t a show for nerds. It’s a show built to mock them. There’s no love for comic books, sci-fi movies, scientific experimentation, or introversion. The show’s basic argument, in each and every interaction in which the nerds encounter “normal” people, is to point out how wrong they are for deviating from normalcy, and how they should change. The jokes come at the expense of their habits, constantly belittling them for enjoying Dungeons and Dragons, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, and everything else. There’s no love for geek culture on the show. Only judgmental mockery.

This is particularly true in the case of their interactions with women, which are constantly prone to failure, and in the unlikely event that they actually find someone willing to sleep with them, they’re the luckiest dorks in the world and they should be thankful they won’t be single for the rest of their lives. It’s as if the writers of the show have no idea that plenty of girls out there like Star Wars too, and even have fun watching it on the couch with their geeky loved ones.

The show constantly makes the point that there is nothing remotely worthwhile about their geeky interests, and thus doesn’t attempt to understand them. They make no effort to get to know why someone might obsessively consume Babylon 5 or Firefly, or perform a scientific experiment in their living room, merely because it is of great interest to them. This behavior only cues the laugh track, and makes geeks the target of scorn.

This is to say nothing of the fact that being interested in sports is equally nonsensical, as the obsession with a team of athletically conditioned males at the peak of their physical capability literally playing a game shouldn’t really be considered superior to watching a science fiction movie, but then again, Big Bang’s writers don’t think too hard about why one thing is normal and one thing is not. They just point fingers at nerds and laugh.

I will issue one defense, however: When Penny ditches Leonard to date a total moron, and comes back to their apartment to find them setting up a laser on the rooftop to send a signal to the moon and back, this was the moment that made their intelligence look like an asset, and “normal” people’s stupidity look like a liability. Penny realized there were plenty of admirable qualities to these guys, and perhaps she had totally missed out on that.

But that was about it.

That said, Sheldon is pretty goddamn funny sometimes. But I wish his character were framed in the context of a misunderstood genius, who has a great deal to offer the world, but has trouble doing so. Instead, they went overboard making him the quirky comic relief dork whose mannerisms are all too often the subject of derision, rather than personality quirks worth understanding in order to appreciate the person underneath.

It’s a damn shame.

So, what’s the point of all this? Well, this perhaps-all-too-lengthy rant against the pitfalls of this show is about to be followed up with a list of shows like Big Ban Theory that are actually good. And not just good, but perhaps even helpful in understanding others. Shows like not only take geek culture as subject matter, but actually make jokes geeks can enjoy, and offer lessons for non-geeks to understand the diversity of interests of so-called nerdy types. Geeks and non-geeks alike can enjoy them, and the non-geeks might even come to understand the geeks just a little better. Awwww.

So let’s get started.

Shows like the Big Bang Theory (that are even better)

1) Community

Community Abed vampire gif

Sure he’s weird, but he’s also awesome.

This is the shining star in this litany of Big Bang destroyers. If there’s one glaring example of how much better a show about geeks can be, it’s Community. Particularly when it comes to Abed.

In both cases, the shows include an odd weirdo who’s difficult to understand, but still extremely intelligent. In the Big Bang Theory, he’s the comic relief character that’s laughed at the whole time, and the remaining cast constantly complain about how terrible and annoying he is. It’s as though the writers want us to view Sheldon as incredibly lame.

Contrast this with Abed, who has even more difficulty relating to those around him, and would probably be even more of a challenge for friends and family to deal with, and yet he’s treated not only like a normal human being, but like a good friend. The rest of the characters actually care about him, rather than simply complaining incessantly about his faults. Abed is framed as a character whose quirks are something to understand, so that the person underneath can be understood as well. And that’s a lesson worth applying to anyone, geeky or not. And despite the fact that Abed produces a great deal of humor, he’s not a comic relief character. His intelligence is also an asset, and he helps his friends whenever he is capable of doing so.

Such is not the case with Sheldon, whose intelligence is simply a bizarre factoid most often treated like an amusing novelty. I can recall no case in which Sheldon’s intelligence (or anyone else’s, for that matter) was helpful to anyone. The show doesn’t seek to praise, or even understand, intelligence, even aside from the other, more challenging personality traits of the characters. It’s simply played for laughs.

This is to say nothing of the fact that on Community, geek culture actually provides a great number of jokes on the show, but the type geeks can enjoy as well. The D&D jokes and Inspector Spacetime motif are indeed something of a jab at geek culture, but they’re the type of self-deprecating (but enjoyable) jokes that geeks might make amongst themselves, rather than just the put-downs jocks might use on geeks. And although they’re still treated as odd obsessions that only a small subsection of the population might actually enjoy, they’re not objectively judged as inferior.

What I find interesting is Jeff’s involvement with these issues. In every case he’s portrayed as a too-cool-to-care adult, which is essentially the attitude of the writers on Big Bang, but in nearly every case, he’s pushed into a situation in which he is forced to understand the issues at stake. He has to win at Dungeons and Dragons to save the day, for example. He has to play a video game to help Pierce. And in plenty of these situations, he’s so busy folding his $6000 suit jacket that he’ll fuck up and get eaten by zombies.

See? “Normal” obsessions aren’t objectively acceptable. Community can poke fun at D&D all day long, but they also make the point that fashion is nothing special either. Jeff is always framed as a vain narcissist, who must come down off his high horse of texting the ladies to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons to defeat the evil Pierce once and for all. And, most of the time, he comes to understand the people around him even better than before, and realize that maybe what he cared about wasn’t the only thing worth caring about.

Oh, plus Community is fucking hilarious. Here’s a good example that’s not only funny, but just goes to show how much worse it is to be “normal:”


2) The IT Crowd

The IT Crowd cast

In this show, it’s mostly the non-geeks that make women feel uncomfortable. Unlike Big Bang.

Imagine if you took Sheldon and Leonard, and made them both British. That’s essentially my impression of the IT Crowd, whose humor has that satirical wackiness that only the Brits know how to do so well. But it also flips the dorkiness into reverse.

On the IT Crowd, the “regular” people are the idiots. They’re the ones who don’t understand the difference between a laptop and “the other one,” or don’t know the (non) difference between memory and RAM. They’re the ones that think the internet has to be placed atop Big Ben to get the best reception. They’re the ones that are too stupid to think of turning it off and on again. They’re the problem.

The geeks stuck in the tech support department are certainly geeky, but they’re not the universal target of scorn. Plenty of jokes are made at their expense, of course, but they’re merely one of many targets of sarcasm, rather than the endless subject of derision that is the case with the nerds on the Big Bang Theory. And whenever someone needs help with a computer, of course the nerds are the ones who get a phone call. But their contributions are never recognized as thoroughly as the legal team who cut the red tape.

The atmosphere is one in which the viewers can actually see that despite not being “normal,” the IT guys are actually a whole lot smarter than everyone else, yet no one makes the effort to understand or appreciate them. I wouldn’t call it a preachy show, since much of the humor is derived from clever wording or extraordinarily awkward situations, but that’s kind of my point. You can write a show about nerds without the humor coming exclusively at their expense, which is the case with Big Bang.

And just compare the interactions between Moss and Roy when they try to be “normal” and watch a football game, alongside the efforts of Leonard trying to push himself to be “normal” as well. Leonard is embarrassed about who he is, and wants to hide it from everyone in the world. It’s not Big Bang that shows geeks being worthwhile. It’s the IT Crowd showing us that “normal” interests can be stupid too, in this effortlessly delivered counterargument as to why geeks don’t give a shit about sports, and like it that way:


3) Futurama

Futurama body swapping equation

The famous body-swapping predicament, in which a mathematical solution had to be devised from scratch. In real life.

This is the show that takes uber-geeky humor to new heights. It has plenty of goofy nonsense as well, but when they put a mathematical equation on the blackboard in the background, it’s actually real.

I would say that Futurama is simultaneously aimed at a younger audience, and a more intelligent adult audience as well. Plenty of the humor, particularly Fry’s antics, are simple enough for kids to understand, but many of Professor Farnsworth’s lines can only be understood after having taken a physics class or two. They certainly play fast and loose with the laws of physics in Futurama, quite often just plain ignoring the laws of physics to make a joke, but it’s usually done with a wry smile. Like when people wanted to go faster than the speed of light, so they simply raised the speed limit to accommodate their needs.

Futurama isn’t a geek-only type of show, and I would say its humor is generally either/or in terms of silly gags or clever scientific wordplay, which means that any given viewer will probably enjoy maybe half the jokes, in contrast to shows where a joke can simultaneously be understood on a superficial level by anyone, and on a deeper level by someone else. I would point to the Community line, “I won Dungeons and Dragons! And it was advanced!” as a brilliant example of such a feat of greatness. Futurama doesn’t do this so often. Just an FYI.

But I love this sendup of the difference between science, and what people think science is:


More shows like the Big Bang Theory?

This may be about as much as I can think of, as it seems practically every show on TV was a predictable sitcom with repetitive humor and cheap gags. This is why Community and the IT Crowd were so refreshing, because they were so different from “normal” shows. It’s hard to find geeky comedies that aren’t stupid. So if you’ve got one to recommend, let everyone know.

None found.

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