The Big Bang Theory Theory

Todd VanDerWerff, writing in Vox, explains in perfect detail the rise of The Big Bang Theory and why it endured for as long as it did at the top of the sitcom game. Here’s the kicker:

…the secret of The Big Bang Theory’s popularity: It was never about nerd culture so much as it used nerd culture for what felt like a novel setting when it debuted. The jokes themselves were always about sex or interpersonal relationships or the characters’ foibles. The geek references were simply window dressing.

The hatred the show generated is also an interesting point.

The Big Bang Theory’s ratings prowess — undeserved in the eyes of viewers who consider their comedy tastes more rarefied — has long been enough to mark the show as something to scoff at. But the sheer hatred the show inspires comes from a handful of unlikely other sources.

One is that in 2010, when the show was just beginning its ascension to megahit status, CBS moved it from Mondays to Thursdays. So its fourth season aired at 8 pm on Thursdays, directly opposite the second (and best) season of the beloved geek-friendly sitcom Community, which took as a point of pride its ability to actually make accurate pop culture jokes. On Community, jokes about the show’s characters were often told via their incredibly specific tastes, not the most generic version of geek culture the show’s writers could dream up.

Community’s fervent fan base helped keep it on the air for six seasons, despite it never becoming a huge hit. But its continued survival didn’t matter: Having the very traditional Big Bang Theory air opposite the much cleverer Community drew the lines for battles to come. The Big Bang Theory was fake geek culture. Never mind that it was written by math and science nerds, and never mind how many geeks really did see themselves in it. It was always, on some level, going to go for the broadest possible audience rather than the narrowest one, and that was the opposite of being a geek.

This all led to one of the more unfortunate strains of Big Bang Theory dislike — calling the show nerd blackface,” meaning that it was built around big, trope-y portrayals of geeks that were meant to draw derisive, jeering laughter. Equating the show’s clumsy portrayal of geeks and geek culture to a decades-long history of systemically portraying black people as bumbling fools is, I hope I don’t have to tell you, pretty dang offensive. Yet the idea of describing the show in such a fashion keeps cropping up, because many self-proclaimed geeks feel like the show takes a hectoring or even bullying tone toward them.

I’ve never heard the term nerd blackface” before and, honestly, I’m shocked by the term. The Big Bang Theory does not deserve this kind of derision.

For me, I liked the show quite a bit but it was getting tired. I missed a majority of this last season, but I’m sure I’ll catch up and I’ll laugh right along at the dumb joke about the TARDIS or Star Wars.

May 18, 2019


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