Recently, I tried to introduce CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory to a good friend of mine. Like me, this friend plants himself squarely and proudly among the members of geek culture – the gamers, the comic book readers, the ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds’ – that BBT claims to be about.
To my surprise (and I’ll fully admit, consternation) he absolutely hated it. When I asked him why, he answered in a way that got me thinking. As a member of the geek culture that the show attempts to portray, he felt that BBT spends much of its time laughing at us rather than with us. As an avid watcher of the show who has never felt this way, I was more than a little surprised. So, while watching the new season, or catching a rerun, I’ve kept his reaction in mind and tested it against my own feelings on the matter.
I found that while I understand and share the suspicion of mainstream mockery that geek culture is used to, I don’t believe that The Big Bang Theory is one of the culprits. In fact, I would argue that it has even served to advance the acceptance of geek culture today as something more than teenage escapism or the mental image most people have of a twenty-something unshaven guy playing Halo in his parents’ basement.
Here are three reasons why, well into its sixth season, The Big Bang Theory remains not only one of the funniest shows on TV, but also one of the most subversively important.
1. Welcome To The Mainstream, Mr. Spock.
It’s no secret that BBT is a runaway hit for the CBS network. Co-created and shepherded by the famous (and/or infamous, depending on your outlook) Chuck Lorre, the show is in its sixth season – in other words, retirement age for most sitcoms – and still pulls in an average of 15 million viewers each week. At first look, it doesn’t make sense that a show conceived as being about scientists who can barely talk to girls and who go to the comic book store religiously has found itself on top of the television comedy mountain. For years, geeks and nerds have been nothing if not sidelined in popular culture – and when they do appear, it is usually to be maligned.
But in recent years, those trends have changed. Geek culture has stormed its way into the mainstream without adapting to suit the guys who used to make fun of you in high school for wearing your favorite Star Wars t-shirt. Thanks to Marvel’s superhero movies and Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking Batman franchise, among others, the geeks have inherited the earth. Following this logic, BBT was the advance scout for the main expeditionary force we’ve now become so aware of.
The show’s broad (if not always perfectly deep) range of references to science fiction shows, comic books, and scientific principles helped obliquely introduce mainstream America to the sorts of things we geeks take for granted – and make them interesting to people who had never heard of them before. If there’s one thing that geek culture has always been, it’s a place for the people who feel like they might not belong anywhere else, and BBT helps open those welcoming doors a little bit wider.
This article was first posted on December 28, 2012