If you’ve ever loved comic books, if you’ve been a Trekkie to the point where you donned the rubber Spock ears or the entire guise of a Klingon warrior, if you seethe with anger when others get the details of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or, what the hell, Firefly wrong, this show is for you. If you find such people confusing and want to understand them better, this show is for you.
I speak, of course, of The Big Bang Theory, the CBS comedy about four brilliant scientists and their friends. The show centers mainly on roommates Dr. Leonard Hofstatder and Dr. Sheldon Cooper, both nuclear physicists. Of the two, Leonard has some semblance of social skills and has had more girlfriends – casual and serious – than the other central cast members. Leonard is an experimental physicist. Sheldon is a theoretical physicist and so obsessive compulsive that he makes Adrian Monk look like a germ-oblivious slob. Leonard just wants to be liked and often has to shepherd Sheldon through that most mysterious of the universe’s functions: human interaction. Sheldon feels put upon because only a handful of the rest of the world is almost as smart as he is. He even tries to correct Stephen Hawking’s math. (Hawking snapped him back good in that episode in a hilarious cameo.) Much of the comedy centers around either Sheldon’s attempts to master social skills or his tyranny in trying to control every single aspect of his environment to the point of opposing activities based on the most unlikely scenarios.
Leonard and Sheldon work at Cal Tech with two other scientists, Dr. Rajesh Koothrapali and Howard Wolowitz. Raj is a native of India and often speaks of the poverty of his homeland in eliciting sympathy. (They only had two servants, and his father had to lease his Mercedes.) Raj is pathologically unable to speak to women unless he has alcohol in his system. After a couple of drinks, Raj is witty, charming, and irresistible to women. Get a few more in him, and it’s amazing he hasn’t been sued for sexual harassment. Howard looks like the lost Monkee, lives with his loud and obnoxious (and unseen) mother, and fancies himself a ladies man. Only Howard couldn’t get a date to save his life without help from Leonard and Penny. (More on her in a moment.) Ironically, Howard is the first character to get married.
Rounding out the main cast is Penny, an aspiring actress from Nebraska who works at the Cheesecake Factory. Penny is a working girl with an IQ that is closer to average. She is the boys’ anchor to the rest of the world we must navigate. She’s also the voice of the audience, often expressing the bewilderment we all feel whenever one of them, usually Sheldon or Howard, cross a line of social etiquette. Through most of the show’s run, she has an on-again, off-again relationship with Leonard.
Particularly good are the scenes between Penny and Sheldon. Sheldon is bewildered by Penny’s blazé and improvised approach to life while Penny often has to find ways to deal with Sheldon’s controlling, rigidly managed lifestyle. One of the show’s gems is whenever Sheldon needs to approach Penny for something, doing The Knock: Knock knock Penny? Knock knock Penny? Knock knock Penny? Penny’s responses, never what Sheldon can anticipate, always throw him off balance.
The show uses these four uber-nerds to depict the life of the average hardcore SF and Fantasy fan trying to fit into a world where they are looked upon as walking punchlines. Howard, earlier in the series, even has fantasy sex with Starbuck from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, only to have the hallucinatory Katee Sackhoff criticize him for not going out to get a real woman. In a later episode, Sackhoff and George Takei, still in hallucination, try to guide Howard through a date. “How would you know?” Sackhoff snaps at a comment by Takei. Takei, the coolest gay man in America, sniffs, “I read.”
Many of us with a nerdy side have had moments where we’ve been one of the four central characters. We all wish we were Leonard, who usually can function in society without too much embarrassment, but we’ve really been Raj – unable to talk to women or approach them, Howard – embarrassingly bad in dealing with women and completely oblivious to it, or Sheldon – the control freak. At the same time, I can often look at this show the way many people see SF and comic book geeks from the outside. Once upon a time, I was a hardcore Trekkie. (And most people who’ve known me for a while are going, “Well, duh!”) But I got burned out on it when fandom’s demands on time and attention got to be more than someone wanting to go to school and get a better job could handle. So I left. And I do remember dealing with people who fluently spoke Klingon and even a guy who was two years older than me (I quit around my thirtieth birthday.) still living in his mother’s basement constantly yelling at her because one of his models was moved. So I’ve been on both sides of the equation.
The closest I’ve seen to Big Bang‘s treatment of this community was the Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest. It struck the right balance of absurdity and respect. But Big Bang goes one step further. Leonard and Penny get closer with each renewal of their relationship while remaining friends whenever they breakup. Sheldon now has a girlfriend, the equally over-rational Amy Farrah Fowler. Amy is as socially inept as Sheldon, but unlike Sheldon, dives headlong into trying to learn And she’s going to drag Sheldon along with her whether he likes it or not. He seems to like it. That disturbs him. Howard has finally married Penny’s friend (and newly minted doctor of microbiology) Bernadette Rostenkowski, who turns him on whenever she loses her temper and sounds like his mother. And Raj keeps trying to overcome his inability to talk to women, though recent seasons have had him voicing his alarm that, out of the four friends, he is the only one alone. (“Sheldon Cooper got a girlfriend before me!”)
It’s an extremely well-done show from producer Chuck Lorre, and every time I watch, I think of his other show, Two and a Half Men. I don’t compare the shows. I just wonder why the hell Charlie Sheen thinks Lorre needs him.