Theoretical Musings On The Cultural Themes of Television Programming
Lately, one of my favorite shows is “The Big Bang Theory,” a program which was introduced to me by one of my super-geek friends. Unfortunately, I don’t have cable so I had to purchase the first season on DVD. On the back of the DVD case, it describes the show as follows:
Physicists Leonard and Sheldon understand everything from the inescapable gravitational pull of a black hole to the intricate structure of the atom. But take those atoms and assemble them into a woman, and their comprehension comes to a grinding halt. And when Penny, a woman with all those atoms in the right places, moves in across the hall, Leonard and Sheldon’s universe begins to expand in ways they never could imagine.
Get the idea? So our main characters are two super-geeks – physicists, in fact – who have been roommates and best friends for quite some time, living their lives quite comfortably with a narrow circle of other super-geek friends and answering all of life’s questions with scientific formulas and logical conclusions. Along comes a bouncy (and ditzy) blonde “bombshell” and their world is turned upside-down. Why? To send the message that personal relationships cannot be calculated, rationalized nor quantified by the mind; relationships require the use of the heart. Okay, now that the mushy crap is out of the way, let’s meet our characters.
This is Sheldon. He is adamantly against intimacy in any form; he frequently expresses disinterest in sex and emotional interaction and indicates a clear preference for the computable, predictable world of math and science. His life is highly structured and he is ceaselessly analytical. He likes to keep things very neat and orderly. He is predominantly a static character who changes very little, if at all, throughout the first half of the first season (which is all I’ve seen so far.) As you can see, he has a short, neat, practical haircut which reflects his personality. He’s extremely tall and thin and he has very few physically attractive qualities.
This is Penny, the “love interest.” (The one who likes her is actually Leonard; I’ll get to him next.) She is messy, impulsive, ditzy and impressionable – the overly-obvious antithesis of Sheldon. She is almost always cheerful while Sheldon has a consistently realistic, if not pessimistic, daily countenance. She is perky, friendly and compassionate – which is intended to compensate for her lack of intellect. She is a more malleable character and we watch the guys rub off on her as time goes on.
This is Leonard. He is the happy medium between Sheldon and Penny. He combines Penny’s flexibility with Sheldon’s insanely altitudinous I.Q. He is just as smart and successful a physicist as Sheldon, but he does not possess his frustratingly retentive qualities. Leonard lends himself to the audience as a more relatable character; one to whom we are attracted and one whom we see ourselves as being. His hairstyle reflects flexibility as well; on top, it’s a tossed mop of wild curls and unruly waves reined in only slightly by his neatly trimmed sides. His glasses are geeky yet chic, and he is a beautifully medium build.
The show’s initial intent appears to be the presentation of nerd/geek/gamer culture in a palatable way, resulting in partial comprehension of geek psychology. It immediately appeals to nerds, geeks and gamers as well as intellectuals while simultaneously appealing to the broader populous of 19-35 year olds who are secretly pi-curious.
The show is accompanied by the old standby laugh track, indicating to viewers when something is funny. This is something of a necessity with cerebral jokes sometimes floating vaguely near the forehead. I was a bit unsure of how to label the show: it could be considered a situation comedy as well as a domestic comedy. Both seem to fit.
Recurring cast? Check.
Each episode establishes a situation, complicates it, develops increasing confusion among its characters, and then usually resolves the complications? Check.
Characters are usually static and predictable? Check – for the most part.
Stress is “always funny”? Check.
Viewers feel slightly superior to the characters? Check, I suppose, but not by much if we’re talking about Leonard.
Characters and settings are usually more important than complicated predicaments? Hmm… seems like it – check?
Goofy situation as a subplot with the main narrative featuring a personal problem or family crisis that characters have to solve? Check… but certain episodes play out one way while others play out quite differently.
Takes place primarily at home? Check.
Main emphasis is how characters react to one another? Check!
Now that we’re all completely unsure of genre, let’s move on to cultural messages.
The episode that I chose to watch specifically for this project ended up being one in which the emphasis was on silliness. The plot was this: a girl from Penny’s hick hometown (Omaha) – who was “sort of family” because she had slept with Penny’s cousin while she was engaged to Penny’s brother – invites herself to stay with Penny after a telephone conversation. She promptly comes to visit Penny unexpectedly. After a discussion about how “easy” Omaha-girl is, Howard – a socially inept and physically unattractive member of the geek squad – proceeds to sleep with her, proving to the audience (which isn’t taught to have much sympathy for, nor interest in, Howard) that she will, indeed, sleep with anyone she meets. As a result of Howard’s newfound sexually active lifestyle, he begins to abandon the geek squad. Sheldon, who thrives on consistency and predictability (he plans down to the minute when things are expected to occur) is completely thrown by the change in group dynamics and confounded by the complication in numerical divisibility among them (there were four; now there are three.)
Howard represents an undesirable Jewish stereotype. He is awkward but self-obsessed; he thinks he is smooth, but his demeanor is cringe-inducing. He is physically unattractive with an outmoded haircut. He lives with and is beholden to his mother for fear of being extricated from her will. The message is clear: dependence on parents or family is highly disagreeable.
Similarly, Penny’s independence and solitude is threatened by her “almost-family” member. The Omaha-girl’s presence is seen as an invasion of privacy and space. The girl from Omaha has “loose sexual morals,” sleeping with “everyone in Omaha,” and now sleeping with everyone she meets here in California. She is dubbed a “whore” by both the physically- and personally-desirable main female character, Penny, and by our beloved, always-right, always-candid super-nerd, Sheldon. In this poorly-written episode, the writers attempt to dissuade viewer sympathy toward “Omaha” by suddenly insinuating that she is a gold-digger. However, this is a very loosely-framed assumption because the folks in Omaha (of whom she has slept with every one) are not portrayed as well-off individuals.
In contrast, Howard has slept with few partners, if any. Culturally, this reinforces the message that the inability to acquire partners equally as ill-favored as having a long list of partners. What Howard and “Omaha” have in common is an active interest in sexual activity; this is also portrayed as a poor quality.
The other notable theme of this program is the rejection of stereotypes (for the most part – Howard is a glaring exception.) Throughout the series, all characters are equally shown engaging in inadvertent racism; the event is portrayed in humorously awkward ways with the intent of indicating to the viewer these points:
- Inadvertent racism can be engaged in by anyone. The unintentional participation in stereotyping and prejudice is due to social construction which manipulates and skews our perspectives on other cultures and encourages labels and assumptions.
- Racism and prejudice are silly and ridiculous; stereotypes are almost guaranteed to be an inaccurate assessment of an individual.
Product placement for this episode included the Xbox360 (which everyone enjoys playing; even the non-geeky girl), Halo 3 (which the geeks play every Wednesday), Frosted Mini Wheats (on top of Sheldon and Leonard’s refrigerator), Rold Gold Pretzels (on the counter with the label showing), Dr. Who (which Sheldon watches every Saturday at precisely 6:15am), and Care Bears (which Penny has a collection of in her room; though they remained unseen, they were referred to.)