Schrödinger’s TV Show

Commercial TV has the impressive talent of being able to both glorify and ridicule something or someone at the same time. For reality TV it’s usually people, either individuals or groups. For non-reality TV it’s more often less personal, aiming more at demographics or lifestyles. A good example is The Big Bang Theory. It tends to be on TV when I come home from work so often end up watching, not so much because I like it, more because it’s such a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

Firstly the writing is terrible and lazy. When I watch it I always feel like I’m hearing jokes I’ve heard somewhere else. Sometimes I recognise jokes literally taken from other TV shows. Generally everything sounds like it was constructed from memes or forum posts or famous quotes books that the writers have ripped off. The characters are shallow and inconsistent, picking the course of action that is immediately funny rather than psychologically coherent. For example, Sheldon is portrayed as obsessed with codifying and enforcing rules, complaining that breaching even informal rules will lead to anarchy, and yet he brakes those rules all time when if and when it facilitates a funny set piece.

Secondly the show uses pretty obvious, and a little patronizing, escapism tricks. For example, the central character is supposed to be useless around women, because he’s a geek, and yet gets a new girlfriend every two weeks. They just show up and go out with him. Raj’s sister spontaneously decided to go out with him just because she did. The two were in a weird relationship in which she was obsessed with having sex with him, while apparently disliking everything about who he is, even though his lifestyle was never a secret. The same happened with Raj, because he’s “such a good listener.” As if.

What I was surprised by is that it has a huge geek following. A geek explained to me that they know lots of (non-geek) people who watch it,  and that they don’t really get it, they just find it funny to hear geeky people saying stupid geeky things. He said watches it because he gets the references. I’m not sure how popular BBT is among non-geeks, but it is very popular among science geeks. The thing is… it shouldn’t be. The show is set up around the objective of ridiculing geeks. Specifically physics geeks but the shows makers don’t want to limit the scope of their ridicule so the characters represent a kind of mish-mash of geekness. For some reason all of the main characters, three physicists and one engineer, are also fully qualified software engineers. They don’t want to leave out computer geeks. Of course the producers know nothing about software or computers so their portrayal of computer geeks is all over the place too.

The show exhibits very deep anti-scientific sentiments. It’s interesting if you look at the characters in order of their ability to foster long term relationships with other people. Howard got married and is also an engineer, which Sheldon, the most sciency [1], considers to be a useless and slow cousin of science. Leonard has had a series of short term relationships and one long term relationship. He is an experimental physicist, portrayed as a waste of time for simpletons by Sheldon. Raj is permanently single and is a theoretical physicist at comparable level to Sheldon. They worked together on one episode, although Sheldon would consider him inferior, of-course. Which leaves Sheldon, who goes beyond not being able to emotionally connect with people to having a kind of daft take it or leave it vulcan relationship with Amy (who repeatedly tries to add an emotional and physical element to their relationship but fails and is left to suffer without it). Leonard’s mother is also a top level scientist, one whom Sheldon revers, and she’s also off the scale when it comes to what most people would consider meaningful human relationships. She arguably should never have been allowed to raise children.

The pattern extends to other topics. For instance, scientists are shown to hold bizarre and, frankly, offensive beliefs. There are strong references to social darwinism in many episodes, and the likelihood of being in favour of it correlates with the character’s science-geek rank. The concept of restricting reproduction for those with ‘week genes’ is presented as something that is a natural conclusion any proper scientist should logically come to. People who study evolution and understand it are probably the least likely to endorse any kind of social darwinism. The high level scientists in the show all subscribe to the belief that love is a unnecessary chemical reaction. In more than one episode both Sheldon and Leslie indicate that they understand the chemical reaction that “lay people call love”. Sheldon is also a megalomaniac and thinks it reasonable that he should be granted control of humanity. He also has a habit of trying to make people’s heads explode when he doesn’t get his own way. You might think that that’s just daft, but just consider for a moment what kind of person would actually honestly do that. He didn’t seem to be joking. He looks down on almost everyone [2] and is, for reasons that aren’t obvious, very sexist. I’m not sure how that fits in. He’s extremely right wing, which is odd, universities are generally the epicenters of left-wing thinking and scientists seem to be broadly fairly left-wing too. The show makes lots of references to non-scientific fields as if they’re seriously considered science. Though that’s probably a side effect of writers having access to wikipedia.

All of these things seem to give an impression not of what scientists are really like, but of what the producers secretly suspect scientists (or geeks or whatever, they don’t really know) are like. Acting out these suspicions on screen seems like a chance for people to indulge in them. To see that their lives are funny and pathetic. To see that it’s OK to not be into science because if you were you’d be an amoral maladjusted sexist nazi megalomaniac.

So why is the show so popular with geeks? Well, I think, it’s because geeks are surprisingly easy to please. All you have to do is mention stuff. That’s it. Throw in a few stupid references to Schrodingers cat or Dungeons and Dragons now and again and it’s open season. Make a clunky analogy between something and the uncertainty principal and you get a good ten minutes to ridicule whoever you want. Referencing is becoming a staple modern substitute for entertainment (as is disgust). When you reference something it makes people feel both included and exclusive for having understood the reference. That sensation of satisfaction is enough to give the impression that a show has entertained, making it less necessary to provide satisfaction via actual comedy or good writing.

[1] I sometimes imagine an alternate dimension, in which BBT is well written, where Sheldon isn’t really as smart as it seems. Sitcoms are often static, the producers dare not change the situation in case they ruin a profitable formulae. This gives rise to the strange situation in which Sheldon seems to be solving a different theoretical physics problem every two weeks and considers himself to be at the forefront of the field, yet there is absolutely no evidence of this outside of his own opinion. I always think it would be interesting to explore the idea that it’s all in his head.

[2] Sheldon considers most people to be effectively a waste of space unless they render him a service. It’s interesting to wonder, however, why Sheldon pursues science and why he is so interested in getting a Nobel prize. It doesn’t seem he was raised into having any compulsion to impress his parents. We kind of get the impression that he thinks he is doing the world a favour (if only by how much he considers non-physicists’ work a waste of time) but its not clear if his motivation is really benevolence. His childhood stories portray him as a kind of Stewy Griffin, trying to construct machines to murder the other kids. He also never seems to show the kind of awe of reality and understanding that I see in real scientists. In fact, he seems to more fit the profile of an artist, struggling against the challenges of his own art. Afflicted by it.

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