Dec 042014

On this show, thriving on caricature as it does, the chasm between Amy and Sheldon stops laughter long enough to suggest poignancy.

Photo: CBS

Leonard (Johnny Galecki, right) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco, left) in “The Big Bang Theory.” Photo: CBS

By Harvey Blume

In one episode of this singularly popular sitcom, now in its eighth season, Howard Wolowitz instructs Penny to tell Sheldon — the show’s ur-geek and, I would argue (as I have, heatedly, with an eight-year-old boy who loves the show), its central character — that he must adhere to a “socially required convention.” This might be compared to what is known as a “safe word” in the discourse of S&M, where it is an agreed-upon signal to STOP IT STOP IT NOW! (In computer science the ready comparison is to what’s called an interrupt, the instruction that a program halt immediately and await further instructions.)

In the context of The Big Bang Theory “socially required convention,” as proposed by Howard and advanced by Penny, alerts Sheldon to the fact that he is in the act of violating a strict norm of NT — neuro-typical — behavior, and must therefore, no questions asked, STOP. Sheldon takes the cue. “Socially required convention” is his neurological safe word. He may be an anthropologist on — from or even aspiring to — Mars, but he’s been schooled to respect this constraint on behavior as defined in Pasadena California, where he now lives.

Sheldon is Aspie/Autie, positioned beyond doubt — and also without undue underlining — on what’s known (consult the DSM-5 for the latest wrinkle) as the autistic spectrum. He’s got tell-tale savant characteristics — equations apropos string theory are his métier, as were similarly alienating fixations he got beat up for back in his Texas childhood. Sheldon has next to no practical sense except about how to cadge rides — he doesn’t drive — to and from the comic book store, comics being one of his obsessions (or, in neuro-parlance, “stims”). Touch is alien, and sex less likely for him than a suddenly satisfying explanation of dark matter. Oh, poor Amy, who was hoping for a semblance of intimacy with this high-flown, snooty fellow; she hadn’t completely read through the user manual and is now learning that it contains no algorithms for what she vaguely craves.

This show depends, to large degree, on sitcom clichés — nerdy guys in Pasadena, yet, who wear too many clothes and go after California girls who don’t, proving themselves laughably/laugh-tracakably inept. (Not talking about Sheldon, of course, who smirks at all such carnal craving from somewhere in the neurological Kuiper belt.)

Then there’s Howard, a genuine astronaut, who, when not orbiting earth, lives with his mother, who he must phone daily, even from outer space. We never see Mrs. Wolowitz, and based on the way she bellows “H O W A R D!” never want to. She’s the Jewish mother, the Woody Allen Jewish mother, cubed.

On this show, thriving on caricature as it does, the chasm between Amy and Sheldon stops laughter long enough to suggest poignancy.

Penny needs a mention. She’s the exuberantly buxom blonde who lives across the hall from Sheldon and his geeky kind. Penny’s an aspiring actress waitressing, until she gets her break, at the Cheesecake Factory. (A perfect frame for her, sexist as it may be, and yes, such a chain exists).

Everyone hits on Penny. Not Sheldon. He can be dim and self-centered. In fact, being dim, self-centered, and smirky come close to defining him. Yet he has a certain vulnerability and charm. Sometimes Penny and Sheldon, one or the other wounded, wind up side-by side singing their consoling Kitty Ditty:

Soft kitty
Warm kitty
Little ball of fur
Happy kitty
Sleepy kitty
Purr Purr Purr

The Big Bang Theory is not the kind of show that gets the attention of a New Yorker or New York Times television critic. The show does not get recaps in the New York Times art section, where so many shows driven by demons, violence, and utter cynicism do get plenty of attention. The Big Bang Theory does not do new television or the criticsm that has sprung up around it proud.

And yet: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the novel by Mark Haddon, about a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, is now a Broadway smash. The novel touched on every aspect of the autistic spectrum as it was being introduced to the public by Temple Grandin, Oliver Sacks, among others.

Big Bang Theory assumes we know all that already. It does not bore us with the details. It takes the next step, blending neurological difference into mainstream interaction. It does this with nuance and aplomb. Sheldon’s mother is a Texas Jesus freak. Leonard’s mother, on the other hand — Leonard being Sheldon’s roommate, the one who hits it off now and again with Penny — is every bit the Aspie woman Sheldon wants to mind-meld with.

My eight-year-old discussant and I will have to work this through. He corrects me time and time again about how to sing the Kitty Ditty. He favors Leonard, over Sheldon, as the main character. I argue that Leonard is but the user friendly face of Sheldon. When it comes to Penny, well, he’s only eight.

Harvey Blume is an author — Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo — who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.


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  2 Responses to “Fuse TV Commentary: Toward a Critique of “The Big Bang Theory””

Comments (2)
  1. I suspect the real reason why this show is ignored by the New York Times is that it is incredibly cheesy, repetitive, and boring. It also happens to be insultingly irritating for anyone who has any real life experience with being a young person in the sciences or dealing with aspergers. Real life physics grad school means constant often frustrating & thankless work, being worried about and constantly applying for funding and jobs, and constantly moving to new cities by yourself or watching as all your friends/romantic partners move to new cities without you. It is a barrel of laughs for only the rarest individuals. As for aspergers, I’d say the one defining characteristic of people suffering from this problem is their inability to form friendships, and there’s nothing funny about that.

    • > I suspect the real reason why this show is ignored by the New York Times is that it is incredibly cheesy, repetitive, and boring.

      as opposed to the utterly melodramatic and absurdly implausible plot lines of, say, “the americans”, a show that does, oddly, garner no end of critical attention plus recaps? c’mon.

      > it is a barrel of laughs for only the rarest individuals.

      as sheldon would say: that’s just wrong. bazinga! (i hate when he says “bazinga!”)

      whatever its merits or lack thereof this show is hugely popular.

      i respect your objections to “big bang theory”. romantic difficulty, “constantly applying for funding and jobs”, the loneliness that can go with asperger’s syndrome — these things deserve to be taken seriously. but when a show succeeds, often enough, in taking them comically, that counts too.

      alas, with the new season the material is getting old fast.

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