How The Big Bang Theory Works

There’s an ongoing kerfuffle in geekdom (certainly not restricted to this recently-popular post) over the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory. (If you’re not familiar with the series, you can either read up about it, or just ignore this post.) The usual objection to the series is that we (the viewers) are supposed to identify with the character of Penny, and to laugh at the four geeky friends, Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj. I know at least one person personally who feels this way.

I think this is at best a superficial understanding of the series, and perhaps an outright misunderstanding of it.

Now, I’m a fan of the series. It’s rare that I’m a fan of any sitcom, since I generally dislike situational comedy. The last sitcom I enjoyed before this was Sports Night, whose humor was based more on wordplay than on situations. BBT also has a lot of wordplay-based humor, but most of its humor is based in its characters rather than in situations. (I think the archetypal situation comedy is Three’s Company, which I loathe.)

One thing to keep in mind is that, as with any series, there are good episodes and bad episodes. One interesting thing about BBT is that even the bad episodes serve to highlight what it is that makes the show work when it does work.

I agree wholeheartedly with Akirlu that Leonard is the central character of the show. The reason for this is that Leonard both fills the role of “everygeek”, and of the geek who can relate in a fairly normal way with non-geeks. The reason all of this is true is that Leonard is highly self-aware and has a strong empathy for others. This is also what causes him to be the character who makes the funniest scenes even funnier.

Penny is in many ways the least important character in the show. She essentially serves as a foil for the four friends by being generically “normal”. But her character actually develops fairly little during the show, and we don’t know a lot about her (we don’t even know her last name!). Really, it’s a testament to actress Kaley Cuoco’s comedic acting skills that the character works. (Like Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard, she has an impressive array of funny faces.)

The core of the show, though, are the four geeky friends, who works well together because they’re not wildly different, but rather vary from each other in well-defined ways. Here’s how their characters work:

  1. Leonard, As I stated earlier, is geeky, but he’s also very self-aware. He’s also keenly aware of the foibles of his friends. He is for the most part well-adjusted to living in society (heck, he’s at least as well-adjusted as I am!), is familiar with social conventions, and is comfortable talking to a wide variety of people. His shyness around women is not particularly unusual; lots of men are uncomfortable talking to women they are strongly attracted to (as he is to Penny from the outset).

    What makes Leonard work is that he is a basically normal guy, but with strong geek interests. This is what makes some episodes poignant, such as the one where he decides to give away all of his geeky possessions after being criticized by Penny for being too attached to them: It’s two sides of his character at war with each other. But if he wasn’t well attuned to society at large then his reactions to Sheldon’s absurd behaviors – often the funniest moments in the show – wouldn’t ring true.

    Leonard is the guy we’re supposed to identify with. Heck, Galecki is listed first in the credits, so that even seems to have been the creators’ intent from the outset!

    The episodes of BBT that work the least tend to involve ones where Leonard’s self-awareness goes AWOL and he just goes along with someone’s cockamamie plan (or follows his own bad instincts) without realizing that what he’s doing is a bad idea. Sometimes Leonard falls prey to his own foibles and just can’t help himself from doing the wrong thing even when he knows it’s the wrong thing, but that’s just him being human. It’s a big source of the show’s dramatic (and comedic) tension – will Leonard figure it out in time to stop himself, or will he come to a bad end?

  2. Sheldon is essentially Leonard’s opposite: He has no self-awareness and no empathy for others. He has very little shame, and only a rudimentary grasp of social norms. His brilliance has allowed him to craft a bubble in which he lives most of the time, and he ignorantly bulldozes his way through anything which isn’t part of his normal world.

    Actor Jim Parsons has deservedly gotten a lot of credit for the show’s success due to his performance, and Sheldon is the character who drives many of the plots of the show. But it’s often Leonard’s reactions to Sheldon’s foibles that make the show funny: Either his expressions of amazement at Sheldon’s behavior, his attempts to keep other people from inadvertently pushing Sheldon’s buttons, his occasional triumphs over Sheldon’s own efforts, or his attempts to accomplish something by performing an end-run around Sheldon’s structures.

  3. Howard is a sort of alternate Leonard: He’s also aware of his own foibles, but he either chooses to ignore that they make him a jerk, or he feels that he just has no hope of ever overcoming them and gives in to them. (I think it’s the latter, since his mending of his ways through his courtship with Bernadette is one of the series’ major chunks of character development.) He puts on an air of self-confidence that he doesn’t really feel. It’s easy to see that Leonard could fall into the same behavior if he didn’t have a basic understanding of and respect for other people.

    (Howard has a minor axis of humor based around his being a “bad Jew” and his relationship with his mother. These are not central to his character, but often make for some good one-liners.)

  4. Raj is Leonard taken to a different extreme: He’s very insecure in anything not related to his work or his geeky interests, he can’t talk to women, and he doesn’t feel comfortable in non-geeky social situations. Raj is in many ways the weakest character of the four, the one who might most justify a “laughing at them rather than with them” criticism of the show. On the other hand, Raj’s brightest moments come when he stands up to Sheldon (or anyone else) on subjects he does feel comfortable with (Star Trek his work, etc.).

    Raj’s weakness as a character is evident in that the writers have not really developed him over the years. Sheldon and Howard have both gotten girlfriends, Leonard continues to court Penny, Sheldon has developed a better understanding of social norms, Howard has been forced to grow up, etc. Raj is largely the same (except for being able to talk to women some of the time). There’s been an implication that Raj is gay, but until the writers actually tackle the subject head-on, I don’t really believe it (we’ve seen Raj sleep with several women along the way, seemingly perfectly comfortably, too; maybe he’s bisexual).

So the show’s characters are rather complex. Even Sheldon, who often is the butt of laughter in the series, work in this way because he doesn’t really care (or even understand) that people are laughing at him, and frankly he’s so full of himself that it’s hard to tell whether he’d care. Early in the series we laugh at Howard for being a jerk (whose jerkitude gets him into some unfortunate situations), but over time we see that he is a much deeper character than that and he achieves some degree of redemption.

But it’s really Leonard who holds it all together. Indeed, Leonard often serves as the voice of reason for Penny, who has her own foibles, obsessions and blind spots. (I really wish the writers would just send Penny back to school to do something with her life, since it doesn’t seem likely she’s going to become an actress. If they’re planning to end the series with her finally getting that big acting job, then I think they’re doing a big disservice to the character.)

I wonder whether the fact that Sheldon has been the breakout character in the series caused a few of the writers to think, “geeks being ignorant of social conventions is what makes the show funny!” and bled some of Sheldon’s character traits into the other characters on occasion. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often.

I could go on (Amy Farrah Fowler and Bernadette are interesting additions to the cast, and I think comic ship owner Stuart is a good character who has been extraordinarily poorly handled), but I think that’s enough for one entry.

One last thing: I can’t help but wonder, when people who think that The Big Bang Theory is somehow disrespectful to geeks or geek culture, if that doesn’t say more about the people who feel that way than it does about the show.