Dennis Overbye has a piece on “The Big Bang Theory” in today’s New York Times, taking the “Is this good or bad for science?” angle:
Three years later some scientists still say that although the series, “The Big Bang Theory” (Monday nights on CBS), is funny and scientifically accurate, they are put off by it.
“Makes me cringe,” said Bruce Margon, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explaining, “The terrible stereotyping of the nerd plus the dumb blond are steps backwards for science literacy.”
But other scientists are lining up for guest slots on the show, which has become one of highest rated comedies on television and won many awards. The Nobel laureate George Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley, and the NPR Science Friday host Ira Flatow, have appeared on the show.
Lisa Randall, a Harvard particle theorist who has visited the show’s set twice and appeared as an uncredited extra in one scene said, “I do think the writers are genuinely clever.”
Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at Arizona State, and author of “The Physics of Star Trek,” said he had changed his initial dire opinion about the program. “First, because it is funny, and continues to be,” he said. “Second, because the characters have developed softer edges, and one of them has the girl!”
The timing is mildly ironic, as last night I sat down a little before 9:30 to watch some tv, and deliberately chose not to watch “The Big Bang Theory.” Not because of anything it does or fails to do for Science, but because I was underwhelmed by it as television comedy.
I don’t watch a great deal of tv these days– any show with plot is pretty much ruled out by SteelyKid, who has an incredible gift for getting into trouble at the most critical and dramatic moment of the show– but after seeing David Salzburg’s talk at the March Meeting, I decided to give “The Big Bang Theory” a shot, and made a point of tuning in for three episodes– the one where Sheldon has to give a big speech, the one with Wil Wheaton, and one where Penny asks Sheldon to teach her physics (which I think was a re-run).
Only the last one of those has any significant science content (as opposed to general nerd content), but what is there is handled pretty well. The parts where the actors have to talk about science things are very slightly stiff, but that’s to be expected (in the Times article, Overbye writes “Mr. Parsons said his last interaction with academic science had been when he flunked a course in meteorology at the University of Houston. “). The physics concepts they mention make sense, and the only problem with the lab setting is that it’s too clean and orderly (though there are people whose labs look like that, I’m never really convinced that they’re doing anything in there).
As far as the image of scientists goes, while it’s true that a lot of the jokes depend on the nerdiness of the main characters, they also get all the best lines. They’re clearly being laughed with at least as much as laughed at.
The problem with the show wasn’t with the nerd characters or the setting, it was the plots. At least in the small sample of episodes I’ve watched, it felt a lot like the novel setting and characters were being used as an excuse to dust off some really tired plot situations. The “nervous character gets drunk before a big speech” bit is an ancient joke (done better by Kingsley Amis fifty-odd years ago), the “premature ‘I love you'” relationship thing has been done so many times it’s being spoofed in irritating beer commercials, and while Sheldon’s history of physics was amusing, the basic set-up was nothing special.
I suspect that this has more to say about my general dissatisfaction with the sitcom format than anything else– I’m half afraid to watch any re-runs of “Cheers,” lest I turn out to hate those– but I can’t help thinking that they could do more with this. The Wil Wheaton appearance in particular felt like a squandered opportunity to do something more. I’m not sure what, exactly, but the random celebrity nemesis plot suggests that the writers didn’t quite know what to do with it, either. I’d like it to be more “Seinfeld” and less “Two and a Half Men.”
(Also, there’s the laugh track issue. The last time I said anything about this, I got comments about how it’s filmed in front of a live audience. I suspect the audience tack is being manipulated, though, because the laughter is so loud and so abrupt, and cuts off so quickly that it sounds uncannily like a laugh track. It’s really annoying.)
So, while I probably come down slightly on the “good for science” side of the central question, I’m not going to be blocking out a regular spot for it in my Monday night plans. Last night, I opted for an NBA playoff game instead (Orlando at Charlotte), which I gave up on after half an hour of dead boring semi-basketball, and went to bed early.