The Big Blah Theory

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.

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Dog forbid ANYTHING on television is "more like Seinfeld" which was probably the most overrated show in the history of the medium, and is now as dated as a rotary-dial phone. Truely, it was little more than an average sit-com with a marketing gimmick.

By Woody Tanaka (not verified) on 27 Apr 2010 #permalink

That second quote from Lawrence Krauss ("Second, because the characters have developed softer edges, and one of them has the girl!") basically sums up why I have no interest in watching the show.

It is, like you say, a mere sitcom, and I don't think the science jokes really make up for it. And since on top of being a mediocre sitcom generally, it can't even bother to move away from stereotypically representations of scientists/nerds, then why should I bother?

I would be more sympathetic to the show if it had ever once prompted a friend or family member to actually ask me about some physics ("Hey, last night on BBT so-and-so said X about Y. Is that true?"). If it were spurring genuine interest in science/scientists that would be sweet. Instead, all I hear is, "Jamie, you're a physicist, I bet you love BBT! It's so funny. Sheldon is such a dork." Basically, the reactions that non-scientists have to it are, in my experience, the same reactions that they have to any sitcom. Which makes it no better (though no worse) than any other. I find House to be much more compelling.

Also, yes, if Two and A Half Men were taken off the air and never touched again with a ten foot pole, I would be a very happy camper. I can't believe that tripe gets good ratings.

I agree that BBT uses well-worn plot devices, but it is well put-together and I actually quite enjoy it. If you think it is bad, then you should check out a recent British attempt at a lab-based sitcom -- you'll be turning back to BBT in relief believe me.

What we really need is for someone like Larry David or Ricky Gervais to decide that they need to write a show about scientists, but something tells me it will be a while before they get around to it.

All my nerd friends are really into that show. I watch it with them once and got frustrated by some of the misrepresented science (a nerd talking about how he's part of the "next step of evolution" and thus above peons just makes me want to punch :( ).
And ya, I detest sit-coms unless there's some actual unique or well-written situations coming from there. I think the last few I genuinely enjoyed was the Drew Carey show (because it broke the standard format of the time) and 3rd Rock From the Sun (because John Lithgow is amazing and so was the rest of the cast). But nothing about Big Bang Theory stood out as being all that different besides the intermittent science content. It's like making a show about a family on Mars and never really exploring the story-making potential. Eureka did a better job at that, and its science was shoddier by far (but at least played with more concepts than just black holes and genetic engineering).

AFAIK, most shows haven't used an actual "laugh track" for a long time, they use a combination of applause cues, recording and amplifying the laughter with a mic and sound board, and possibly nitrous oxide. Two and a Half Men is actually filmed in front of a hyena cage though, and PETA's been on their ass about the cruelty since the show first aired.

I tried BBT a couple times and I'm going to second Jamie here, it's too much a typical sitcom to really make me laugh. IMHO, Better Off Ted is a MUCH better science sitcom even though the scientists are only on part of the time. Yes, they're stereotypes, but hilariously over-the-top ones that make them my two favorite characters by far. And really, can we expect people to get really interested in science because of a sitcom? Stuff like Life on Discovery or Brainiac are more likely to interest people in science because they can get into more detail instead of just casually mentioning quantum such-and-such. And of course CSI has caused a great deal of in interest in forensic science, but that may be overly generous as it's accuracy in forensic science is equivalent to the ornithological accuracy of Big Bird.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 27 Apr 2010 #permalink hard to control in others, wait - can be pretty hard to manage in ourselves, too! Even, if not especially, scientists. (I find it humorous that there is a bunch of stereotyping of sitcoms; complaining about the stereotyping of scientists...sitcoms, ugh, bout the only one I ever cared for in recent history was Boston Legal, but then I'm in that "older" (stereotype??) demographic!!) Embrace your inner nerd and focus on what you perceive as important. lmao

By Tbird49er (not verified) on 27 Apr 2010 #permalink

If I remember correctly, BBT started off with a 4 episode "pilot" before getting renewed for the first season. The first 4 episodes had a LOT more science in it. I think they moved away from it pretty quickly, because physics jargon can only be funny for so long.

Though, interestingly in season 1 they presented the discovery of "supersolid" He-4 (Non classical rotational Inertia) in one of their episodes, and even used one of the graphs from Kim & Chan's original nature paper. Though, they also classified the work as particle physics, which pissed me off to no end!

I think what people are missing about the show is that, yes it is a sitcom, which really doesn't make it all that dependent on the plot, but on the interaction between the characters, and in BBT they do it quite well! That is what makes it an entertaining show, and in general, one worth watching.

Seinfeld? Seriously? The show about nothing?

Sorry. Disagree with you on this one.

I saw a clip of Seinfeld a number of years ago that was run both with and without the laugh track. Without the laugh track it was completely flat: no comedy, nothing. After that, I watched the show more closely and decided it was mostly devoid of humor. It's probably why Seinfeld struggled when he went back to stand-up after the show ended. He's a smart guy though, from interviews, he seemed kind of disgusted with the show which is why he ended it the way he did with the characters in jail.

I was surprised by "Big Bang Theory" however, because I expected it to be like the loathsome "Two and a Half Men" from the same producers. Instead the characters are likable despite their flaws and are written as though they have some real insight into each other. Penny, though ignorant of science and nerd culture, isn't really dumb. She gets her share of good lines. With a little nudge, it could almost be her show.

Yeah, superficially it seems cliched, but it's unusually witty. Perhaps as importantly from my own point of view, and unlike just about everything else on TV, it doesn't enrage me or make me want to puke.

By StayNerdyMyFriends (not verified) on 27 Apr 2010 #permalink

I've got to agree, I've just never been able to get into the show. The laugh track (live audience, blah, blah) is overwhelmingly annoying and from the brief amounts of it I've seen, the jokes aren't that funny. I genuinely appreciate that there is actually accurate physics in the show, but the characters are just silly and unrelatable. However, I have a lot of friends who are really into it because they do see themselves in the characters (and especially enjoy when work they are doing appears on blackboards in the backgrounds of shots).

I wouldn't necessarily say it is bad for science, but it's just not funny (not my kind of "geek", if you will).

I do have to laugh at Lawrence Krauss' reason for liking the show though: "and one of them has the girl!". Anyone who has spent any time with him should not at all be surprised. :p

By S.C. Kavassalis (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

Yeah, the show got off on the wrong foot but took a turn for the better.

Those grasping for a possible template for the show might consider "That 70's Show" -- only with a more adult take and without the gratuitous meanness.

Love "Better off Ted" for the sharp dialogue and social commentary. BBT seems to put more into its characters though. It's a different kind of show. Just my 2 cents.

By StayNerdyMyFriends (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink