Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Have You Hugged a Physicist Lately?

        I first saw the TV show Big Bang Theory in passing, while surfing with the remote. I watched it for a few minutes, got the gist of a story line about nerdy college roommates, and then moved on, thinking, "Hmm, that looked strangely familiar."
        Having gone to a school near MIT, science nerds were part and parcel of my social life, such as that was in an all-girl school.  So my second thought was, "Is this possible, a show all about the MIT types I met while in college?" And the title was intriguing, for sure.
        Weeks passed before I landed on the show again, and something made me stop and pay attention, like a regression compulsion. And so I got to meet Sheldon, the clueless uber nerd; his roommate Leonard, the balanced nerd; Howard, the self-delusional nerd; and Raj, the foreign nerd. Now I'm just hooked on everything that is happening to them. Will Sheldon ever sleep with Amy, who possibly outdoes him in intellectual nerdiness, but is more socially curious? Will Leonard get to keep the interest of their pretty and street-savvy neighbor Penny? Did Bernadette really accept Howard's live-with-mom situation? Who will Raj hook up with?
        I'm not alone. The show, now in its sixth season, reached the 20 million viewers mark in January, a milestone that puts it in the same category as Seinfeld and I Love Lucy.
       How is it that that a cerebral but socially inept group of physicists at Cal Tech has managed to elicit a response from so many people?  I know as viewers we always will relate to dysfunction, a typical element of sitcoms, including Big Bang. It makes us feel like we're not the only ones.

        But consider that Big Bang's dialogue contains regular references to actual science, for which the show uses as consultant David Saltzberg, a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago, who in his free time does some very scientific work in Antarctica. And that the sex in the show is pretty innocent, even wholesome. And that there's no display of obscene wealth, or even ordinary wealth. And that we also look to find better versions of ourselves in TV characters, be it the sexy one or the successful one or the compassionate one or the common-sensical one or a combination.
       Who is it we're identifying with in Big Bang? We are talking physicists -- not lawyers or doctors or private investigators or police officers or school teachers or single parents or married couples, or any of the other more common professional or family roles usually presented in sitcoms. And who are these other 19,999,999 viewers? (Not my 13-year-old daughter. She likes American Horror Story and reruns of Desperate Housewives.)
         As it turns out, one of them is a long-time friend of mine who graduated from MIT and several other places after that, and now teaches and researches artificial intelligence in Wisconsin. I asked him what he liked about the show. He told me, but asked me to identify him by his middle name, William. I think that's because it might feel kind of incongruous to be published in respected scientific journals and also be quoted in a friend's silly blog. I get it. Anyway, here's what Dr. William said:
         "So why do I like Big Bang Theory? For one I find it funny, but that isn't a very interesting comment. Maybe a bit more specific is that in the male characters I see aspects of personalities of current and present friends and acquaintances from the world of science and technology - each of the four main characters remind me of one or two people I know. And guess I identify with Leonard a bit."
         I say to William: You are definitely taller than Leonard, but indeed, you and your friends all could probably identify with him a little bit, which isn't to say there isn't some of the other three in you as well, although, for the record, none of you lived with his mom. Leonard is the more normal of the bunch in that he gets the rest of humanity, despite being highly intelligent and applied in his scientific pursuits. His on-and-off girlfriend Penny, an aspiring actress who works in Cheesecake Factory and is gifted with common sense and street smarts, jerks him around as her hormones dictate, with Leonard playing the unwitting dork time and again.
        But in one episode in which Penny decides to try and have more respect for Leonard, she shows up at his lab, where he shows her what he's working on. The Big Bang Theory - 06x05 The Holographic ExcitationUnpretentious Leonard, seemingly out of thin air, produces beautiful holograms before her eyes. Penny falls quiet, genuinely wowed, and says tenderly: "Sometimes I forget how smart you really are." Leonard beams and seems to grow six inches taller.       
      Similarly, the "romance" between Amy and Sheldon -- a fastidious boy-man whose put downs would be insulting if the source wasn't so clueless and neurotic -- is reassuring in portraying that there is someone for everyone. 
        So I don't know if we've had enough of characters defined by little more than sex appeal, or if we are secretly hungry for more intellectual accomplishment and get it vicariously through these characters, or both, but whatever the reason, I'm pleased that the show is 20 million strong. There's a world of intense intellectual activity functioning along with the one of celebrity and wealth obsessions, thank God, and maybe Big Bang reminds us.
        And William, I've never forgotten how smart you really are.



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  2. Nicely done. I don't always watch, but I like it. It feels real unlike some other shows.

  3. PS. It appeals to our insecurities and humanness.