More like the Big Wang Theory
The Big Bang Theory is now in its fifth season, and it has proven to be one of the more successful series on CBS. Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the show follows the lives of four scientists who work at the California Technical Institute and live in Pasadena. Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper are experimental physicists, Howard Wolowitz is an aerospace engineer, and Rajesh Koothrappali is an astrophysicist. Leonard and Sheldon’s neighbor, Penny, completes the quintet of main characters, and provides the audience with an unusual contrast of stereotypes — we have geniuses galore and just one “regular” person (albeit another typical film and television stereotype: Penny is a blonde from Nebraska who works as a waitress while trying to make it as an actress in LA). It is perhaps from this contrast, one that places the usually peripheral character of the nerd in the forefront of a show, that The Big Bang Theory draws its success. Also contributing to making the show a hit is, of course, Jim Parsons’ portrayal of Sheldon, which brought him two Emmys and a Golden Globe, among other accolades. The show’s main achievement, though, is to create an universe in which the outcast scientists, the nerds, function as leading men; therefore, the title becomes rather ironic because we are witnessing a paradigm shift of big-bang proportions.
Television lately has been trying hard to be more inclusive, more politically correct, adjusting to cultural and ideological swings, as opposed to the normal route in which it creates ideology. More and more minorities are being represented, as are marginal groups; another good example is the success of the sitcom Molly & Mike, whose two main characters struggle with weight issues. The character of the nerd was the focus of the Revenge of the Nerds films in the ’80s, but it has not been prominent in television. The Big Bang Theory changes that dramatically. However, the series does employ a classical narrative, because it follows the general rules of the sitcom, and yet it is not about nothing, but rather about something new — it is about rendering cool what traditionally has not been. In Howard’s (hopeful) words, “smart is the new sexy.”
The general guidelines of the sitcom dictate that repetition be at the heart of the narrative. Regularity and lack of change are in fact key rules of the sitcom, as Steve Neale observes: “A short narrative-series comedy . . . with regular characters and setting. The episodic series . . . is . . . a mode of repeatable narrative which is particularly suited to the institutional imperative of the broadcast media to draw and maintain a regular audience” (244). Repetition is also at the foundation of Larry Mintz’s definition: “episodes involving recurrent characters within the same premise . . . The episodes are finite . . . The most important aspect of the sitcom structure is the cyclical nature of the normalcy of the premise undergoing stress or threat of change and becoming restored” (114-115). The Big Bang Theory matches the cyclical and repetitive nature of the sitcom narrative in both form and content. It also debunks certain stereotypes, while reinforcing several others. In short, it matches the personality of its main characters, of their quirks, and borderline obsessive-compulsive behavior.
The boys (given a plethora of toys, superhero shirts, video games, and general social awkwardness, it would be rather difficult to argue for the use of the word “men”), led by Sheldon, have dinners at the same place, order food from the same restaurants over specific nights of the week, same games, same routines. In the visual construction of the show, there is one repetitive event that is hard to miss. It involves walking up or down the stairs, while the characters do not interrupt their chatting. Every time they reach a new floor on their way to the fourth, they go by the elevator, which bears an “out of order sign.” The explanation behind the broken elevator (a failed rocket experiment by Leonard) comes to us only in the fourth season, and until then that point is never addressed. The lack of an elevator for several years points to an isolation or a breakdown of communication, reminiscent of many other such symbols in film and television (for example the raised bridge in the opening sequence of Citizen Kane reinforces the separation of the castle from the rest of the world). Paradoxically, the conversations that occur while taking the stairs usually revolve around relationship problems. The world created in this show is rather unique, and it is only fitting that it would not be easily accessible, therefore there is no working elevator.
Some of the recurring stereotypes that are in fact reinforced by the show have to do with the mothers of the four scientists, and whatever unresolved issues they have with those ladies. The series does not lack female presence, and beside Penny, we have been slowly introduced to a series of women who complement the men. Leslie, Bernadette, or Amy are all very smart women with doctorates, which evens out the representation of sexuality and gender. However, the mothers often steal the show, even though they usually make only brief appearances. The least present mother is Rajesh’s, as she only appears on Skype, next to her husband, during conversations from India. She is very adamant that her son settle down, and also willing to match him with someone back home. Basically everything about her, about what she says, and she being a Mrs. to a doctor, and more largely about what we know of Indian culture supports current stereotypes about India. More stereotypes are on display whenever Dr. Beverly Hofstadter, Leonard’s mother, comes to visit. She is quite the analytical mother, probably because of her background as a neuroscientist and renowned psychiatrist. Leonard craves her attention and approval, but never receives it. This type of failed mother-son relationship appears drawn from Freudian texts, but it is so ludicrous (the two are unable to even hug properly) that it subverts those very texts through parody. Sheldon’s mother, and according to Leonard his “Kryptonite,” Mary Cooper is quite the opposite of Beverly, but the results are very similar. She is a devout Christian from Texas who has a knack for politically incorrect comments, which may explain Sheldon’s misogyny and general contempt toward women scientists.
However, the mother of all mothers is Howard’s, Mrs. Wolowitz. She is the quintessential stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mother, but significantly, she never appears on screen physically; we only hear her loud, obnoxious voice. Her voice does not have a body of its own, although on several occasions Howard hints that she might be well overweight. Mrs. Wolowitz provides us with a perfect example of Michel Chion’s acousmêtre. The acousmêtre refers to a sound whose origin is not obvious; the disembodied voice seems to come from everywhere, and has four qualities: ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipotence (23-24). Whenever we are at the Wolowitz residence (Howard lives with his mother, which is an essential trait of the overbearing Jewish mother stereotype), we can witness all these qualities, as the voice of the mother penetrates every corner and never gives Howard any privacy, whether he is in his room, or even in the bathroom. It really is a voice that sees all. According to Chion, the greatest acousmêtre is God, and then, the mother (27), who constitutes an acousmêtre because during the earliest stages of life, her voice is everything that a child hears, and it is ever-present like an umbilical web (61). None of the four male characters appear to be able to elude their respective umbilical webs, or the usual stereotypes that come with the troubled mother-son relationship.
In this regard, The Big Bang Theory is rather conventional again, as the mothers all subscribe to usual roles and stereotypes of the sitcom — the nag and the spinster — or both in the case of Mrs. Wolowitz. But in sustaining some of these commonplace stereotypes of the mother, the series allows its male characters to turn out to be even more unlikely winners. And the show along with them.
Chion, Michel. Audio-visual: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia Press University, 1994).
Mintz, Larry (1985). “Situation Comedy.” In TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide, ed. Brian G. Rose. Westport: Greenwood Press, 107-29.
Neale, Steve (1990). Popular Film and Television Comedy. Florence: Routledge.