Tales From The Industry XXIII – Big Bang Theory

Thursday is my first day I can take a breath this week. The last few have been crazy and so I’ve not found time to edit that bubble video I promised, but it is coming. I hope I can get to it tomorrow.

Today is still full of stuff here and there, including a referee report, another report, some administrative things for my class, and then another attempt to think through a thorny puzzle on a research project. The class admin should have been done last night since Thursday and Friday are supposed to be free of undergraduate teaching issues, according to my agreement with myself. However, we had a seminar visitor – Rene Meyer – and so after my class ended at 7:00pm, instead of doing the administration I went to get a bus to downtown to meet with him and my student Arnab for dinner, at the excellent Blossom, one of my favourites down there. There was a bit of walking around to show them some of downtown’s lovely hidden treasures in the form of so many elegant buildings that are ignored by most. (Yes, people, there are restaurants and cafes and things open downtown at night. And of course bars. Go see.)

Now on to the other thing:

still from the show big bang theory

As a result of a phone call that came through while I was hosting Rene yesterday, it seems that later today, between this and that, I’ll be shooting a little, er, “bit” for the TV show Extra, about the comedy show The Big Bang Theory. Maybe. I’ve learned that things are in a constant state of flux in the Industry, and things that were on can be off, and off on, and up down and down up. Even after shooting you never know what can happen. (Recall the Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil thing earlier in the year.) Anyway, it seems that the show is premiering it’s second season next Wednesday and so they’re doing something or other for it. They want an actual theoretical physicist involved, to go with the fictional ones. If it airs, you’ll see what the bit is about. [Update: See here.]

This got me thinking that I’ve never really thought to get opinion from a wide audience about the show. In principle, a portion of the readership of this blog might like it since it is about theoretical physics graduate students, right? Well, let’s see. I’ve never seen a full episode, so my impressions so far are skewed and perhaps unreliable. What I saw was a collection of clips assembled together for United Airlines’ in-flight show and I must admit that I was lukewarm about it. It seemed to just be playing up all the clichés and stereotypes that I try to dispel about scientists: The view that we’re geeky, socially awkward and somewhat otherworldy seemed to be the cornerstone of the comedic aspects that the clips were going for. The view that we’re mostly all male, plain, and dreaming about beautiful females is the other mainstay: The show seems to be about the two guys interactions with the beautiful blonde (of course) girl next door, who is (of course) not herself a scientist.

My idea for well over a decade has been for a TV show about scientists is that it would not just play to the clichés. I think that the time is right, and the audience can get it, if given the chance. I am convinced that one can do drama and comedy while at the same time showing that scientists can be a diverse range of people in terms of temperament, looks, genders, races, and so forth, just like the rest of humanity. Just like in the other “career” shows about doctors, or lawyers, or cops, or nurses, etc. So I was a bit unhappy with what I saw, although I will admit that some of the clips did make me smile.

Having said all of that, I think that I should actually see a full episode or two to see how they do things. I might well be not seeing the big arc (if there is one), and some of the more subtle portrayals and depictions. Being supportive of something that’s almost there, and maybe making gentle suggestions if I get the chance is better than just writing it off, I think. I most certainly want to be supportive of one of the rare prime time network TV shows that has as the main characters people whose main interests are ideas, understanding nature, using their brains, just for the joy and wonder of it. My “people”, after all. Portrayed on prime time network TV. Worth noting and repeating. Here’s their summary of the show (found here):

Created by writer/producers Chuck Lorre (of Two And A Half Men) and Bill Prady (of Gilmore Girls) comes The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom that shows what happens when hyperintelligent roommates/physicists Sheldon and Leonard meet Penny, a beautiful woman moving in next door–and realize they know next to nothing about life outside of the lab. Rounding out the crew are the smarmy Wolowitz, who thinks he’s as sexy as he is brainy, and Koothrappali, who suffers from an inability to speak in the presence of a woman. The show distinguishes itself by being unafraid to toss scientific references and technobabble into an otherwise standard sitcom, even employing a physicist to keep things accurate. In doing so, it allows Sheldon and Leonard to do for science what Frasier’s Crane brothers did for fine dining, art, and opera.

So I will give it a chance and watch a bit of the new season. Besides, good friends of mine who also are scientists have said they liked it, not the least because they recognize accurate portrayals of some of the “types”. (My point is not that they get the types wrong… just that there are more “types” that hardly ever get an airing. My central thesis is that we’ll never get far in improving public appreciation and understanding of science if its practitioners are constantly portrayed as weird and part of an elite class of strange people.)

Anyway, so I’m going to give it another chance. So what do you think? Have you seen it? Do you like it? What would you like to see more of? Less of? I’ll pass your thoughts on to some of the program makers if I get the chance.

Best,

-cvj

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18 Responses to Tales From The Industry XXIII – Big Bang Theory

  1. Michelle says:

    I saw only one show, which featured the female physics grad student character. I liked her character a lot– she was definitely nerdy, but also spirited, smart, and confident. I would like to have seen one more woman on the show who was NOT a nerd, but actually dressed well.

    The actual ratios in my PhD class were something like 90/10 male female and (in my opinion) 60/40 totally socially akward vs. fairly normal (I have to say, experimentalists tended more toward the normal side!). It should be possible to make a good, funny show that is also a fairly realistic representation of life in grad school.

    I don’t think you have to artificially inflate the number of women on the show to make it look like the ratios are 50/50, but having some good, strong female characters is important.

  2. Brian says:

    I love the show, despite the stereotypes. That’s generally how sitcoms work though; they play up stereotypes and poke fun at them. It’s part of what makes good sitcoms so funny (and bad sitcoms so lame).

    FWIW, I’m a physics/math major.

  3. Benjamin says:

    Personally I think it is one of the better sitcoms out there, though I don’t know how well it is received by a non-scientific audience. It certainly focuses on the clichés and prejudices and is nowhere near the reality, but on the other hand, who wants to watch a realistic sitcom? So I guess it doesn’t do much to bring science to a broader audience, but it is pretty funny. I also like that they show scientific insider jokes from time to time, like some guy wearing a “No GUT no glory” shirt.

  4. Brian says:

    Also, IIRC they have PhDs already and are just doing research. They never speak of going to class, or having to TA or anything…

  5. Tommy says:

    I’ve caught a few episodes, there are some stereotypes, but it’s not as bad as you think. I also recall there being a female scientist character or two, who, while being a bit nerdy was nevertheless rather self-confident, assured and interested in things besides physics (I think she played cello or violin). She was definitely not the socially awkward girl. One of the main characters is nerdy and has trouble with women, but not to a point where he’s completely clueless or hopeless, I’d say its more just a lack of self-confidence. Its certainly no more outlandish than a bunch of waitresses living in Soho lofts ;).

    There’s also a few insider jokes, in fact in that episode I seem to remember the girl pointing out a sign error on one of the main characters whiteboards. If you look closely enough, I think it was the QCD beta function, which is a really good joke if you’re in the know.

  6. Clifford says:

    Hi All,

    These are all excellent points. As I said, I will certainly watch it properly and see. I’m glad to hear that it is enjoyable.

    More thoughts still welcome from others.

    -cvj

  7. Frank says:

    It seemed to just be playing up all the clichés and stereotypes that I try to dispel about scientists: The view that we’re geeky, socially awkward and somewhat otherworldy seemed to be the cornerstone of the comedic aspects that the clips were going for. The view that we’re mostly all male, plain, and dreaming about beautiful females (…).

    (Looks around…) But isn’t that the naked truth!!?? (no joke)

    Btw I saw the whole first season and I really liked it, I think it is the best sitcom of the latest 4/5 years (maybe more, let’s see how it develops).

  8. Frank says:

    I almost forget it. At the end of some episode you can see a rather lengthy paragraph showing for a fraction of a second. They are written by Chuck Lorre, the producer, and are available at his website.

    An example I particularly like.

  9. Frank says:

    I almost forget it. At the end of some episodes you can see a rather lengthy paragraph appearing on the screen for a fraction of a second. They are written by Chuck Lorre, the producer, and are available at his website.

    An example I particularly like.

  10. Clifford says:

    Frank, thanks. Look around again. Look more broadly. We are not all geeky, socially awkward, etc etc. There are such examples of the stereotype – and it’s fine to be that way if you wish – but there are several examples of other types too. Why can’t they get a public airing too? Sorry… repeating myself now….

    Oh, and taken over the whole of science (as I was referring to in that paragraph), it’s not so male dominated as it is often portrayed (maybe not this show, based on what was said above….?).

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  11. Jude says:

    I’ve watched it more or less three times. I hated one episode (way too stereotypical and sex-obsessed for me); liked one episode (a brain bowl competition where one of the guys refused to allow anyone to help, probably because I’m sort of like that–e.g., I won an adult spelling bee for my team, but basically, I *was* the team); and felt neutral about the third. It seems to be slightly better when the ditzy blonde isn’t in a scene. But this is a non-scientist’s point of view based on few viewings.

  12. Clifford says:

    Well, we just this minute finished shooting and one of the show’s people gave me a copy of the season one DVD. So I will try to find the time to get up to speed on it, bolstered by the mostly positive thoughts expressed. Locals (er, the ones who I know)… email me if you want to do a little viewing party sometime soon.

    -cvj

  13. Frank says:

    Hi Clifford!

    Of course not everybody is like that, and there are women around, some of them seem pretty normal even. But you have to agree that the level of geekiness in physics/math departments is more than 5 sigmas above that of the total population.

    I’m a grad student on astronomy/astrophysics (now in Germany), and since I started on this job, I’ve seen things most people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… Joking aside, I still remember my first days of PhD work and how shocking were people to me. Nowadays I guess I’m one of them. And I feel fine.

  14. Tommy says:

    I don’t think physics/math types are inherently more geeky or socially awkward per se. What I do think is that we are more tolerant of people who are a bit out of the ordinary. I know a few people (probably including myself) who have a quirk or two about them. In physics, people don’t care as much as long as you do good work and can communicate that work to others. I think the international aspect of things also helps in this regard, you very quickly learn to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs and cultures. I recall once being at a party in Santa Barbara and realizing I was one of only two Americans there. That’s a wonderful thing to me.

    In a field like banking, I just don’t see those really quirky people being able to advance far, except at some of the outlier firms like the one created by Simons. Many of those fields put a larger emphasis on appearance and conformity. At least to me, that’s a feather in the cap of physicists.

  15. Elliot says:

    I have to confess I’ve never seen the show. But as a Caltech undergrad, I’m pretty sure I’ve personally lived out some of it.

    I have some great stories about those days relating to the social interactions. But perhaps on of the most telling statistics was that at the time over 50% of male Caltech undergraduates married the first woman they dated.

    e.

  16. Chris says:

    Hi Clifford,

    About:
    “My idea for well over a decade has been for a TV show about scientists is that it would not just play to the clichés. I think that the time is right, and the audience can get it, if given the chance.”

    I was wondering if you’ve tried ReGenesis? Canadian show if I recall correctly…

  17. Clifford says:

    Hi,

    No. I have not seen it.

    -cvj

  18. lm says:

    My husbnd and I love the show. We are both definitely geeks (husband is software engineer and I am currently an over-educated, under-employed homebody), albeit more socially ept than Sheldon and company. Actually Sheldon reminds me a bit of my dear husband–in a good way. :o) We love the references to Star Trek and other sci-fi stuff, etc. Yes, it is cliche, but it sure is funny.
    Hope it goes on for a long time yet.