Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a mini-series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, will break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. Previously we delved into fantasy/paranormal, horror/comics/general geekery, and mysteries/procedurals shows, so in this very special episode we’ll tackle sitcoms for nerds, namely The Big Bang Theory, Community, and Parks and Recreation. Be warned, where applicable these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS, nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact.Any shows you’d like me to cover? Drop me a line in the comments.
The Big Bang Theory
The Road So Far: The Big Bang Theory (CBS, Thurs 8p) stars love-lorn Leonard and his uber-neurotic roomie and coworker Sheldon, their fellow nerdlings Raj and Howard, and a handful of girls who are only in the show because they’re in varying degrees of love/lust with the boys. The CBS description goes into a moderately condescending rant about how nerds are incapable of interacting with gorgeous women because they’d rather play Klingon Boggle because NERDS. I’d get upset about this, but that’s basically the show: a bunch of dudes acting like an 80s geek stereotype fawning pathetically over a series of interchangeable pretty girls.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Let’s start with the good. This is a show all about nerds. We get so little actual attention on TV that’s not outright patronizing that it’s nice to see a show where an entire episode can revolve around a guy being annoyed at Wil Wheaton or wanting to play with a vintage Spock action figure. Personally, I could take or leave the rest of the characters. Give me 30 minutes of Sheldon just existing and I’d be a happy kitty. Everyone else in the show routinely feels bad about their choices, but not Sheldon. He’s shallow, petty, and irritatingly obsessive, sure, but he is who he is and if you don’t like it then you can piss off. More real-world geeks and fans should follow in his footsteps. Self-esteem and self-confidence are not the sole property of the popular kids.
Sheldon is easily the best thing about the show, but too often the bad and the ugly bits poke their nasty little heads through and ruin the whole damn thing. You know how I said nerds rarely get attention on TV that’s not patronizing? Well, that’s the thing, TBBT really is patronizing. TBBT is the first show about geeks not targeting geeks but the general 18-49 demo (disagree all you want, but CBS is not in the cult TV show business...CW/WB can air all the Freaks and Geeks and Veronica Mars it wants, but CBS would have a heart attack pulling in ratings that low). I may be laughing that Sheldon and Amy are having a comic misunderstanding about how much sex their relationship should or shouldn’t have, but the studio audience is laughing at the ugly chick who wants to bone her nerdy boyfriend and that’s funny because nerds are virgins who couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse.
Most people aren’t laughing about the geeky situations but at the geeks themselves. I’m laughing with Sheldon and Leonard; everyone else is laughing at them. Which indirectly means that everyone else is laughing at me. They think the very act of people wanting to play D&D non-ironically or cosplaying as the Justice League is frakking hilarious. Why? Because GEEKS. But worst of all is the ugly jokes the characters often make at people they deem to be worth less than themselves. The audience laughs at the nerds for having science-y interests and being socially awkward, and, in turn, the nerds laugh at women who aren’t gorgeous, people who aren’t stick-thin, and anyone on the LGBTQ* spectrum. Not to mention the racist and misogynist stereotypes that form the basis of its humor.
TL;DR: There’s a lot to love about TBBT. There’s also a tremendous amount to hate. I tell myself that by watching it in solidarity with Sheldon I’m sticking it to showrunner Chuck Lorre, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel hinky about it.
The Road So Far: Community (NBC, not premiering until Thurs, Feb 7, 8p) started simply enough when Jeff Winger, a lawyer with a fake degree, was ordered by a judge to finish college. He enrolls in Greendale Community College and meets fellow failures Troy (don’t mention LeVar Burton), Abed (aka BATMAN), Britta (the worst), Annie (and Annie’s Boobs), Pierce (shut up, Pierce), Shirley (who kicks butt at foosball) and the Dean (Deanaling!). Basically, this is the greatest sitcom on TV and it’s not even airing right now—don’t think I’ve forgiven you, NBC!
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Just as I could write a ridiculously long appreciation post about my love/admiration/obsession with Supernatural, I could do the same for Community. For one, it’s up there with The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation in being endlessly quotable (you’d be surprised how easy it is to work “Is that linebacker a pregnant woman?” into a conversation). For two, they manage to simultaneously parody and pay homage to the weirdest stuff: paintball, westerns, 8-bit video games, debate team, trampolines (only Leslie Knope can truly understand Troy and Jeff’s love of trampolines), “Roxanne” by The Police, stop motion animation, etc. For three, they did an entire clip show using clips from shows that never existed. For four, this. For five, this. For six, this was their response to NBC screwing the pooch on not premiering the show on Oct. 19 LIKE THEY PROMISED. Seriously, I could go on forever on why you should be watching this show and shame on you for not.
Now that that’s out of my system, here’s why you really should watch Community. It doesn’t just reference pop culture, it adores the hell out of it and also understands that sometimes it can be kinda silly. It’s not a perfect show. It has a tendency to lose the plot in the forest of obscure pop culture references, ones that can be difficult to pick out even for the most hardcore film and TV fanatics. But one thing it never loses is its love of its characters. While TBBT relentlessly ridicules its characters, Community only teases its characters out of love. Ex-showrunner Dan Harmon (and, I’m assuming/hoping new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port) genuinely care about what happens to the Greendale Seven. On occasion the show can get downright dark and depressing, but it never dwells too long on it because at the end of the day, this is a show about hope, about getting better, about moving on and growing up. Kindness kills even the darkest of timelines.
TL;DR: This is is a show about geeks, for geeks, by geeks. It is everything you’ve ever loved about Joss Whedon but without all the death and a lot more chicken fingers.
Parks and Recreation
The Road So Far: Parks and Recreation (NBC, Thurs 9:30p) follows small town Parks and Rec Dept. minion Leslie Knope as she navigates the complicated worlds of politics and romance. Now that she’s a newly minted City Councilwoman, Leslie is forced to contend with a small scale version of the national political scene. More importantly, Leslie and Ben just got engaged and I don’t think I’ve cried that hard over a TV show since the series finale of Dawson’s Creek. OMG you guys, they are the cutest couple ever on TV, even cuter than the piemaker and dead girl.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: At first, Parks and Rec was little more than a less-funny knock off of The Office, down to the bummer of a boss and the documentary format. Fortunately, all that’s dust in the wind. Season 1 is funny, true, but it’s riddled with structural and character problems that if left unresolved would’ve crushed the show in the long run. By the second season Amy Poehler and co. stopped trying to remake The Office and set about creating their own show, and they’ve been firing on all cylinders ever since. Even its middling episodes are aces above just about everything else on TV. The writing is sharp and fast and where most shows would falter, Parks and Rec walks right up to the edge and jumps off with a smile and a wink. Like Community, there are a lot of things happening all at once and your level of enjoyment grows exponentially with every new layer of understanding.
Also like Community, the best thing about this show isn’t the writing or the storytelling, but the characters. They grow with the show and with the developments that take place. In Community, Jeff becomes kinder and more accepting the more time he spends with his study group. In Parks and Rec, Ron Swanson becomes less emotionally distant the more Leslie forces him out of his shell. Season 1 Ron would have never been attracted to mother and middle school vice principal Diane the way season 5 Ron is. The characters care about each other just as the actors and writers care about them. They love these characters, and while everyone laughs at Jerry’s fart attack, they love him enough to throw him a fundraiser to help pay his hospital bills. Sometimes the B- and C-stories add up to little more than Andy being an idiot or Tom making a really terrible decision, but the sum always equals more than its parts.
TL;DR: How can you not love show that threw a funeral for a miniature horse named Lil’ Sebastian? And Ben Wyatt is one of TV’s biggest nerd. Homeboy writes Star Trek fanfic like nobody’s business.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.