Nov 13 2012 6:00pm

Don’t Touch That Dial: Sitcoms

Don’t Touch That Dial: Sitcoms

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.

Don’t Touch That Dial: Sitcoms

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.

Don’t Touch That Dial: SitcomsSheldon 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.


Don’t Touch That Dial: Sitcoms

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.

Don’t Touch That Dial: SitcomsNow 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.

Don’t Touch That Dial: Sitcoms

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.

Don’t Touch That Dial: SitcomsAlso 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.

Christopher Hatton
1. Xopher
I'm really glad I never really watched TBBT. Sounds like my first impression of it was perfectly correct, except I didn't notice the homophobia in the half-episode I watched before I realized they were making fun of people like me and switched it off. So the characters who are laugh-at standins for people like me themselves make fun of...people like me.

Fuck TBBT and the horse it rode in on.
Keith DeCandido
2. krad
Couldn't disagree more about TBBT. The show doesn't stereotype any more (or any less) than every other sitcom in the history of the world. The next sitcom to be inhabited by a real person will be the first.

Also the show benefits from an immensely talented ensemble. Jim Parsons is, of course, brilliant, Johnny Galecki has hilariously expressive eyebrows, Simon Helberg is magnificent (I've been a fan of his since Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), and Kaley Cuoco does better facial expressions than anyone I've seen since John Belushi died.

It also actually gets its geeky stuff and its science stuff right. Hell, it's the first sitcom to ever have a science advisor....

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
3. Susurrin
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.
While Mayim Bialik might not be the classic example of pretty I gotta say this comment tells us more about the way you think than what the show's studio audience does.
Alex Brown
4. AlexBrown
@Xopher, krad, and Susurrin: I knew TBBT was going to be a huge sticking point for people. Just because "every other sitcom in the history of the world" jumps on the stereotype train doesn't make it right (and if you think that's true of every sitcom, there is a whole world of great sitcoms I'd love to introduce you to).

If you'll notice, I never hated on the cast. I genuinely like the cast. The actors are a good part of why I keep coming back (Jim Parsons is fantastically wonderful). I can hate the show but love the people. And yes, it does get its geek stuff right - another huge reason why I return.

On the Mayim Bialik comment, I was paraphrasing what the general audience tends to think of her. How many times have you seen her pose on FHM or Maxim? Contrast that with Kaley Cuoco. I think Mayim is pretty, but the show doesn't. Have you seen the outfits they put her in? Contrast that even with the clothes they put on Melissa Rauch (Bernadette). That's not a Mayim problem, that a studio/audience problem. Amy's character is specifically designed to be the unattractive, needy, pathetic nerdy chick in all those terrible geek stereotypes. If the show was set in high school, dollars to donuts she'd be a mathlete and the captian of the debate team, because that's the stereotype. Amy isn't a character, she's a collection of tropes - just like Penny, Sheldon, Leonard, etc. Sometimes those tropes get together and do something really cool - like when they had on George Smoot! - and other times they don't - like when they turn Penny into the "dumb blonde."
Tony B.
5. Tony B.
I was a little put off on your review of TBBT there at the end. How do you know that's what the audience is thinking? I watch the show and have watched it with my folks (in their 60's) who are by no means geeks or nerds. They laugh at it why everyone laughs at a good sitcom, the situations are comedic.

"I’m laughing with Sheldon and Leonard; everyone else is laughing at them." That's a pretty exclusionary remark right there.
Alex Brown
6. AlexBrown
@Tony: Look, I'm hardly the first person to ever make this claim. Are the people you're with really laughing at the comedic situations or are the laughing at the people involved in the comedic situations? If it's the former, congratulations, your friends aren't part of the majority. When people watch Parks and Rec, they aren't laughing at Leslie Knope, they're laughing with her. When people watch Two and a Half Men they're laughing at Cryer and with Ashton as he laughs at Cryer. I don't mean I'm the only person in the universe who is right, but I am part of the minority who is. Again, cultish minorities don't sell advertising - the 18-49 demo does, and the majority of those viewers aren't nerds with a fetish for David Saltzberg.
Tony B.
7. J0nas3
I've tried TBBT, every now and again. It can be funny, but, all too often it feels like it's laughing at the geeks instead of laughing with them. That and I find quite often I really dislike Sheldon instead of being amused by him. And it feels like it sells its own characters short. That cold open where they're playing Settlers of Catan and everybody but Sheldon is cracking up because Sheldon needs the wood resource? What are they, 12?
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
8. Lisamarie
I feel the same way about TBBT - my mom called me raving about how I HAD to watch this show because I would relate so much, etc, etc. And when I watched it I just felt it was FULL of the same old stereotypes and I found the whole 'going after the pretty neighbor' aspect a little offensive. And then I found out later these people are supposed be PhDs???? Huh???

I mean, maybe I am completely delusional but I really don't think any of my friends or I acted this way, or are that completely inept in social situations. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels so conflicted about the show, haha.

Also, VERONICA MARS ftw :D Any chance of a Veronica Mars rewatch on this site, hahahahahaha :) The TNG rewatch is almost done and I'll need something new.
Tony B.
9. J0nas3
(addendum because I was linked here from FB)
The other reason I don't see too much of TBBT is because they put it up against Community, and that's just not on. I've made my choice. And it's totally true that NBC Brittaed it when they fired Dan Harmon, only gave it 13 episodes, and though about putting it on Friday with Whitney.
Tony B.
10. Shariq
I agree mostly with your review of TBBT except for your strange love for Sheldon Cooper. I actually cannot stand this character at all; he's self-absorbed, narcissistic, and downright mean sometimes. I know the show plays this as him simply lacking in social awareness or having a certain degree of Aspergers Syndrome, but I find that he generally knows exactly how rude or mean he's being. I don't really get the love for this character.

TBBT was a lot gentler towards nerds in earlier seasons, but like a lot of sitcoms, most of the jokes turned into insult jokes as the seasons progressed. You're also really right about the outdated stereotypes. I was shocked that they actually made a "people that play D&D don't get laid" joke last season, and I cringe everytime they do a girls-in-a-comic-book-store joke.

That said, I've stuck with it because I'm fond of some of the characters like Raj, Howard, Bernadette, Leonard, and Penny, and occasionally it gets some smart jokes in.
Kristen Templet
11. SF_Fangirl
I watch only one sitcom (not mentioned here), but the discussion bears out why I have no interest in TBBT. Despite people's idea that I'd find it funny because I'm geeky I feel like the show is making fun of the geeks and the masses are laughing at them/us.

And Sheldon may be funny on TV, but - shallow, petty, and irritatingly obsessive - would he have any friends IRL? Too over-the-top for my tastes.
Tony B.
12. Staar84
I agree with you on TBBT; I have a love/hate relationship with it. There are a lot of lazy jokes in there (the ones that rely on stereotypes) that aren't necessary to the plot. But I love the actors, and when the show gets it right, it’s hilarious.
13. jerec84
Well said. Community and Parks and Rec are two of my favourite TV shows at the moment... counting down to October 19, which has been moved to February. I did try watching Big Bang Theory once but couldn't get into it.
Tony B.
14. TBGH
TBBT is one of my favorite comedies of all time. When I watch sitcoms (which is rarely) I don't watch for an accurate portrayal of real people. On Everybody Loves Raymond the mother was nothing but a collection of all the worst Jewish/Italian mother stereotypes and it was hilarious. Same here. Sitcoms about well-balanced people are rarely funny (the only exception I can think of was the Cosby Show and I'm not sure how that would hold up on a rewatch). Yes the main characters in the show have social problems. And absolutely they make fun of stereotypes. But anyone who is watching sitcoms and basing their opinions on a group of people off of them is already a lost cause.

As for the other shows on here, I've tried both and don't find either remotely entertaining, but then I didn't like The Office either.
Tony B.
15. Edgewalker81
Big Bang is awesome. Don't be so sensitive.

It shows how weird some nerdy things can be, which is accurate. It also shows them as all being super smart, just socially inept at times. Which is accurate for some people. It's a funny show, not mean spirited at all and if you don't watch it, you should.

Sample Line:

"You are now one of the great traitors in history. Like Judas, Brutus and Rupert Murdoch."

"What did Rupert Murdoch do?"

"He owns Fox and they canceled Firefly."

This is a show FOR nerds.

Get off your high horse and check it out.
16. Susurrin
I watch only one sitcom (not mentioned here),
I am going to follow my inner Abed and guess Cougartown.

As far as what the audience thinks or doesn't think about the show I'm watching...I have to say I don't care. Why does it matter if other people laugh at a nerd joke for the wrong reason? That kind of over-sensitivity sucks the fun out of anything.
Tony B.
17. KMK
My wife and I started watching TBBT in syndication. She's not into nearly as many geeking things as I am. Some of the jokes go right past her. Where as there are many stereotypes on the show, there are also jsut as many geeky/nerdy inside jokes that a lot of people don't get.
It's like when we watch Supernatural. The aliases that Sam and Dan use, my wife an I look at each other and wonder if the college kids know which band the rock stars are in that they use. That's an example of Eric Kripke blowing a kiss to all the classic rock fans. TBBT does teh same thing to those with "Geeky" Interests.
To quote a classic movie: "Lighten up Francis"
Alex Brown
18. AlexBrown
@jerec and TBGH: Community is frakking awesome, and Parks & Rec is really nothing at all like The Office. It dropped that mimic about halfway through the first season, and by the second it was its own individual show. Try dropping in for this season, TBGH. They are firing on all cylindars right now. As for Community, I'll be celebrating October 19th on February 7th.
Evan Langlinais
19. Skwid
Almost every time I see reviews of tBBT, I see a whole lot of projection going on.

I say it's worth watching.
Rob Rater
20. Quasarmodo
Big fan of both Community and Parks & Rec. I passed on Big Bang initially, but have since come around and have added it to my list of shows to catch up on from the beginning. So far I've just seen bits and pieces, and it looks decently funny. A buddy of mine loves it, but then he also loves How I Met Your Mother, which I've also seen bits and pieces of, but it has yet to get a single laugh out of me.
Alex Brown
21. AlexBrown
@KMK and Quasarmodo: I discovered TBBT in syndication last winter and thought enjoyed the geeky humor, so I caught up with the earlier seasons. By the time I got to the newest seasons my love for it had waned. Seems like the more it has grown, the crasser and meaner it's gotten.

I tried HIMYM a few times, but other than Neil Patrick Harris (he and David Burtka are my real life OTP) it hasn't appealed to me.
Alan Courchene
22. Majicou
I've had much the same reaction to TBBT that Alex did, except that I didn't keep watching it. Of course, I was also told (like many others) that I would TOTALLY love it beforehand, so that didn't predispose me to like it. It felt like a show where nerds were the punchline, rather than a funny show about nerds in comic situations. And classic character tropes, even ones about nerds, can be done well--I really enjoy The IT Crowd. TBBT totally missed the mark for me. It can only look at nerds from the outside, and through a distorted lens (or in a glass darkly.)
Steven Halter
23. stevenhalter
"I possess the DNA of Leonard Nimoy."
in Series 2 Episode 11 – "The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis" is quite possibly one of the best moments in TV.
Alex Brown
24. AlexBrown
@Majicou: Looooved The IT Crowd. And yet I totally hated the American version, despite all its glorious Joel McHale.

@steven: The ep where Sheldon breaks his Spock action figure and feels guilty about trading it to Leonard is probably one of my favorites...that and the one where Penny becomes a WoW gamer. But the the show frustrates me with scenes like where the guys bring Penny to the comic book store and everyone treats her like a unicorn and acts like they've never seen a woman in real life before.
Steven Halter
25. stevenhalter
Alex@24:Yeah, it has moments of brilliance like those and moments of not so brilliance.
:slight tangent: Of course, if you saw Scalzi's thread today, there seem to be plenty of people out there who haven't ever really interacted with actual women.
Alex Brown
26. AlexBrown
@steven in re slight tangent: I know, and it's incredibly depressing. At the same time you have guys like Peacock rethinking their asinine statements, you've got guys like Tony Harris unravelling civilized society.
Tony B.
27. SueQ
I can't stand 'Two & a Half Men' but I love TBBT. Finally a show where I can see Dr. Hawking guest star. I always had trouble understanding Penny but totally related to the guys. Yes, I was the Nerd kid in high school. I get a kick out of Nerds suddenly being the cool ones. Ha! Look at the original CSI: it's the Nerd kids who grew up doing science and racing cockroachs and studying weird stuff who are actually solving the problems. Check out the latest issue of GEEK magazine: Nathan Fillion article with a photo spread of him as Indiana Jones, James Bond, etc.
Matthew Abel
28. MatthewAbel
I love all three of these shows. Parks and Rec has earned more emotional investment from me than even Jim and Pam on the Office. I genuinely care about all the characters - from Andy's search for the right career to Leslies pursual of civic justice. The proposal episode was amazing, but I was even more floored by the B-plot lately of "Rent-A-Swag." Tom Haverford growing up has been incredibly rewarding to watch - the man who calls it "Fry fry chicky-chick" taking things seriously.

Also: Ron Swanson. Every line that man says is classic.

Community: I can only hope it continues as well as it has. I classify it as "Suburban Fantasy" in my mind. With epic storylines such as the Air Conditioning Scion that Troy went through - you hit up all my favorite bits of that show. It is easily the best show on TV.

TBBT: As a complete geek who sometimes doesn't fit in with his own wife, and has suffered from bullies and being smart, and enjoying cosplay, I honestly relate to the geeks on this show somewhat and I find it hilarious. Two out of three aint bad.
Alex Brown
29. AlexBrown
@Sue and Matthew: Yes, I like TBBT for the same reasons you do. It's the negatives that make me hate it. TBBT is the definition of ambivalence for me.

I kid you not, I cried when Leslie and Ben got engaged. Actual real tears. The only other times I can remember crying over a television show was when Buffy's mom died and at the series finale of Dawson's Creek. I was a bawling wreck for the proposal, that's how invested in them I am. They are so my OTP, and Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones are my real life OTP.

As for Community, I have the utmost confidence in the new showrunner regime, mostly because the entire cast seem to have the utmost confidence. I feel like if they were totally jazzed about the show they'd make it known. Also curious/worried about Chevy's departure...

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