I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert in science fiction trivia. I do not know the names of ships, minor characters, or even major characters from "Star Trek." I am also not particularly good at math, and would never make it as a theoretical physicist.
What I am telling you, essentially, is that I have very little insight into the world inhabited by the characters of CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," a show currently in its fifth season.
Before I begin then, I should say that few of my friends who have personal investment in the movies, comics and principles that the show references find "The Big Bang Theory" flattening in its depiction of scientists, and they even find it insulting at times.
However, I have enough friends who love math, physics, and "World of Warcraft" who think the show is funny that I feel justified in saying that, at its best, it does more than just gleefully mock geekdom. "The Lizard-Spock Expansion," the eighth episode of the show's second season, is particularly reflective of the series' problematic tendencies, but also exemplifes its strengths.
In one of the episode's main plot points, Howard (Simon Helberg), one of the four main characters and probably the one who cares the most about fitting in, attempts to woo women with an eye patch and "toss[ing] out some negs"—back-handed compliments designed to make attractive women feel more vulnerable. His failures, especially compared with his friend Leonard's (Johnny Galecki) success with a woman named Stephanie he drives home after Howard tries to sneak her into a high clearance government facility, are funny, but due to the witty one-liners that follow.
For example, another main character, Sheldon (Jim Parsons) compares Howard's idea that an eye patch (as something that will make him memorable and desirable to the opposite sex) to "the male peacock with brilliant plumage or the rutting baboon with engorged hindquarters."
In another scene, Leonard and Stephanie listen to a number of voice messages Howard left for her. In one of the messages, Howard's mother shouts to him to tell Stephanie that they are going to Olive Garden when she meets the family, to which Howard yells back, "We're not going to the Olive Garden, Mom!," and she screeches, "Oh, Mr. Bigshot with his Red Lobster."
In later seasons, the show begins to struggle by putting too much emphasis on the characters' misguided quests for companionship and focuses a bit too much on their pathetic side. In "The Lizard-Spock Expansion," however, the series takes a noteworthy idiosyncratic approach to depicting strategies for finding companionship.
The episode's title refers to an incident in which Raj (Kunnal Nayyar) proposes to settle a dispute with his friend over whether to watch "Saturn 3" or "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" with a game of rock-paper-scissors. The hyper-literal Sheldon, the character on the show most alienated from the status quo, replies that players who know each other well will tie 75 to 80 percent of the time. He then suggests a solution of his own devising: rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock. As he rapidly and matter-of-factly explains, "Scissors cuts paper. Paper covers rock. Rock crushes lizard. Lizard poisons Spock. Spock smashes scissors. Scissors decapitates lizard. Lizard eats paper. Paper disproves Spock. Spock vaporizes rock. And as it always has, rock crushes scissors."
The idea, to increase the number of possible outcomes and thus the games unpredictability, is sound—my sister and I have actually played the "Big Bang Theory" version several times. Of course, the game tends to work better for us than for the show's characters because we are not intractably wired to choose Spock above all other options.
Explaining why a joke is funny is difficult, but I think that in this case a combination of factors are at work. Sheldon's way of thinking is positively absurd, and any viewer, even one unfamiliar with "Star Trek" or superheroes, can appreciate the way the characters cling to heroes so fiercely.
Of course, their clinging can come off as desperation, and it can limit the complexities of "The Big Bang Theory"'s characters. The show has particularly struggled in its depiction of female characters. The main female character on the show, a waitress and aspiring actress named Penny (Kaley Cuoco), lives in an apartment across the hall from Sheldon and Leonard and provides a foil for the male characters' awkwardness. Though the show's writers have given Penny some room to grow, she can come off as blank in comparison to the male characters.
In recent seasons, the show has also added new female characters, including Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) and Amy (Mayim Bialik), both scientists. In addition to presenting the world of academia as open to women, these characters—Bernadette in particular—help counter the emasculating effect Penny's "normal girl" character can have on the show's male characters. However, Bernadette and Amy's perpetual excitement about finding a place in Penny's world and experiencing so-called milestones like sleepovers and girls' nights out is problematic. Their wish to emulate female icons in pop culture makes them come off a little desperate and add to the fraught nature of the show's comedy.
Wanting a partner and sex is a universal theme, and there are plenty of ways to approach the topic, but occasionally the show pushes a little too hard to make its point about hapless scientists lacking street smarts.
Although these kinds of moments have begun to recur with increasing regularity in the past few seasons, I think "The Big Bang Theory" is still worth watching.
For the most part, the show treats its characters with respect. Science fiction memorabilia, special edition comic books, and equations for making friends are not just crutches or hollow replicas of what other people have. If they were, watching the show would be a much more uncomfortable, sad experience. The characters genuinely love their world, and that is what makes me love it too.