Friday, May 7, 2010

Blessed are the Geek; For They Shall Inherit the Earth

A half-hour CBS sitcom about the travails of a cute twenty-something blonde who befriends a group of socially awkward geeks and gets romantically involved with one of them, is a premise tailor-made for today's detail-driven, tech-savvy world. Which is probably why it bombed so spectacularly back in 1995 when the show was called "Dweebs" and starred Farrah Forke as the cute blonde and Peter Scolari as the lead geek, with the likes of Corey Feldman and Stephen Tobolowsky filling out the cast. And it was my unpleasant memories of that show, and other similar media portrayals of the geek experience, that kept me away from CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" for the first two seasons, only to become a rabid fan in the third.

But back to "Dweebs." Back in '95 I actually sought out the sitcom because of its premise, catching the premier and a couple of subsequent episodes in the hope that I was going to see a show about people who were a little more like me, AP student and science-fiction fangirl with a special disdain for the mall. No such luck. The "dweebs" were the employees of a tech start-up who were moving out of their previous headquarters in someone's garage, and into an office environment. All hobbled by serious social impairments, they were horrible caricatures who often resembled sanitarium extras from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" more than supposedly brilliant computer programmers. It was no wonder that pack of spazzing schlumpers had to rely on a newly hired secretary to help them confront the real world for the first time. Only six episodes of "Dweebs" were aired before it was mercifully put out of its misery. Good riddance.

As much as I bemoan the rise of the fanboy age of media, I like the fact that geek heroes are being embraced in Hollywood now. I get a kick out of seeing action movies headlined by the likes of Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg, and crime dramas where Matthew Gray Gubler and David Krumholtz are chasing serial killers. We even had a few girl geek heroines, like Wendy from the short-lived "The Middleman," and of course the irrepressible "Ugly Betty." And is there anyone out there who isn't giddy with "Glee"? More importantly, the days of all geeks being portrayed as bespectacled, bow-tie wearing, unpleasant freaks are well behind us. Yes, we still get geeks with improbable characteristics like "The Big Bang Theory's" Rajesh being unable to speak in the presence of an attractive woman without the aid of alcohol, but these are handled more thoughtfully than they were in the past. The audience is invited to sympathize, rather than gape.

Looking at "The Big Bang Theory" specifically, the four geeks are all of above-average intelligence and socially awkward, but have very different personalities that help them register as genuine people rather than obvious comic relief tropes. Sure, their topics of conversation might revolve around comic book superheroes and quantum physics, but they maintain the same group dynamics of any set of close-knit friends. Moreover, it helps that they're young, affable, appealing, and easily relatable. The social handicaps are subtler, and not immediately obvious. Only Leonard wears glasses and he's the one that gets the girl. And on the other side of the equation, the sitcom world that the "Big Bang" guys inhabit has also changed from the days of "Dweebs." Geeky interests like computers and superheroes have gone mainstream, so it's no longer assumed that the audience will be unable to decipher conversations about them. And there are none of the formerly common sitcom constructs that required stereotypical geeks to face off against bully and jock characters. Here, Shedon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj generate plenty of conflict by themselves, and we deal with them on their own terms.

I think what I love most about the show is that it takes the time to get the details right. I remember an episode of "Will & Grace" where Dave Foley was guest-starring as a purported "Lord of the Rings" super-fan. Much was made of the fact that this character was an obsessive, but within two lines of dialogue, he incorrectly identified Lady Eowyn as "the king's daughter" when any non-fan who paid attention during a viewing of the movie trilogy would know that she was King Theoden's niece. Little things like that always get to me because being a geek is all about the little things. "The Big Bang Theory" gets the technobabble wrong on occasion, but at least it's paying attention. Loads of geeky pop-culture and scientific details are not only included in each episode, but often become integral to the plots. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable to have entire episodes devoted to solving math problems and fights over movie paraphernalia - and now it's par for the course. One of the consulting scientists for the show even blogs about each episode's scientific content here.

From what I've gathered from online articles about the show, "The Big Bang Theory" didn't start out with quite such an enlightened attitude toward geeks. The first season had more stereotypes, the characters had some kinks to work out, and there was more time spent poking fun at the guys' nerdy quirks. I take comfort in the fact that there's not much evidence of this attitude three years on, and the show has been steadily gaining viewers over the course of its run. Considering the amount of geek-friendly cameos, Easter-egg in-jokes, and sly intellectual references that have cropped up in this season, it's clear that the creators are now not only taking the geek audience into consideration, but are actively courting us. Perhaps the best indicator of the show's success have been the murmurs that other networks have been looking into developing their own geek-centric projects.

The proliferation of the geeks continues. To which I say, Bazinga!

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