Sheldon Cooper isn’t funny. The breakout usurper star of the immensely popular sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, who is quickly becoming a popcultural icon on the level of “The Fonz” of Happy Days and Steve Urkel of Family Matters (other stars who usurped the lead role from fellow cast mates due to their popularity) is mostly just a loathsome and ignorant person. It’s not that you can’t be those things and funny, but Sheldon’s particular brand of awfulness has gotten sour as of late. Before, Sheldon was merely selfish and believably unfamiliar with social cues, much like an overgrown child. Now that selfishness and obliviousness has rotted into this odd streak of maliciousness and willful ignorance of even the most basic social conventions. The way he treats his friends, his girlfriend, and his colleagues has gone past “funny” and moved firmly into insufferable territory. The worst part of his character is how the writers try to convince us that Sheldon is a decent person “deep down” and just doesn’t know how to show it. They give us stunning moments of “growth” for him, but they fall apart once you realize how unearned they are. The problem is, Sheldon isn’t just a misguided and naive child, he’s actually a full on ass hole and nothing shows that more clearly than this scene right here.
This goes beyond ignorance, and goes beyond idiocy. It’s just Sheldon being unambiguously racist. He doesn’t see his black HRA (Human Resources Administrator) as a person, he just assumes that all black people want to see Roots (a mini-series that examines slavery in America) so he gives his HRA a DVD collection of the series because she is black. He treats her like a pet, an animal that will undoubtedly react to certain stimuli in the exact same way others of its breed would, rather than like a person who has unique hobbies and interests. Combine that with the condescending way he addresses her and the racial undertones become clear. His gleeful declaration that he plans to give his Asian professor the complete works of Jackie Chan immediately after clearly angering his HRA is like a bitter reminder on what an ignorant racist our star is.
In his defense, Sheldon’s condescension extends far beyond those he considers to be of an inferior race. He treats his friends like complete garbage and to a certain extent, that sort of behaviour is fine. We need a wildcard in the cast to keep things fresh, and comedy can’t come if everyone is nice to each other all the time, but in recent years Sheldon has gone way too far with his unpleasantness. It has become a matter of suspending one’s disbelief to accept the fact that he still hasn’t been ejected from his group of friends. He’s just too much of an ungrateful bastard to his put-upon roommate Leonard, he constantly slut-shames his neighbour Penny with snide remarks and assumptions about her sexual history, he is (surprise-surprise) racially condescending to his friend Raj (“In our ragtag band of scientists with nothing to lose, I’m the smart one, Wolowitz is the funny one, and Koothrappali is the lovable foreigner who struggles to understand our ways and fails”), and he constantly intellectually belittles his astronaut friend (acquaintance?) Howard. In moderate doses and with appropriate introspection it would be fine, but constant put-downs, annoying habits, and condescending racist remarks make me question why they even put up with him (a concern the characters often jokingly consider before ultimately shrugging off). None of that however, compares to how poorly he treats his girlfriend Amy.
The Big Bang Theory is a show that began with the simple premise of exploring how four nerds’ lives would change if a pretty young lady was introduced to their social circle. Eventually the show grew stagnant, as it became increasingly clear that the it was just going to be tired and stereotypical “nerd meets girl” jokes repeated endlessly. For a while it seemed The Big Bang Theory would devolve into being the same sloppy guilty-pleasure that defined another show created by Chuck Lorre known as Two and a Half Men, but then came a flash of brilliance. With the introduction of two other female cast members, Bernadette (Howard’s love interest and eventual wife), and Amy (Sheldon’s unfortunate girlfriend), the show gained a second wind. The show shifted away from raunchy nerd jokes that saw Howard’s genitals trapped and constricted by a robotic hand he built and decided to use for masturbatory purposes, and more towards something that explored the transition into adulthood among young men and women. Sure the show still often relies on tired riffs on geek culture, but now it has more substance to it. Suddenly the show became less Two and a Half Men and more Friends, relying on group dynamics and cast chemistry rather than constant sex jokes and toilet humour. Unfortunately, the introduction of these women on the show, particularly Amy, came with a new problem the show had to face. Before when the relationship drama was relegated to just Leonard and Penny, it was a fairly predictable “will they won’t they/they’re getting back together again!?” fare. They were the show’s Ross and Rachel, and could be considered its heart. With the introduction of Bernadette and Amy, that romantic focus got shifted into the other show’s main couples, and while Howard and Bernadette’s relationship can be problematic at times (with the constant and often disturbing oedipal references that come with it), it is very capable of having some legitimately touching moments that feel earned. The same cannot be said for Sheldon and Amy. Yes the show attempts to wring emotion from their relationship, but every attempt comes off as hollow and unearned.
Sheldon and Amy are both awkward nerds with next to no experience with the opposite sex, and their actors (Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik) are excellent at playing off each other (and are very skilled in general). Where they fall apart is with the scatter shot writing and the annoying routine they have fallen into. It’s like the show can’t decide what they want to say about these two. Usually, Sheldon is an obnoxious ass, constantly puts Amy down, and spurns her advances, Amy sulks for a bit, and near the end of the story they reveal he does care with some vague gesture of kindness that immediately gets undercut with his selfishness right after. They do this over and over again, and when they try to have scenes where Sheldon reveals his “true” feelings to Amy they come off as forced. Just recently Sheldon admitted that he loved Amy, which would have been touching if he didn’t suddenly leave for months without telling her in person, call his friend to pick him up when he got lost, and then question why she came when she decided to see him too. They try to feed us these moments where Sheldon reveals his sensitive and vulnerable side to Amy, but the “build up” to them are generally just him constantly mistreating her and putting her down. It just doesn’t fit, and I’m not swallowing it *cue canned laugh track*.
The thing about The Big Bang Theory is that it’s a show that can be good when it wants to be. When it isn’t relying on tired nerd tropes or awkward racism and relies instead on the cast’s awesome synergy, it can be a very fun show. It can also nail emotional moments when it wants to if it focuses on how damaging being a social outcast, or a “nerd” can be and how people can overcome their baggage with the help of others. Unfortunately the show is torn between these two sides, and that is emblematic in Sheldon, who is just this unrepentant asshole 90% of the time but occasionally has bouts of “he’s good on the inside” moments. The writers try to mix “heart” and “comedy” into his character by trying to sell to us that his general awfulness is just a mask, but here’s the thing about masks; when you wear one and play its role for long enough, sooner or later your “real self” starts to seem indistinguishable. Eventually The Big Bang Theory is going to have to realize that and do something about Sheldon, or the rest of the show is going to start to become as witless and awful as he is.
Quote of the Day:
“Bazinga! That’s from a TV show!”
– Jake Harper, Two and a Half Men