Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Great Divide (Or "Why Does Everyone Hate The Big Bang Theory"?)

It’s a Thursday night and I’m curled up in pajamas recovering from the flu, sipping tea and flipping through the channels on my television set. My favorite comedy hasn’t returned to NBC yet, so 8PM is an open timeslot. So I switch over to CBS and watch the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory to fill the void. Later, as I unwind before heading to bed, I flip forward a few channels to TBS where re-runs of the comedy air back-to-back. And I laugh as the episode where Sheldon manages to successfully condition Penny and her behavior using chocolate candies is on. A few nights earlier, I watched an episode featuring the now-famous Sheldon Cooper song “Soft Kitty” (a song inscribed on the t-shirt Heather got me for Christmas this year).

If this sounds sacrilegious to you, given my noted love of Community, then my post tonight will probably either infuriate you or help you see the light. Because my first question of the night is really this: since when did being a fan of The Big Bang Theory and a fan of Community become a mutually exclusive ordeal? Do you know how chastised I feel for being a TBBT fan within a circle of Community lovers? And why is that so? Is it possible that both are good shows? Could it be that The Big Bang Theory is only an incidental enemy of the-little-show-that-could and not an intentional one? And really, why is EVERYONE watching the CBS sitcom and forgoing Community on a weekly basis?

(I may not be able to answer all of these questions, but you can bet that I’m going to try!)

It’d be absurd to try and compare these two shows. Comparing your love for The Big Bang Theory with Community is like… comparing your love for… well, it’s like comparing your love for something with your love for anything else. So if we’re breaking both shows down to their very core components, what they’re both about is this: relationships. Really, if you break any show or movie or book down far enough, you’ll see this tiny, yet fundamental building block as the cornerstone. Community is a show about how one person’s relationship with six different individuals (see: misfits) changes him from the inside out, and thus causes his relationships with them to change as well. At its heart, The Big Bang Theory is a show about relationships too. It’s about how relationships and people change (or are forced to change) when one person injects themselves into their lives. And it’s really about how Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard learn to change when they meet Penny – how her introduction causes them to realize who THEY are.

I’m not going to pretend that The Big Bang Theory is a deep, intensely philosophical show, but it’s certainly a fun, hilarious series. Two of my good friends and co-workers (both in their late 20s, both extremely intelligent and accomplished women) love the show. They don’t miss an episode, and swear that it’s the only show that can make them laugh as hard as they do on a weekly basis. Kate has been with the show since the very beginning and Heather came in later in the game. But then there’s my sister, a seventeen-year old high school student, who said something interesting about a year ago.

We were sitting around talking and our conversation happened to turn toward television shows. I was trying, to no avail, to convince her to watch Community, as she was talking a lot about her love for The Big Bang Theory. I told her that the show about a community college Spanish study group was hilarious (and hey, it had Joel McHale and she loves him on The Soup). After looking at me for a moment, she kind of wrinkled her nose and shook her head.

“I don’t get that show. The jokes are too smart for me.”

That REALLY caused me to think for a moment. Because here’s the double-edged sword of Community, laid bare: it is a smart show. The reason that The Big Bang Theory is as successful as it is, in my opinion, is its… broadness. And I hate using that term because it’s one that has been uttered by Bob Greenblatt plenty of times before. But the reason my sister loves the CBS comedy is because it’s broad enough and wide enough for her to understand. It has a laugh track. It makes sense to her. Community, while I love it, is… well, it’s not broad. It’s like a secret code you keep tucked into your jeans that only you and close friends understand completely. And the jokes ARE smart. You have to watch an episode multiple times to catch all of the one-liners and hidden Easter eggs sometimes.

But therein lies the problem of Community, too. How do you get people to watch and enjoy a show when viewers like my sister are turned off by its perceived inaccessibility? So here is where I understand a bit more the plight of the executives at NBC. They see shows like The Big Bang Theory and scratch their heads, wondering how on Earth they could ever compete with a show whose numbers steamroll Community’s time and time again.

Maybe it’s not about competing, though. Maybe that’s where we all, as fans of Community, have gone astray. We feel on edge, in attack mode whenever The Big Bang Theory is mentioned… because it unfortunately airs at 8PM on Thursday nights (a time slot I’ll just remind everyone was theirs long before it was ours). But why is that, exactly? Why do we hate this show so much and seemingly unnecessarily? (I use the term “we” loosely, because I – as noted earlier – don’t actually hate the show at all.)

I think perhaps we’ve become too hipster-ized as a fandom. We’ve come to think of our show as undiscovered gourmet coffee found at that little hole-in-the-wall place your friends would never venture to go. And we look at shows like The Big Bang Theory like we would a cup of McDonald’s dark roast. In fact, we kind of LIKE the fact that Community flies under the radar – we pride ourselves on its cult-like following because we’re not mainstream like The Big Bang Theory is. They’re not as cultured as our show, we reason. They have a laugh track, so they’re a bit dumbed down. And well, their show just doesn’t know the meaning of the word “heart.” Community is nothing if not a deeply personal experience, and we take this to heart more often than I think we should. And maybe it’s because we cannot physically assault Nielsen. Maybe the reason so many people loathe the hit CBS sitcom in our little fandom is because we feel like it’s a physical manifestation of the enemy – it’s a successful show we can easily pinpont as the issue. (But maybe that’s just my speculation.)

There is nothing inherently wrong with The Big Bang Theory. You can enjoy both The Big Bang Theory and Community, as being a fan is not a mutually exclusive experience. For that matter, you can like Elementary and BBC’s Sherlock. Or you can like both American Idol and The Voice. You can love Smash and Glee for all I care – each of these shows is entirely different from the other. The Big Bang Theory is not a show that’s out to get us (if anything, in comparison, we’re a little bird and they’re an elephant, completely unfazed with our presence on television). There is only one statement in the paragraph above that I would (slightly) agree with. Before I discuss that, however, I’ll tackle my two other statements.

The Big Bang Theory just isn’t as cultured as us is something that I have heard stated in various ways (and not always using those exact words) and through plenty of implication. Community fans believe their show is the best, and this little NBC comedy IS wonderful and amazing and awesome… but that doesn’t mean our show is somehow superior to every other comedy on television or that because someone likes The Big Bang Theory that they are less cultured than someone who watches a show about a community college study group.

And I think that what bothers me more is that people dismiss shows without watching them. I’ve yet to hear TBBT fans badmouth us (maybe I’m just not hearing it or they genuinely aren’t criticizing our show… or doing it discreetly), and yet I’ve heard numerous Community fans bash them. If you’ve watched this show and still don’t like it, that is your prerogative. But regardless of the show and whether you hate or love it, it is still always  nice to try and show the series a bit of respect because of the people who work hard to produce it. Kim and I usually have a “three-episode test” we perform: if we watch three full episodes of a television show and do not like it after then, we’ll give up on it. Only then do we reserve the right to judge the show, not before. I’m not saying that you should love The Big Bang Theory – my only argument is that you should not berate those who do, and do not berate the show for somehow being less cultured than Community.

Here’s the truth: there are a lot of television shows I consider… sleazy comedies. And by that, I mean that the jokes rarely involve anything other than sex. By my self-proclamation, Two and a Half Men and 2 Broke Girls would fall into this category (aptly so). How I Met Your Mother occasionally delves into the “sleazy comedy” territory, but not very often. And yes, admittedly, The Big Bang Theory sometimes toes that line too (more often in the beginning few seasons of the show than it does now – evidence that it’s actually grown).

The point I am making is that these comedies are not my cup of tea. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they’re bad or somehow less than my favorite shows – I won’t judge you if you watch Two and Half Men or 2 Broke Girls. I’d much rather watch Community over Two and a Half Men any day. But it also begs the question: what does it mean to be “better” than another show? What does it even mean to be the “best”? Do Nielsen ratings dictate whether a show is better than another? Do Emmys? Or online polls? (If the latter, I must say Community is streets ahead of everyone else.) Is there even such a thing AS a “best television show”?

Anyone you meet on the street and ask will have a different opinion – some may say Doctor Who is the best, some Glee, some Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Heck, some might even say that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is the best television show. But what they’re really saying is that, to them, the show is the best – to them, they would not replace that show for all of the marbles in the world. For Kate and Heather, The Big Bang Theory is that show. For me? Well, I think it’s obvious that I’d choose Community.

Hand-in-hand with the claim that The Big Bang Theory has no culture, or is at least less cultured than Community is the argument I hear about the show being “dumbed down.” What I stated earlier about “hipster-ized” fandoms rings true here: The Big Bang Theory is seen as such because it has a laugh track. Laugh tracks are… well, they’re interesting. If a show is solid enough, a laugh track will go unnoticed. Take, for instance, Friends and How I Met Your Mother. When asked if the latter had a laugh track that accompanied it, I honestly had to sit and contemplate for a few minutes. It didn’t SEEM like one existed, but in reality, it does. The key, of course, to a laugh track going unnoticed is the audience actually… well, LAUGHING at the show. Shows with laugh tracks are not somehow less substantial than those that don’t have them (Friends is arguably one of the greatest comedies ever and it contained a laugh track), but it’s become a bit of a stigma to be a show that contains a laugh track – only, however, if the track is noticeable. On a show like Guys With Kids, a laugh track is immensely noticeable (or that’s been my personal experience, at least). But bear in mind that just because a show utilizes a laugh track, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad show (Glee does not use a laugh track and… well, we all know how I feel about that).

There is one thing that The Big Bang Theory, in all of its comedy grandeur, lacks throughout a lot of its episodes, and it’s something that Community possesses by the buckets: heart. While the characters of Abed and Dr. Sheldon Cooper are comparable in the way that they both view their friends and the world itself, Community takes the character a step further and envelops him with heart. Take, for instance, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” This episode centers completely around the character of Abed Nadir, his fears and insecurities, and also his quest to find the meaning of Christmas. Community doesn’t shy away from emotional moments (Abed breaking down at the end of the episode or the moment between him and Pierce on the train, etc.) in any of its episodes. I was struck by this thought – the thought of “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” – while watching the most recent Christmas episode of The Big Bang Theory. In it, the boys of the group play Dungeons & Dragons while the girls (and Raj) go out. Leonard, frustrated by Sheldon’s lack of Christmas spirit each year, makes the game holiday-themed. Slowly but surely, Sheldon warms up to the game, singing Christmas carols and seeming cheerful… but it’s short-lived. Once the gang appears close to freeing Santa Claus from a dungeon, Sheldon reveals why he hates Christmas – one year, he asked Santa Claus to bring his deceased grandfather back, but that never happened. It’s a really powerful moment that undercut by the lack of payoff that follows pre-credits (where Sheldon dreams Santa Claus apologizes for not bringing his grandfather back, but then attacks him with a canon for not saving him in the Dungeons & Dragons game).

The Big Bang Theory is all about the laughs, the punchlines, and the wacky shenanigans, but not always about the heart behind the characters. And I think that may be primarily why people tend to judge the show as inferior when comparing it to Community. The Big Bang Theory usually is on the same plane as a show such as How I Met Your Mother, which tends to be more about laughs, but also packs heart when it needs to (and makes you bawl like a baby occasionally). And truly, some episodes of The Big Bang Theory pack emotion or sweet moments of growth (just watch the end of “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis”). The show itself has developed its characters, too. Just watch Howard in the first few seasons and recognize his growth from then until now. Community, meanwhile, garners laughs and heart, which gives it an extra edge.

But why aren’t more people watching? Why does The Big Bang Theory score a 6.6 Nielsen rating while we struggle to reach 1.6 on a weekly basis? Could it really be that Community isn’t broad enough? I’d argue that my sister’s statement might be part of the reason Greendale Community College isn’t a household name. But it’s not “inaccessibility” that’s an issue – not really – just like The Big Bang Theory’s “broadness” isn’t an issue. It’s the PERCEPTION of the show that causes people either to watch or not watch. And I’m not seeking to provide a way for those who don’t watch Community to begin watching it (apart from yelling at them to watch it), nor am I attempting to persuade anyone to watch a hit CBS sitcom.

What everything – television itself, really – boils down to is the willingness to TRY. So perhaps Community isn’t the most accessible sitcom on television, and perhaps TBBT lacks heart, but neither of those factors are as important in influencing someone to watch television. What’s important is the willingness of a viewer to make an effort – to go out on a limb and perhaps find that their initial perceptions were wrong. Maybe they assume Community is too “smart” or that The Big Bang Theory is “dumbed down.”

But I guess, dear readers, the point of all of this is that you’ll never know until you actually try out a show… will you?


  1. This is cool. You're a really good writer :)

  2. Hooray! Another person who likes COMMUNITY while also liking THE BIG BANG THEORY! :D