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Nerd Nerd Revolution
Part III: Nerds on TV


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
April 13, 2009

Like many of my fellow baby-boomers, I find that I watch less television with each passing year. In retrospect, I'm horrified by the junk that I used to watch during my more formative years. Notwithstanding my growing aversion to television in all forms (Youtube included), I had to take a look at The Big Bang Theory when it premiered last television season (the one with the strike) because it featured Caltech. I spent my most formative undergraduate years there and have hung out there from time to time ever since in various teaching, research, and nuisance-making capacities.

In case you haven't seen it, The Big Bang Theory revolves around two Caltech physics post-docs, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), named after sitcom king, Sheldon Leonard. They live together (though not in the usual way for guys named Sheldon and Leonard) in a very non-Pasadenaesque apartment building across the hall from cute Penny (Kaley Cuoco), who is right off the bus from Nebraska, looking for Hollywood fame, but who is settling for working at the local Cheesecake Factory (one of a gazillion product placements in the show, who has not paid me for a link, so they do not get one) until her never-to-be-had big break. Leonard and Sheldon have the obligatory colorful friends, and laugh-track-enhanced laughs ensue.

The Big Bang Theory was a good show for much of the first season, but has since floundered into shark territory for much of the second season. This is not surprising given that it the offspring of the narcissistic fellow babyboomer Chuck Lorre. (Lorre's trademark is the inclusion of a "vanity card" at the end of every sitcom episode that he produced that flashes by so quickly that it can only be read via DVR, VCR, Tivo, or a visit to Chuck's website.) Chuck has a flair for coming up with great sitcom ideas and keeping them on the air long enough to make it syndication. Unfortunately for his viewers (but not his offshore bank account), he fails short on fulfilling the potential of his creations. One of his earlier hit shows, Dharma and Greg took a great idea and a talented newcomer, Jenna Elfman, and ended up placing most of the show's focus on D&G's dreadful-bordering-on-unwatchable parents. I cannot even comment on Lorre's Two and a Half Men because just the thought of an out-of-shape, middle-aged Jon Cryer is enough to trigger a television-producer-sized anxiety attack.

Sheldon as played by Jim Parsons is the main reason to watch Big Bang. He is John Nash from A Beautiful Mind only less mentally ill and much funnier. (Actually, he seems more like he is channeling Spock, Data, that shape-shifting guy who lives in a bucket, and various alien beings from the miscellaneous Star Treks.) Parsons is a near-great actor who gets plenty of great lines. Sheldon is a supposedly first-rate physicist who is clueless about human existence in general and this cluelessness combined with his unique perspective on the human condition and Jim Parsons' impeccable comic timing is the source of his humor. Johnny Galecki's Leonard is too easy a foil for Sheldon and their scenes together grow old quickly. Kaley Cuoco (as Penny) is the only cast member with the right chemistry for Parsons and it is clear that Lorre and his writers realize this and they are getting more screen time together as the series progresses.

The series faces the serious problem that it appears to have been designed with Leonard and Penny as the future couple along the lines of Sam and Diane on "Cheers," albeit with vastly less talent than Ted Danson and Shelly Long, when the real couple should be Sheldon and Penny. Even in the parallel universe of television, this switcheroo will be difficult to achieve short of an anvil falling on Sheldon's head and changing his outlook on life.

A bigger problem that Big Bang faces is that it fails the self-referential reality test. If the characters on the show were to watch the show, they would shred it to bits with ridicule. The show clearly has no technical advisor beyond Wikipedia. A small tip to the writers: Physicists (except certain NASA contractors) use the metric system and would never refer to gravitational force in any units involving feet. I won't dwell on the multitude of deviations of Big Bang from reality because the show clearly takes place in a scary parallel universe. I do, however, find it disturbing that their Pasadena is nothing like my Pasadena. My Pasadena is sunny, full of palm trees and with oranges everywhere. People, even many physicists, hang around outdoors much of the time. As a final nitpick, any really smart physicist knows who to attract beautiful women using nothing more than his brain, even really smart physicists with severe mental disorders who do not look like Russell Crowe have figured out how to do this.

Big Bang isn't the only nerd show on television and it is far from the best. (Like most of current TV, I've never seen Chuck, so I cannot comment on it.) During the last few weeks I accidentally discovered Showtime's Dexter and over a ten-day period I watched all 24 episodes from the first two seasons. Dexter, played by Michael C. Hall, is a nerd with a difference. By day (and some of the night), he is a blood spatter expert for the Miami police, by the rest of the night he is a serial killer with a moral code that limits his quarry to other serial killers. As good as Parsons is in Big Bang, Hall is even better as Dexter and has the benefit of a great supporting cast to back him up. With all the blood, Dexter isn't a comedy, but it is closer to dramedy than pure drama. More significantly, Dexter is a philosophical treatise in serial television form. Like other crime shows set in Miami, Dexter gets the idea that Miami is sunny beyond sunny across to viewers. Chuck Lorre take note.

As the show acknowledges explicitly during the second show, Dexter is a superhero who has the typical disturbing superhero origins. He is removed from his family under traumatic circumstances and raised by a renegade Miami cop who channels Dexter's (un)natural desire to kill people into a force for good against evil. Everyone that Dexter kills "deserves it" and most were allowed to go on killing only because of the serial ineptitude of the Miami police force or the justice system. All would be just fine and Dexter would be your everyday superhero were it not for the fact that Dexter is a big-time sadist who delights in butchering his victims and who keeps a drop of their blood on a slide as a "trophy." The only member of the Miami police force who suspect that Dexter is up to no good is a former Special Ops guy who seems to get a kick out of killing himself.

The beauty of Dexter is that Dexter, whose inner narrative runs throughout the show, faces the same problems as the rest of us, especially those from the nerd universe. The difference is that Dexter's problems are usually more extreme. Dexter has family issues, girlfriend issues, and work issues, just like everyone else. Dexter has troubling fitting in. Despite being possessed with a sociopath's knack for faking his feelings, the strain of faking often gets to him. Like most (if not all) of us, Dexter learns that his very existence is based on lies and has trouble dealing with that. Dexter worries that people wouldn't like him if they knew who he really was. (Dexter, like Sheldon, is perceived by other in the show as a funny guy, but unlike Sheldon none of the humor is intentional.) Just when the audience might get comfortable thinking that Dexter is just "one of us" and are manipulated into rooting that Dexter will continue to get away with murder, he always does something especially disturbing to remind the audience that he is most definitely not one of them.

Because Dexter is television it is flawed, but much less so than Big Bang. I haven't seen the third season (it's not out on DVD yet though it has been broadcast on cable), but the show's second season is comparable in quality to the first despite the absence of Michael Cuesta, who provided superb direction for key episodes during the first season's episode. Dexter borrows from Fight Club and Twin Peaks a bit too blatantly; however, some of its more subtle allusions to films such as The Big Lebowski warrant a knowing smile. Dexter is also quite gory and unpleasant, which it has to be to get keep Dexter from getting too warm and cuddly. Indeed, gore is both Dexter's job and his hobby.

(Note: This was written while listening to XM 46 Classic Vinyl. All errors are XM's fault.)

Copyright 2009 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to