The Geek as Everyman

The heroes of The Big Bang Theory offer a welcome alternative to the cultural politics of elitism and populism.

The Wall Street Journal, "Commerce & Culture" , November 06, 2010

Sheldon Cooper is an elitist.

Ever since he was 4 years old, his mother has been warning him to stop telling people that he's smarter than they are. But he just can't help himself. Asked by a friend to "make yourself scarce," he replies, "I am a theoretical physicist with two doctorates and an I.Q. that can't be accurately measured by normal tests. How much scarcer could I be?" And he says it in a condescending tone.

So why is he so popular?

American culture is experiencing one of those periodic waves of anti-elitism that have roiled and defined the country ever since Andrew Jackson's day. Intellectuals, symbol manipulators, universities and people who think they're so damned smart are out. Regular folks are in.

Yet "The Big Bang Theory," the CBS sitcom featuring Sheldon and his three almost-as-elite geeky friends, is among the most popular shows on TV. Kicking off the network's now-dominant Thursday-night lineup, it attracts about 15 million viewers a week. Now in its fourth season, it's the top-rated Thursday-night program among adults 18 to 49 years old and those 25 to 54.

One reason for the show's popularity is undoubtedly its impressive cast, including Emmy-winner Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon. But the comedians on "30 Rock," a media favorite that airs a half hour later on NBC, are also talented. And they attract only about five million viewers, not even half the audience of "The Big Bang Theory."

Something more is going on. Surveying the fall TV lineup for Harvard Business Review's blog, the anthropologist and marketing consultant Grant McCracken suggests a trend behind the show's success. "Our heroes used to be the people who stole lunch money," he observes. "Increasingly, they are the people from whom it was stolen. This has got to have something to do with the rise of Silicon Valley and people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg."

Except that the geeks on "The Big Bang Theory" aren't business whizzes or even programmers. They're three physicists and an engineer who designs toilets for the international space station. None of them is going to get rich. These guys aren't heroes. They're a new kind of Everyman—representatives of a culture in which nobody's normal.

As anyone who has been abroad knows, American culture exists. But rather than a monolith, it's best understood as a set of overlapping subcultures. Assume yours is the norm, the "real," or the best expression of true Americanness and you miss a lot of important aspects of the culture as a whole, making it much less interesting and devaluing a lot of other people's lives.

The characters on "The Big Bang Theory" offer a welcome alternative to the cultural politics of elitism and populism. They neither eat arugula nor follow Nascar. They regularly frequent the Cheesecake Factory, where their pretty foil Penny (Kaley Cuoco) is a waitress. They've hit Las Vegas. But they also build fighting robots, have equation-filled white boards in their living room and know (to the degree anyone does) what dark matter is.

These characters are at once ordinary and extraordinary, accomplished and peculiar. They live in a world where even the brightest minds have their limitations, and where those limitations don't make their minds any less impressive. The wisdom of geek culture lies in simultaneously honoring the gifts of its members while admitting their weirdness—and their responsibility not to use their powers to impose their will on others. (If you do that, you're a supervillain like Dr. Doom. "You know," observes Sheldon, "it's amazing how many supervillains have advanced degrees.")

Sheldon is a font of esoteric knowledge, not only about science and technology but about history, religion and language. Yet he's easy to stump. When he states that as a physicist, he has "a working knowledge of the entire universe and everything it contains," Penny responds, "Who's Radiohead?" His face contorts in an array of tics.

Although Sheldon is the show's comic star, his roommate Leonard (Johnny Galecki) is its moral and emotional center.

"Leonard," a distraught Penny says to him after once again picking the wrong boyfriend, "you are so great. Why can't all guys be like you?"

"Because if all guys were like me," he replies, "the human race couldn't survive." It's a self-aware laugh from the guy who got his lunch money stolen, and a subtle reminder that real intelligence lies in understanding both your own value and that of others.