How obnoxious is too obnoxious for a TV character?

Big Bang Theory's Sheldon means no harm, but he's still a jerk

I spend more time defending The Big Bang Theory than I do criticizing it, mostly because I don’t think much of the internet’s most popular lines of attack against the show. (These are, as follows: the show laughs “at” nerds instead of “with” nerds; the show is not funny when you remove the laugh track; and it is “nerd blackface.”) I don’t think it’s ever been quite as good a show as we hoped it would be in its second season, though that season is still good enough to justify its success, and it can still turn out very good episodes.

To some extent, the issues with the show have changed a bit in the last couple of years. The thing holding it back was that it seemed to be stuck in the same groove, but there’s no doubt that the addition of two female regulars has allowed it to go different places, plus it’s turned one character, Wolowitz, from the most irredeemable character in the group to arguably the least immature. The changes have had problematic effects as well as good ones – for example, it’s split the show into “girl” and “guy” scenes, and Penny and Sheldon rarely have scenes together – but at least it doesn’t do exactly what it did for the first three years.

The other issue that I feel has come to the forefront, at least when I watch it, is that Sheldon gets away with everything, and it’s gone past the point where the group dynamics make a whole lot of sense. This has always been something people pointed out with the show, and they even made fun of it themselves (it was made clear that there wasn’t much reason, beyond force of habit, why the other guys hung out with him). But last night’s episode, the highest-rated in the show’s history, had him going to near-apocalyptic levels of jerkiness: being a sexist, a bad friend, and an egomaniac in the space of 20 minutes. And as usual when he acts particularly badly, the tiny amount of comeuppance he receives doesn’t really match up with his behaviour.

In a weird way, this may be where Sheldon most resembles Steve Urkel, a character to whom he’s often been compared, sometimes for the wrong reasons. Urkel was, if you look at him objectively, a complete jerk – he barges into his neighbor’s house, won’t leave anyone alone, and sexually harasses the girl next door. But any time someone tried to call Urkel out on this, they were the bad guys, because the audience (viewing audience and studio audience) loved Urkel more than they loved any of the other characters. There’s probably a similar dynamic at play with Sheldon: punishing him would not actually be satisfying because the audience would tend to side with him against anyone else. Last night’s episode was based on years of building up the premise that he is not malicious, that he simply doesn’t understand (or want to understand) social behaviour, and furthermore that he’s been badly psychologically damaged by his upbringing in Texas. The audience also knows that his “slave” talk in the episode is something he’s said in a previous episode, and that he has no idea it’s supposed to be an insult. The fans, then, know all this and apparently accept that he means no harm.

And also, part of the appeal of The Big Bang Theory is that in an era when every other comedy has to end with someone learning a lesson about being a better person – which they will immediately forget – Sheldon thinks he’s perfect already and that it’s the rest of the world that should change. If he started learning lessons, his show would be more morally satisfying but a lot less popular.

Still, it is a bit problematic for any show when your lead character is a jerk, but isn’t exactly treated that way. (Shows about actual jerks are a different matter; either they get punished, or you accept it as the comedy of sociopathy.) Urkel was like that – except worse because other characters kept having to learn lessons about how badly they‘d supposedly treated him – and so was Hawkeye on M*A*S*H.

Sheldon’s increased jerkiness may have something to do with his separation from Penny, the character who – in the early seasons – did the most to take him down a peg, and someone who seemed to hang out with him because she kind of liked him. The fact that he didn’t make a fool of himself over her, and treated her with the same condescending contempt he had for everyone else, sort of redeemed him because he didn’t treat her like a bimbo. He also presented a challenge for Penny, a character used to coasting on her looks, who had to find ways to talk to someone who simply didn’t care about her appearance. Now they don’t share many scenes, and the dynamic of the show now revolves around two groups where everyone is always doing what the most selfish member wants: Sheldon dominates the guy group, and Penny, the cool popular girl who gets whatever she wants, dominates the female group. Sheldon is the character who has no social skills and doesn’t want them, and Penny is the character who was defined as the only regular with social skills, but the way the show is set up at the moment they occupy almost the same social position, and seeing nice people stuck with them all the time can be a little saddening. (Though Penny does put up with a lot more punishment than Sheldon does, often completely undeserved punishment like having her nose broken. Sheldon is still the character who manages to float through life with only the mildest punishments possible.)

I don’t really enjoy doing “what’s wrong with Big Bang Theory” posts – I think this is my first one since season 4 – if only because a) It’s subject to a lot of silly attacks online and b) It’s pretty much earned its success by being a well-made multi-camera comedy at a time when no other network will bother to make them. (It’s all very well to say that Seinfeld and Cheers were better, which they were, but the networks are going out and making a million New Girls instead of finding the new Seinfeld or Cheers, and then acting surprised when Big Bang Theory gets most of the people who used to watch Friends on Thursdays.) But its second season was strong enough that it seemed like it was one step away from becoming truly great, and I don’t think it did (whereas I think How I Met Your Mother did achieve true greatness at its best, even if it wasn’t at its best for all that long). There are a lot of shows that are in the good-but-not great category, of course – there are plenty of good shows like Modern Family and Happy Endings that haven’t yet managed a season quite as good at Bang‘s second. But there has always been something holding it back, and right now I think it’s that the show is neither openly a comedy about a jerk, nor a comedy about a basically likable person: the show knows Sheldon is a jerk, but it doesn’t seem to know just how big a jerk he is.

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