Back on September 27, 2011, I blogged about the TV sit-com, The Big Bang Theory. I suggested I might continue to watch it in reruns, but left the promise open. Well, I’ve tried to watch, wondering how Hollywood would handle science and scientists and their interaction with non-scientists. I’ve come to the conclusion that looking to Hollywood for advice on social interactions is like looking to Bashir Assad for advice on peaceful co-existence.
My difficulty with the show was the way the character of Sheldon was written. He’s such a caricature of himself that the characterization comes across as completely unrealistic. I’ve found over the past several months of trying to watch the show that I just can’t work up any sympathy for the guy. Though the show is successful precisely because Sheldon is such an ass, it brings up an important point about writing fictional characters.
Normally, a character in a novel or short story has to elicit some sort of emotion. Either like him or hate him, something has to arise. Usually, we like the protagonist, but dislike the antagonist. Like the western where the good guy wears the white hat and the bad guy wears the black. A character that just sits there and can’t arouse some sort of emotion in the reader isn’t going to make it off the page into the reader’s mind. He isn’t going to care about him, one way or the other. And this is what Sheldon is. His character is so poorly written and so far out of touch with reality that I find it difficult to care–good or bad–about him.
Not only that, but some of the backstory events–which come out every now and then–are so unrealistic as to be ridiculous. For example, the main characters all seem to pal around with Sheldon from episode to episode, yet he antagonizes them so much that in a real world, most people would have left him alone a long time ago. This forced co-habitation is grossly unrealistic. Sheldon lives in a two-bedroom apartment that, he says, he can’t afford alone and has to engage a roommate to share the expense. Curious, because Sheldon, as a PhD physicist at a prestigious university in Southern California, should be making a salary in the high 5 figures, if not low 6, and yet he can’t afford an apartment? Penny, the girl across the hall who works as a waitress at a local restaurant, can afford an apartment–in the same building, mind you–on her salary of minimum wage plus tips. Also, the elevator has been out of order for several years, yet it’s the only elevator in the building, a situation which violates at least three codes: the local building code, the fire code, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sheldon has two PhD degrees and an IQ that can’t be measured, yet he can’t learn to drive a car. Come on, guys, who are you trying to kid? Were I to write a novel with this kind of grossly inconsistent backstory, an agent or editor would insist on substantial revisions.
In short, The Big Bang Theory is so poorly written I have trouble getting into it. As a beginning writer, perhaps I’m too conscious of the details of writing. But even I know one thing about writing, that the reader (or audience) has to care about the characters, one way or another, for the writing to work. The premise of the work has to be realistic, and the setting has to be consistent and reasonable. This is especially true in science-fiction where an alternative universe has to be explained carefully and fully to the reader or audience for it to work. The Big Bang Theory isn’t presented as science fiction, but it’s not the universe you and I live in either. Oh, well, back to M*A*S*H.