Sometimes I just stand there, staring at myself in the mirror and wondering how I keep getting myself into these things...

This past Monday night I was here at the office, scouring the digital landscape in search of a possible topic or two for my column in this week’s issue of the newspaper, when I stumbled upon an online debate over the merits - or, in the minds of some, the perceived lack thereof - of the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

Full disclosure before going any further: I was a fan of the series from the very beginning. In part for what I saw as a sort of celebration of the world of the science fiction nerd that I have been an acknowledged and unrepentant inhabitant of for as long as I can remember; and in part because the show’s creators displayed from the get-go a certain level of respect for the history of the sitcom genre that was not often seen in the medium at that time. (The best example of the latter being the naming of the show’s two primary characters, Sheldon and Leonard - so named in honor of famed producer Sheldon Leonard, whose contributions to television included such classics as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Make Room For Daddy and I Spy.)

Anyway, the debate had already been raging for some time by the time I joined the discussion, which centered around one fan’s stated belief that the show “did more for the acceptance of comic book/sci-fi geek culture more than anyone and anything ever has.” 

Having taken part in similar discussions over the years about various shows, movies, books, etc., I guess I was not all that surprised to find that some members of that comic book/sci-fi geek culture took exception to that opinion.

What DID surprise me was the hateful, venomous tone in which some of them expressed that exception. Maybe it shouldn’t have, times being what they are, but it did.

One of them referred to the series as “absolutely repellant,” but failed to offer any further comment as to why he felt that way. A little more telling - but only a little - was the response by another individual that The Big Bang Theory “set us back 20 years by reinforcing the negative stereotypes we worked so hard to break.”

I’ll admit it: I found that comment interesting. 

Longtime readers know that I’ve written more than once over the years about my being a lifelong SF/fantasy nerd - and I’ll concede that there were times during my youth when I wondered whether that was an aspect of my life that was better left a secret from the public-at-large. As time went on and science fiction seemed to become a little more socially acceptable (thank you, George Lucas), such concerns in my case mostly fell by the wayside. 

Even so, I came to see during that passage of time that there seemed to be two kinds of SF/fantasy nerd out there: those like myself who enjoy such things simply for what they are, and can embrace - and even celebrate - them as just one part of our overall existence; and those who take those imaginary worlds so seriously that they become a sort of de facto religion, one that pretty much takes over every aspect of their lives and admittedly makes them seem… well, weird… to the rest of the world, even to some of us who may share their love for the stuff in general.

These are the fans who can quote entire pages of dialogue from the Star Wars films quicker and more easily than I can typically recite my own phone number - and who take great offense whenever genre actors like Harrison Ford seem to get a little perturbed when publicly confronted with such obsession.

These are the fans who scream bloody murder when one entry in their favorite TV, movie or book series seems to contradict - even in the most minor of ways - something that happened in a previous installment. Look, I like continuity as much as the next fan, but some of the nitpicking is just annoying and more often than not takes away from whatever joy I may be deriving from these stories. 

These are the fans who spend their time debating why the Klingons in the original Star Trek series looked so different than those depicted in the later shows and movies. (Suggest to a gathering of such fans that it was all because of improvements in movie make-up and prosthetics, and you’ll find yourself chased out of the room and branded a heretic. I know, because it happened to me once.)

These are the fans who get so caught up in some little bit of minutia that they forget to just sit back and enjoy the ride. By way of example: Years ago, when Steven Spielberg’s E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial first hit theaters, Melissa and I went to see it and I liked it so much that I decided to go see it a second time - and made the mistake of inviting a friend who was also a science fiction fan and had expressed interest in seeing the film himself.

That invitation proved a BIG mistake. The moment the title alien made his first appearance on screen, my friend launched into a monologue that lasted for the rest of the movie in which he questioned - and attempted to answer for himself - all manner of questions related to the scientific plausibility of the character and his story. One couple sitting behind us finally got up and left, complaining to the theatre manager about my friend’s behavior as they did, and I spent the entirety of the end credits apologizing to others sitting around us for his rudeness. And I never went to see another movie with him from that point on. 

These, then, are the kind of fans who William Shatner was poking fun at in that infamous Saturday Night Live sketch in which he implored a roomful of Trekkies to “Get a life!” Most of us got the joke; those who didn’t, it seemed to me at the time (and still seem to me today), were the kind of fans Shatner was talking to in that skit - and probably needed to hear it the most. But instead they took offense, and many of them - some of them not even having been born yet at the time that skit aired - are apparently still holding a grudge.

From where I was sitting, the individual who made such withering remarks regarding his dislike for The Big Bang Theory appeared to be such a fan. And - once again forgetting that basic universe truth which states that cicil discourse and polite disagreement tend to be frowned upon by users of what we euphemistically keep referring to as “social media” - made the mistake of telling him so.

“Speaking as a lifelong SF fan whose nerd credentials stretch back MUCH further than 20 years,” I wrote, “if anything quite, the opposite is true; I've known people like this - I am people like this - and as far as I'm concerned this show probably did far more to "humanize" us than anything that came before it. Anyone who feels otherwise and finds the show and its core quartet of nerds "repellant" is taking themselves a little too seriously.”

I don’t know what possessed me to think that my response might somehow convince this fellow to look at things from another perspective. I really should know better by now.

He responded to my response by first stating his belief that the show’s characters needed to “see a therapist” - but then admitted that he hadn’t watched the series beyond the first season, and so could not speak as to the possibility of such things as character development over the course of 11 seasons. Which prompted me to respond to his response to my response by saying I agreed to disagree. 

A smarter man might have left it at that - heck, a smarter man would not have let himself get snookered into the discussion in the first place - but no, I just had to prove that my dear mother had been right all those years ago when she pointed out my tendency toward hard-headedness…

And so I wrote the following:

At the risk of sounding disrespectful - which is not at all my intent - it occurs to me that perhaps your judgment is indeed colored by the fact that you bailed on the show after just a season and a half. That’s certainly your right, and I cannot in good conscience criticize you for it; listen, if I don’t like the movie I’m walking out. But I would suggest giving the full run a chance before rendering your final verdict. 

As suggested earlier, my own verdict is based primarily on actual life experiences gathered over the course of my 60 years on this plane of existence. And while I do not disagree that the show does indeed play into some of the so-called stereotypes you mention, I would respectfully counter that some of those “stereotypes” are actually rooted to some degree in reality - and would further point out that, having had the opportunity to be a speaker at such genre-related events as the 2006 San Diego Comic Con during my career as a professional writer, I have actually witnessed many of these “stereotypes” publicly exhibited by some fans. 

And no, that's NOT intended as a slight towards those fans; as noted, I'm a lifelong fan myself and no doubt have exhibited such behavior myself more than once over the years. (As I'm sure my wife and sons will gladly attest.) Thanks in no small part to my late father - who launched my love affair with the SF/fantasy genre by introducing me to the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was in the third grade - I’ve long been a big believer in the concept of, as a friend of mine once put it, “embracing one’s inner geek.”

In the case of
BBT, what you call “stereotypes” I prefer to see as these characters’ celebration of the things they love - no different, really, than those football fans who paint their faces and write silly messages on their bare chests when attending games,  just to cite one example. 

(Why does society in general consider that behavior in any way more acceptable than the woman who made headlines some years back for wearing her Starfleet uniform for jury duty? I’ve never been able to answer that question - but at the end of the day, I’ll be more likely to want to hang out with the Starfleet juror than the hard-drinking, bellicose, face-painted football fans. To each his own, as the woman said when she kissed the cow.)

While I’ll certainly agree that there are some fans who take their obsessions a little too far and create a sort of  “guilt by association” for the rest of us (many is the time in the last few years that I’ve discussed why, despite my being a first generation Star Wars fan,  I will never consider myself a member of “Star Wars Fandom”), I believe most of them - most of US - to simply be people who have their own unique ways of expressing our shared love for certain aspects of our popular culture.

And based upon not only my viewing of
The Big Bang Theory in its entirety, but also on my own research into the development of the series by its creative team, I prefer to think of the show as actually being a celebration  - not a denunciation - of those people. Why some of those people might choose to take offense at that is beyond me but, again, to each his own…

Anyway, that’s my two cents. Do with it what you will. Have a nice day.

Well, he did with it what he would -
and to be fair, the continued back-and-forth between us eventually resulted in a sort of “geek détente” in which he eventually acknowledged that perhaps he needed to go back and give the show a second chance, and I endeavored to assist him in that effort by offering an example of a single episode that I feel best sums up my point of view on the subject. So I guess that’s something.

There were those from the start who were quick to voice support for my point of view - you’d be surprised, there are always a few - but, the aforementioned détente notwithstanding, the majority seemed to share this fellow’s opinion that I’m just a know-nothing jerk who has no business calling myself a true SF/fantasy fan if I don’t see things his way.

Well, maybe they’re right. I’ve never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, after all - and heaven knows that much of my life has been focused on the realization that my tastes rarely seem to in synch with those of the masses. (One of the reasons I went back for that second showing of E.T. all those years ago, in fact, was to make certain I’d actually seen the same movie everyone else had - unaccustomed as I was at the time to the idea that so many other people might actually like the same thing I did.)

But having said all that, I still can’t help but wonder: If this poor guy can get so worked up over something as ultimately insignificant as a TV show, how might he respond to things that actually matter more in the grand scheme of things?

I guess I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader, as David Gerrold likes to say…

(Copyright  © 2023 by John A. Small)