Big Bang Theory: So long and thanks for unintended help

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TWH – This week, we said goodbye to the long-running CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. After twelve seasons, the show aired its final pair of episodes, “The Change Constant” and “The Stockholm Syndrome,” in an hour-long farewell that was watched by some 80 million viewers. We’ll avoid the spoilers. There is one important scene where the character Amy (Mayim Bialik) urges girls to enter the sciences, noting that, “Little girls who dream about science” must ignore the pessimists and cynics who insist they can’t. The scene was especially poignant given that Bialik is in fact a neuroscientist holding a PhD from UCLA.

The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) did something that had eluded its predecessor shows depicting professors, researchers, or geniuses. The show succeeded in mainstreaming Geek culture. Over the course of a decade, The Big Bang Theory normalized arcane aspects of physics like string theory, Plank’s constant, and Hawking radiation.

The show relied on tried and true tropes that are part of the sitcom formula of focusing on a group of friends beginning their adult lives in their chosen careers. It had the pal connections of Friends, the hominess of Happy Days, and even the alien lens of 3rd Rock from the Sun, except the “aliens” were academically-gifted humans. They were also the type of characters who would have been ridiculed in other shows. In TBBT, the butt of jokes – these nerdy archetypes – became the protagonists.

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TBBT was also synchronous with current events. The show mentioned Facebook. They discussed memes and compared the DC and Marvel Universe. A comic book store was a common backdrop and they even offered a “Thor and Doctor Jones” song that remained disappointingly unfinished.

In keeping a clear sense of itself, everything from motherboards to gravitational waves was covered. The show invited the viewer’s curiosity to explore scientific topics, though it rarely explored those topics in a serious way.

That said, TBBT did offer insights about technology and science in a manner accessible to everyone. It wasn’t an attempt to educate, because some of the topics require mathematics that are well beyond most of us. The creators did, however, consult scientists to make sure that their coverage of the topic was correct. In that manner, they took on pop science and pseudoscience while still managing to entertain. The characters would say enough jargon to make sense, but the show never presumed itself to be some science documentary. It always remained a sitcom.

In making geek and nerd culture accessible, even commonplace, the show also inadvertently contributed to the normalization of Paganism. It doesn’t take a long internet search to find how the very idea of the actual Big Bang is anathema to conservative Abrahamic dogma. It takes even less to find that science represents the main front of an alleged spiritual war in some circles.

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TBBT offered rational looks at holidays. In one episode, Sheldon Cooper (the main protagonist, played by Jim Parsons) states he is not putting up a Christmas tree because they do not celebrate Saturnalia. Then he authoritatively describes the origin of Christmas trees, summing up the topic in a short soliloquy:

In the pre-Christian era, as the winter solstice approached and the plants died, pagans brought evergreen boughs into their homes as an act of sympathetic magic, intended to guard the life essences of the plants until spring. This custom was later appropriated by Northern Europeans and eventually it becomes the so-called Christmas tree.

The brief comment exposed viewers to another way of understanding the Christmas season. It was digested by 25 million viewers. No Pagan venue has that scope.

In other episodes, they covered geek topics that resonate with Pagans. The show discussed the benefits of Dungeons and Dragons, argued about the power of Mjolnir, and debated Doctor WHO, Spock, and the shocking possibility of a Gryffindor sleeping with a Hufflepuff. They also spent a great deal of time dealing with the power of the insights of Star Wars and the power of the Force and the ancestors. (Among their alleged Jedi advice was “Always get a pre-nup.”)

The topics – like the characters – were not ridiculed or ostracized. References from science-fiction to magic to the Force were commonplace in the show. The objective was always humor, yet the topics TBBT embraced as part of nerd culture are equally embraced by many in Paganism. The overlap made those topics that Pagans might discuss in our circles far less alien to non-Pagans, especially to the viewers of TBBT.

Make no mistake, the show had issues. It consistently failed the Bechdel test and occasionally strayed into misogyny, racism, and sexist behaviors. TBBT never took on important topics such as the challenges faced by minorities and LGBTQ individuals in the sciences. Perhaps the most obvious and easily tackled topic, the gender-pay gap found among scientists and professors, never got air time. TBBT had those opportunities to challenge and evolve but never seized on them.

TBBT had no intent and made no pretense of supporting Paganism – it didn’t. Yet its coverage of geeky subject matter has produced a sociological cohort – a generation, as it were –  where topics frequently discussed by Pagans are far less alien. Ultimately, TBBT succeeded by portraying geek and nerd culture in a manner that confused and corrected the haters. That is a strategy some members of the Pagan community have been using effectively to reclaim Witchcraft, wildness, and sexuality. It may just be the most salient legacy of the show.