The New Normal

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Science is the inspiration of those techno-libertarians who hold that evolutions in technology will ultimately lead to revolutions in political freedom. A commitment to the virtues of small business and entrepreneurs is a major inspiration for the ideals of free market capitalism. So it is easy to think that libertarians might feel that our values were being mocked by two primetime comedies, The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls — the first of which is about scientists and the second about two poor girls who start a business. Yet these sitcoms are deeply touching, hilarious, and also well-intentioned shows — because the audience laughs with the characters, not at them.

The Big Bang Theory, which premiered in 2007 and has now become ubiquitous, with reruns on TBS and new episodes on CBS, is the story of four scientists (two theoretical physicists, an astrophysicist, and an engineer) who work at Caltech. These four scientists are as close to the stereotypical nerd or geek as you can get. They constantly hang out at the local comic book store, play video games, enjoy Star Trek, can’t get girls to date them, and are beaten up by jocks. They constantly make reference to things that only scientists think about. One of them, for instance, dresses for Hallowe’en as the Doppler effect. The producers try to make the science on the show, of which there is a lot, completely accurate, and some episodes feature inside jokes that only scientists can understand.

The characters’ world is turned upside down when Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves into the apartment down the hall. Penny is an attractive, normal, “popular” sort of girl, who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. Leonard (Johnny Galecki), the protagonist, instantly falls in love with her. Much of the comedy in the show’s early years focused on Leonard’s feelings for Penny, and the jokes frequently involved the science nerds being totally ignorant of what Penny takes for granted (e.g., the rules of football, the names of such popular bands as Radiohead), or Penny being ignorant of the world of science and geek culture (e.g., online role playing games, the Klingon language). Leonard eventually started dating Penny, and they had a cute, adorable romance for about one season. But their relationships was sundered by the scheming machinations of Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton (who plays an evil version of himself). Leonard and Penny just recently got back together, which makes the show more enjoyable.

The real comedic gold, however, comes from Leonard’s roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons, who won an Emmy for the role), a brilliant, supremely arrogant physicist with strong doses of OCD and Asperger’s syndrome. Sheldon constantly, and hilariously, insults everyone around him; at the same time everyone else perpetually makes fun of his arrogance and total disconnect from reality. In one episode Leonard calls Sheldon a sphincter, to which Sheldon replies, “The sphincter? A much maligned muscle; did you know there are over twenty different sphincters in the human body?”, and illustrates with an anatomical drawing from the internet.

The writing is usually clever. An instance: Sheldon and Penny are having a fight. Sheldon (threateningly): “You’re playing with forces beyond your ken.” Penny: “Yeah? Well your Ken can kiss my Barbie!” I said “usually.” In a few episodes each season the writing falls flat. This was especially noticeable during the episodes that immediately followed the end of Penny and Leonard’s dating.

But the show is always light-hearted, never serious. It was introduced with the tag line “smart is the new sexy,” yet it never says anything serious about science, or politics, or anything else. The extent of the show’s commentary on religion is Sheldon’s disdain for his Texan Christian mother’s creationism, and Sheldon’s lecturing Penny on the origins of Christmas as a pagan holiday. But the love-hate relationship between Penny, who represents the “normal” popular world, and Leonard, who represents the nerd-geek-science world, is central to the show. Their romance is premised on the idea that the normal, ignorant masses might eventually be able to appreciate the true value of science and technology. The conflict is not precisely between religion and science. It is about the conflict between pop culture and geek culture.

Business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class.

And, yes, true to its tag line, “The Big Bang Theory” makes it cool to be a geek; it turns smart into sexy. Science has not gotten PR this good since the genre of science fiction was first invented. The show goes a long way toward teaching the public about the details of the type of thinking behind science and what scientists do, so that people won’t just see the magical moving pictures on television and may instead actually get a taste of where the wires and circuit boards inside the TV come from. If Leonard can get Penny to date him, even for a while, then there is hope that all the nerds out there (and the scientific attitude they embody) can find acceptance in this world.

Two Broke Girlsstarted this season, so there is less of a body of work by which to judge it, but every episode I have seen has been hilarious. This show is designed as a microcosm of the Great Recession. Caroline (Beth Behrs), a wealthy heiress and Wharton Business School graduate, is thrust into poverty when her father loses their fortune and goes to jail for running a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Caroline is hopelessly na├»ve about how to cope with low-income life. All she has left is her pet horse. Somehow a Wharton degree does not help her to get a white-collar job. She is taken in by Max (Kat Dennings), a young, snarky, sassy, wisecracking waitress who lives in Brooklyn. Caroline becomes Max’s roommate and gets a job as a waitress at the Brooklyn diner where Max works.

Poverty is the constant undercurrent in the show, which lists an update on the amount of money in the two girls’ bank account at the conclusion of each show (it fluctuates between $200 and $800). But the episodes help the audience, nervous about its own finances, laugh at life and not get beaten down by financial worries. After all, Max and Caroline always find a way to survive. The show is remarkably raunchy (one episode had a running joke about the diner’s horny, seedy chef asking the girls’ Polish friend [Jennifer Coolidge], who runs a cleaning business, to “come to my apartment to clean,” and her replying, “You cannot make me come, I will not come”). Max always has a wise-crack or an insult to shoot at someone. Both actresses are superb in their roles.

What do two broke girls do to cope with the Great Recession? One thing they don’t do is wait around for the welfare state to pay their bills. They start a small business instead. Max bakes cupcakes; Caroline sets up a cupcake business and promotes the sale of cupcakes. Much of the plot involves the girls’ desperate schemes to raise money to fund their cupcake website or find new places to sell their cupcakes. It is just good old-fashioned American effort — people trying to rise from poverty by being productive and selling a product to people who want it.

Unfortunately for the audience’s economic education, nowhere to be seen are New York City health inspectors grading their kitchen, or the IRS auditing their financial records, or any of the goon squad of federal, state, and city bureaucrats who in real life would try to regulate and tax the life out of their startup. The show is not political at all; aside from the implicit feminism of two single girls being very assertive and self-sufficient, it has no explicit message. But the simple yet touching portrayal of two tough, smart-alecky girls, who constantly poke fun at the people around them and use their sense of humor as a way to cope with the sorrows of economic disaster, is an inspiration that everyone stricken by the Great Recession can learn from.

A lot of people are talking about “the new normal” in connection with the Great Recession. But what do The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls say about American mainstream culture? These shows are on CBS, which touts itself as “America’s most-watched network,” not a niche market like Fox Business Network. Both shows have consistently received high ratings (although Two Broke Girls had some unfavorable reviews). A show about nerds coping with the world of pop culture has become a symbol of the world of pop culture assimilating nerd culture. From World of Warcraft to urban fantasy novels such as Harry Potter and Twilight, to the popularization of social media on electronic devices, to the omnipresence of the internet, the technology-obsessed geek world of the techno-libertarian has become, well, how shall I say it . . . normal. And a realization that poverty is the new normal, but it is necessary to take a can-do attitude to rise out of it — that is also catching on.

The libertarian angle is clear: business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class. Inspired by these two shows, I dare to speculate that if technology continues to evolve and shape the world in which we live, and if prolonged financial desperation forces America to wake up to economic reality and embrace free market principles as the path to recovery, then maybe a few decades from now libertarianism will also be . . . dare I say it? the new normal.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Big Bang Theory," CBS, Thursday, 8:00pm; and "Two Broke Girls," CBS, Monday, 8:30pm.



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