Big Bang Theory: The Bizarro Community
By Sheila O’Neill
Two shows, both alike on the surface: an ensemble cast of friends on a half-hour sitcom live and love and put up with the quirky one. But beneath their superficial attributes, Big Bang Theory and Community are arguably opposites, and Big Bang doesn’t come out too well in the comparison.
Community’s main cast is diverse in everything from race to gender to age while Big Bang Theory is almost entirely young, white men (and the one non-white main character has a quirk which often silences him… interesting choice). The female characters in Community are as compelling and well-defined as the men while the women of Big Bang Theory are The Hot One, The Cute Scientist, and Lady Sheldon. Not to mention the fact that these women only seem to function as either romantic interests or “the female perspective,” which is often just a way of hindering the boy’s nerdy fun. The Girls take charge.
Community is a cult phenomenon, rescued time and time again from the jaws of cancellation by a devoted fan base while Big Bang Theory is a mainstream success that can keep on trucking as long as the actors hang around. Community is dumb people telling smart jokes and Big Bang Theory is smart people telling dumb jokes.
The real difference might be best exemplified in comparing the shows’ most similar characters: Sheldon and Abed. Both are “quirky” and seem detached. Both do poorly in social situations and are generally uninterested in romantic relationships. Both can become annoying to the people around them while still being funny for their audience. But only Abed is nice. It’s a simple thing that makes a big impact. Sheldon’s actions are often petty, even vindictive. Sheldon feels superior to the people around him and therefore doesn’t try to understand their feelings or concerns because he feels he is “above” them. Not Abed. Abed knows he’s different, but he also genuinely cares about his friends. He doesn’t always understand them, but he always tries and he’s happiest when they’re happy. Sheldon’s catchphrase is used to play mean jokes on his friends while Abed’s is a sign of agreement and positivity. Sheldon may be funny from a third-person perspective but I would hang out with Abed if only I could. I laugh at Sheldon; I laugh with Abed.
And yet, at a cursory glance, nerds like me ought to be more attracted to Big Bang Theory. Imagine this: out of context, someone asks you which show is more beloved by bigger nerds: a group of friends who go to a community college or a group of scientists who are into comic books & sci-fi? Seems like a no-brainer. But the nerdiness of Big Bang Theory is all on the surface. The show has superhero costumes, Star Trek quotes, and a character who owns a comic book store. These things are all very geeky indeed, but Big Bang’s main plotlines are as mainstream and formulaic as most sitcoms and many of them revolve around the common, worn-out question: who’s sleeping with whom? All the Wil Wheaton cameos in the world can’t add up to the Community episode “Remedial Chaos Theory” which brilliantly portrays the possibilities of alternate timelines. Community has nerd culture running through its veins. Big Bang Theory is a typical sitcom wearing a mainstream, store-bought cosplay. Sheldon may have a clause about watching Firefly in the Roommate Agreement, but Troy and Abed have a Firefly suicide pact. One of these shows is the real deal.
With so many episodes and so many similarities, I could go on for days about how Nathan Fillion playing himself isn’t as fun as Nathan Fillion playing a janitor, how Dr. Who references will always fall short of Inspector Spacetime, or how I can’t even think of a Big Bang Theory equivalent for one of the most outstan-dean Community characters of all. But I have to save something for the novel. At the end of the day, the point is that Community has a heart & soul where Big Bang Theory has a bottom line. That’s the difference between being merely watchable and being great. So, personally, I’ll let the mainstream keep bazinga to themselves, if that’s coolcoolcool with you.