TBBT is not a happy show. Whether it's funny is an open question, but I can find no way of looking that makes it happy. Accepting that I was essentially watching a slowly unfolding tragedy rooted in a very unsentimental and perfectly materialist worldview, it made much more sense...and became rather brilliant.
Since I kept drifting off into defending - or, rather, explaining my rather idiosyncratic fondness for the show - in the post about "Nerd Blackface," I figured I'd just go on about it in it's own post, since liking or disliking is not really relevant to "nerd blackface" being not ok. I suppose this is broadly a response to this essay, that kept getting linked there. I've probably overthought this, but it's exam season - overwrought theories on the internet are kind of my life right now.
So, I adore TBBT, because it is just so delightfully commie.
While I won't go so far as to accuse Chuck Lorre of being a Communist (although, has anyone seen his new show, Mom? Talk about class warfare) I am going to go ahead and say that TBBT easily supports a fundamentally Marxist reading. Bear with me:
To boil it way down, there are two very basic, underlying tenets to far-left politics. (At least as I'm familiar with them. I don't want to speak for everyone who possibly identifies as a leftist here.) These are foundational assumptions and the debate around their validity IS much of the basis of the right/left split. They are:
a. Humans are social
b. Humans are socialized
These seem pretty self evident, not to mention similar, but they're actually rather contradictory and, on most political spectrums today, somewhat radical.
(a) claims that humans need other humans to be human. We are part and parcel of our society, and this is a good thing. In one way or another, our contact with others is at the root of all our capacity for meaning, self-actualization and freedom.
but, (b) claims that were are almost mechanical products of those same societies. Our ambitions, our desires, our sense of right and wrong, is an inevitable, inescapable product of society. How we live shapes what we think about everything. What we want, what we think we want, what we hate, what we fear - none of it comes from some unique, personal place, but from a particular constellation of lived experience and social conditioning. Consciousness is derived from praxis.
Praxis is a neat and awesome word and i'm sad it seems to be dying out in English as some jargony academic term. It means something like the summary of the experience of day to day life. All of it - the job you have, the technology you use, the relationships you take part in, your class, your gender, everything. That day to day living, the years and years of it, shapes you.
So, is society good or bad? Does it trap us or does it give us meaning? Naturally, it's both. The point is, it's unavoidable. It is the underlying reality of the human condition. It is not something (in the marxist view) to be escaped or fought against, any more than the rising of the sun can be fought against. A perfect, socialist utopia still has a praxis - it still shapes the consciousness of those that live in it, it just does it in that image.
All that out of the way, back to the show.
We have Penny, the cute, airheaded waitress who dreams of being an actress lives across the hall from the pair of smart and reasonably professionally accomplished, but extremely socially awkward physicists.
What is Penny's praxis? She's female, rural, young. Her family background is a little vague, but there is no sense that she comes from a family that is particularly well off. Not poor, perhaps, but definitely not raised somewhere where higher education or professional ambitions are a norm, particularly for a woman.
(Obviously i'm drawing on generic tropes and a very, very broad and stereotypical sort of general knowledge here, not just the dry facts delivered within the show, but the show expects us to come to it with that knowledge. When Penny says "I'm from Omaha" it leads, immediately, to think of her differently than if she had said "I'm from New York." When Sheldon mentions growing up in a house on cinderblocks, that brings certain cultural associations to mind, and it is supposed to.)
She's also pretty, vivacious, confident and outgoing, and obviously extremely good at navigating social norms and situations. She's good at communicating, she's good at presenting herself, she's good at using her particular assets ("So tenure is like being a pretty waitress at the Cheesecake factory?") She's good at performing gender in a traditional and accepted way. She's even good at understanding male gender performance when she needs to - it's her the male characters come to when they need someone to beat up a bully or show them how to do guy-things to impress a macho father-in-law - but she would clearly never make the mistake of acting too masculine when society expects her to act feminine. This isn't because she's stupid or shallow - it's because she's very smart and very intuitive about these particular things. In other words, she's good at fitting in.
So, what does the kind of society Penny is portrayed as being a product of celebrate and value? What does one learn to aspire to, as a pretty girl in rural Nebraska, who also believes in psychics and astrology, who is a vegetarian who loves steak, who thinks a screenplay about a "sensitive girl from Nebraska" is at all interesting to anyone? Well, it's celebrity. Penny's vague and ill-formed desire to "be an actress," along with all the rest of it, is the product of her being extremely socializable, and from a society that worships celebrities and indeed rewards them handsomely. It also screws her over: she's internalized a desire to "be an actress" - and what it gets her is minimum wage and misery.
This is where we hit the really commie stuff (sorry, folks.) I say we all have praxis, right? Well, we don't just have a random, neutral praxis. Society isn't a great, even blob - it's structured. Structured to benefit some small percentage, and to use others to be of benefit to that small percentage. The mechanism that does that is called False Consciousness. False consciousness argues that our internalized desires might not be good for us.
Penny illustrates this very nicely: she chooses to pursue an unrealistic dream of stardom that leads her to poverty over the very realistic possibility of getting a degree and being considerably better off, and possibly happier. Nobody twisted her arm about it, nobody held a gun to her head. It was a choice she freely made, and yet a choice based on things she had absorbed from society - about what the value of a pretty face is, about the glamour and closeness of stardom as it's reflected in an omnispresent media, about the low value of intellectual persuits for women, etc, etc. Ultimately, it's a choice that is making her miserable and yet one she can't climb out of - neither economically nor personally. Both her finances and her sense of self worth are caught in a vice.
So that, to quote the pilot episode, "Is the story of Penny." Now lets move across the hall for the compare and contrast that is the heart of the show:
What kind of praxis does Leonard come from?
Well, he actually comes from a very similar one, which is the rub. In some ways, yes, it's different - he's male, upper-middle class, from a family steeped in academia. Unlike Penny, he internalized academic achievement as valuable. He internalized a sense of his own intellectual capability. These are important, and it's why he'll stay upper-middle class (even if he'll never exactly be a 1%er on an academic salary) while Penny is sliding into a poverty trap. That's the way the system works and perpetuates itself, economically, using a social mechanism.
But, here's the interesting bit: socially, he wasn't actually raised in a bubble, and today he lives across the hall from Penny. He too is in a praxis that values, say, attractiveness, and wealth, and certain form of masculinity he is not good at doing. He can recognize these things, but he doesn't quite fit, not comfortably. Part of it is his lack of confidence, part of it is the academic setting he so thoroughly comes from, that isn't the greatest preparation for the world outside, part of it is just his personality. He is very bad at doing what Penny is very good at doing, and it leaves him miserable and often isolated. The price of not fitting in, of not participating properly in the social codes, is fairly steep. Leonard knows he sticks out like a sore thumb, and he internalizes that. It's why he has the self esteem of a cupcake and starts sweating next to girls.
So far so glamorous, right? Poor little nerds are good and smart, normal people are mean and stupid and bad? Not quite, because then we get to Sheldon.
What kind of praxis does Sheldon come from?
It doesn't matter.
Sheldon kind of doesn't have a praxis. Sheldon actually, properly, breaks the system. He internalizes virtually nothing and he isn't influenced by what's around him. He neither suffers for conforming nor suffers for not conforming. It all goes over his head. He is, de facto, a kid living in a bubble. His sense of self worth, of achievement and self actualization, is almost entirely independent of anyone or anything else.
Most illustratively, he doesn't care about money. The things he wants to buy haven't been invented yet? Those are words to make an advertiser cry. Penny, in comparison, fills up the gaps in her life with buying expensive things that make her feel better about herself via a cycle of credit card debt. That's half of the collapse of the American middle class explained right there.
So how is Sheldon not awesome? What does Sheldon illustrate about the show's approach? The answer is way back at the beginning. Leonard and Penny are suffering through the connections and contradictions between (a) and (b). Between people's need for genuine contact with one another, and the way that contact is mediated and twisted by a capitalist social structure that requires a false, consumption-based sense of individualism.
Sheldon never makes it that far. Sheldon is stuck at (a), and that makes him the saddest character in the show. Navigating praxis sucks, yes. But the price of being free of it is not worth paying. Sheldon has freedom from shame, freedom from longing and the ability to say anything that crosses his mind with no consenquence. But he lacks the ability to eat pizza on any day of the week, to drive, to live on his own, the capacity to laugh with others and, oh, sex. That's probably not a choice anyone could make. It's certainly not one the show presents as desirable, constantly undercutting any coolness Sheldon might accrue from his unconventionality with really quite harsh infantilization and mockery.
Sheldon and Penny are sympathetic characters, but we're not meant to see ourselves in them - at least, not without a great deal of discomfort. That's the catch. TBBT presents praxis as inescapable, at least for a complete, adult human being, even while it's oppressive. If we accept that no individual has the ability to independently struggle free of the circumstances of their life (the rightwing approach) we're left only with the option of collectively changing those circumstances.
The only hope for Penny to be happy isn't to magically become a star, because that's both impossible and not what she really wants. It's to stop thinking of herself as valuable only for her looks or capable of finding happiness only in wealth. Leonard, likewise, can't become a macho, athletic guy all of a sudden - he just needs to stop placing all his self-worth in being validated by pretty women. Their only chance is to live in an altered paradigm - for example, on the smallest level, with a partner who appreciates them for who they actually are.
This is an obvious platitude, but it's the show's stubborn refusal to deliver it that makes it interesting. On the broad, societal level, these people's only hope is to change the notions that stardom or athleticism (or whatever else they're dreaming of) are either worthwhile or achievable. Ie, to change the praxis. Which is another way of saying revolution. Of course, TBBT is a sitcom, and the audience comes to it with the knowledge that, no matter what else happens, a revolutionary cadre is not going to set up a barricade on the street below. Which is what makes it a tragedy.