New Emmy nominations for physics sitcom The Big Bang Theory
Will this mean more branding of the physics profession? If so, what kind?
July 15, 2011Published: July 15, 2011
By Steven T. Corneliussen
An online New York Times posting reports three major Emmy nominations for the four-year-old situation comedy The Big Bang Theory, which the Times calls “hugely popular.” The heightened visibility renews a physics community question: How does this show affect public views of physics and physicists?
BBT generates fluff to draw laughs and sell commercials — and is pretty good at it. Each week’s silliness involves a pair of young physicists and their friends, some of whom are also scientists or engineers. Last year, the actor Jim Parsons won an Emmy for portraying one of the two main physicists. Now he’s been renominated alongside Johnny Galecki, who portrays the other one. No other comedy has two nominees for the lead-actor award. And the show itself has been nominated for best comedy.
In the branding-of-physics realm, BBT’s main problem has been excessive caricaturing. The science writer Jennifer Ouellette, formerly associated with the National Academy of Science’s Science and Entertainment Exchange, has called for physicists to lighten up about that. In a 2008 commentary, she advised that ultimately, “the primary objective of any TV show is to entertain, not to teach.” She observed that “humor is infectious,” and she concluded that BBT’s viewers “can still come away with a tiny bit of physics insight, and a better appreciation for its relevance to our lives.”
But Jacob Clark Blickenstaff, teacher education programs manager for the American Physical Society, sees it differently. In a review in NSTA Reports, the newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association, he expressed concern that BBT’s “portrayal of science will discourage students from majoring in physics and engineering.” Here’s his essay’s ending:
Some argue that comedy has to exaggerate characters to be successful. I believe a program like The Big Bang Theory, which takes pride in its scientific accuracy, bears a responsibility to depict scientists and engineers as people, not just caricatures.
My own view is that BBT’s one-dimensionality, offensive back in 2007, has diminished, and that the characters in this often genuinely funny show have become more rounded. In a Physics Today online commentary last winter, I argued that BBT could be made even funnier — and could take on some actual social value while selling even more soap for its advertisers — if it would very lightly incorporate technocivic issues as sources of conflict.
A bit of literary theorizing: Any story centers on the resolution of some conflict. Everyone in the audience knows that Sheldon — the finicky, quirky, egotistical theorist portrayed by Parsons — always tells the truth. In fact, in social situations, he often tells too much of it. And everyone in the audience knows that Sheldon’s brain contains great stores of knowledge beyond his own specialty. What if Sheldon, who would naturally assert the predominant global-warming consensus, found himself confronted by an articulate, well-informed skeptic? What if this skeptic had quirks of her own — for instance, what if she were cast as neighbor Penny’s tattooed, motorcycle-riding cousin from Penny’s home state of Nebraska?
The comedy writers could exploit that conflict without inflicting much technical talk on the audience, but with plenty of the semi-slapstick excesses of the idiosyncratic ire that Sheldon exudes when contradicted. The issue of global warming wouldn’t get resolved, of course, in part because Ouellette is right that “the primary objective of any TV show is to entertain, not to teach.” But the working-out of the primarily personal conflict would expose the audience to useful small samplings from an important technocivic controversy — and it’d be funny.
But that’s just literary theorizing. What’s knowable is that these Emmy nominations will increase this sitcom’s influence on public perceptions of physics.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. His reports to AIP are collected each Friday for "Science and the media." He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.