Season seven of The Big Bang Theory started off with a, well, a bang. Despite the first episode’s title, “The Hofstadter Insufficiency,” the episode really wasn’t focused on Leonard, but Sheldon and Penny. I’ve always thought BBT was strongest when focusing on these two characters. Sure, the jokes between them follow the predictable comedy trope of “putting-two-completely-opposite-characters-in-the-same-space-to-see-how-they-interact-with-each-other” but I don’t mind. It works because Penny and Sheldon have the most personality of any of the characters on the show.
Leonard is simply an empty vessel, a follower. I guess he’s supposed to be the Everyman, the character I relate to because he’s the most “normal” of the four geeks. He’s the straight man, the foil for Sheldon and Penny’s jokes. But the Hofstadter Insufficiency showed once again that Sheldon and Penny can carry scenes on their own just fine.
One scene in this episode was particularly moving for me. It wasn’t filled with laughs so much as development of Sheldon and Penny’s relationship. Even though the two appear to be mortal enemies, I think they like each other as friends more than perhaps any of the other friendships on the show.
Penny wants to get to know Sheldon better
The scene begins with Penny hanging out at Sheldon’s. They’d previously tried calling Leonard to see how his trip was going, but when the conversation was cut short, they find themselves with nothing else to do. Penny proposes something:
Penny: Come on, it’s still early. Let’s do something.
Sheldon: Well, I have been toying around with an idea for 4-D chess.
P: How about we just talk?
S: Alright. In 4-D chess–
P: No… Come on, let’s talk about our lives. Tell me something about you I don’t know.
S: I own nine pairs of pants.
P: Okay, that, that’s a good start. But I was thinking maybe something a little more personal.
S: I see. (pause) I own nine pairs of underpants.
P: How about I go first?
S: But I don’t wanna know how many underpants you own. Although based on the floor of your bedroom I’d say it’s about a thousand.
P: Okay, look. Here’s something people do not know about me.
Penny then tells a story about a low-budget horror movie she was in when she first arrived in LA, Serial Apist, which Sheldon coincidentally has seen.
S: But I see the type of personal revelations you’re going for. (pause) Okay. Here’s one I thought I’d take to the grave.
S: Hmph… A while back, YouTube changed its user-interface from a star-based rating system to a thumbs up rating system. I tell people I’m okay with it, but I’m really not.
P: (long pause) That’s your big revelation?
S: Yes. Whoo! I feel ten pounds lighter.
P: Okay. You know what? I give up. I’m going to bed.
Penny gets up and walks toward the door. Here we see Penny reacting to Sheldon in her usual way: condescension and confusion about why he is the way he is. Normally Sheldon doesn’t call her out on it. Most the time he doesn’t pick up on Penny’s criticisms (though Penny certainly isn’t shy about telling Sheldon to stop being so mean to her on numerous occasions).
But then Sheldon does something different. He stands up for himself:
S: Here’s something else you don’t know about me. You just hurt my feelings.
P: (confused) What did I do?
S: I opened up and shared something deeply upsetting to me, and you treated it as if it were nothing.
P: I, I didn’t think it was a big deal.
S: It is to me. That’s the point.
Even though the conversation was about a YouTube ratings system, Sheldon really could’ve been talking about anything. For years, Penny hasn’t understood why he’s interested in the games, science, television shows, or any other of his more eccentric passions. This scene is so interesting because Sheldon is actually airing his feelings, showing that he does have feelings and he does value what people think about him, even if his facade suggests otherwise.
Once confronted, Penny puts her hands in her pockets and looks at the floor awkwardly.
P: Sheldon, you are right. I’m really sorry. I should’ve known better.
S: Your apology is accepted.
P: Thank you. How about a hug?
S: How about a hearty handshake?
P: Come on!
Now, a lot of nerds don’t like BBT very much: they feel that the “nerds” in the show are simply there for the audience to laugh at. The audience is supposed to feel superior to the nerds because “nobody is that nerdy.” These nerds think that BBT makes light of their passions for D&D, video games, and Star Wars, that these passions are simply the butt of many jokes.
Other people don’t like BBT because they think that the show makes fun of people with mental illness. Specifically, they refer to Sheldon, who, although he insists his mother had him tested and he’s “not crazy,” some people believe has OCD, Asperger’s, and any number of other mental illnesses.
I don’t agree with any of these criticisms. As a nerd myself, I find Sheldon relatable, despite his exaggerated nature. And yes, the show makes fun of Sheldon, but he also makes fun of everybody else just as much. That’s what people do in sitcoms: they make fun of each other.
This scene is really what puts those criticisms to rest for me. Yes, the show uses a lot of nerd humor, but then scenes like this happen, and it’s as if the creators are saying, “You know what? It’s just fine that Sheldon is bothered by YouTube’s ratings system change. Don’t judge other people’s passions and concerns.”
Don’t just live your passion: Accept other people’s passions
And I think that’s one of the underlying themes of the show. Every week I see some vapid post on Facebook about “living your passions to the full, don’t let other people judge you, you keep being you, dance like nobody’s watching,” et cetera, et cetera. Living your passions to the full, that’s great and all. But are you capable of taking that idea one step farther? Can you accept others when they live their passions to the full?
That’s the question BBT theory poses to us, and it’s been posing this question for 7 years now.
(For another great example of this, check out “The Nerdvana Annihilation” in season 1).
There are a lot of things I don’t understand about people. I don’t understand our culture’s fascination with sports. I don’t understand why the latest fashions get some people’s motors running. I don’t understand people’s obsessions with reality TV, celebrity romantic relationships, or the fluctuations of Oprah’s weight. Those passions seem as foreign to me as my passions for HTML code, NES games, The Matrix, and polyhedral dice likely seem to them.
That’s okay. I don’t have to understand or like what other people like; but I am trying to accept that they have those passions and leave it at that.