From a young age, Sogand Talebi knew she loved science.
When she was a child, her father would read astronomy magazines to her before bed.
This love carried on into high school, where Talebi dabbled in robotics and started watching The Big Bang Theory.
The York University space engineering student says the series, which has its finale tonight, helped her embrace her inner nerd.
“Watching the show kind of made me realize … it’s cool if I explore some of those things and it’s cool if I show that nerdy or the geeky side a little bit more.”
Talebi is one of more than three million Canadians who tuned in to TBBT for a weekly dose of scientific hilarity. The show tapped into nerd culture in a way no mainstream sitcom had done before.
Launched in 2007, TBBT centres on socially awkward, hyper-intelligent physicists Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and their hijinks with Penny (Kaley Cuoco), who started out as their neighbour.
The CBS sitcom has proven so popular in its final weeks, it has topped that other much-watched TV show ending its run: HBO’s epic fantasy Game of Thrones. According to the Nielsen company, TBBT drew 12.6 million live viewers in the U.S. last week, while GoT had 12.5 million.
Popular but polarizing
The show has been both lauded and criticized for its gang of geeks. The other main characters include engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar). In subsequent seasons, the writers added Amy Farrah Fowler (played by actor and real-life neuroscientist Mayim Bialik) and microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz (Melissa Rauch).
Penny and Raj, in particular, have been singled out for being stereotypes. Penny has been a polarizing character from the beginning. Some see her as the upbeat heart of the show, while others question the sexist undertones of her characterization as the stereotypical pretty blond party girl for much of the early seasons.
Criticisms levelled at Raj centre on the character being a racist stereotype of South Asian men. For instance, for six whole seasons, the character was unable to speak with women he was not related to unless he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The plot and characters in traditional sitcoms are all part of a formula and not necessarily meant to be examined too deeply, according to TV critic Bill Brioux.
“Some people might be a little sensitive — but all of TV is a caricature,” he said.
Shows like I Love Lucy, Cheers and Friends — traditional multi-camera sitcoms with archetypical characters and live audiences — have long dominated network TV.
Brioux, who’s interviewed TBBT showrunner Chuck Lorre and the show’s cast, says the format is a testament to listening to what the audience wants.
“It’s a very American format — you know right away whether the joke works or not. The audience tells you.”
With the single-camera format of comedies such as 30 Rock and The Office, you lose the immediacy and interaction of the live audience — engagement that Lorre values when making his shows, Brioux said.
“[With single-camera shows], you shoot it and you edit it and you hope the audience loves it,” he explained. “[Multi-camera] is a wonderful format. It’s more electric and brings out performance. The Big Bang Theory is very much a theatrical show.”
‘Science is no longer viewed as a weird thing’
American physicist Brian Greene, who made a cameo on TBBT‘s fourth season and is known for his work on string theory, believes the show has succeeded in making people engage with science.
“I think that there’s going to come a time when science is no longer viewed as a weird thing to include in popular culture,” he said.
“I think Big Bang Theory will be looked at as one of the moments when science became fodder for entertainment in the most positive sense of the word. “
Greene is also the founder of the World Science Festival, an annual gathering in New York City that unites top scientists and entertainers with the goal of making science more accessible. He’s interested to see whether the show will inspire younger audiences to pursue the sciences.
Charissa Campbell, a York University PhD student in astronomy and physics, also started watching TBBT in high school. Despite its initial lack of female characters, she’s enjoyed it.
Just as women’s representation in physics, astronomy and engineering has been improving, it was nice to see the show eventually introduce more female characters, too, she said.
For Campbell, the show has been a celebration of all things things nerdy and has given her a sense of pride in her profession.
“It just helped me propel forward and almost helped my self-esteem — to see that Hollywood was looking at physicists and astronomers and putting them on the big screen for us to see,” she said.
“It’s not scary to be a nerd nowadays. It’s great to be a nerd.”