When I was a teenager, our family suffered from the embarrassment of not having cable television. We had only five channels to watch, and my brother and I were mortified by this travesty. One year, we hit on a strategy that solved our problem. My dad’s cousin (Rod Gilbreath) played infield for the Atlanta Braves, which were televised on the “Superstation,” WTBS out of the Peachtree City. Steve and I gave dad the installation of the cable and one month’s subscription costs as a Father’s Day present that spring, hoping that he would be hooked on the ready access to baseball and shift the ongoing costs to the family budget. The strategy worked and we found ourselves finally blessed with thirty channels of static-free programming.
I mention this because of the strange ability of cable TV to bring new life to old series. We all know that older series like The Brady Bunch enjoy a form of semi-eternal life on the upper-tiers of non-broadcast television. Even still-extant series can benefit from the broader exposure. I never watched Wings in its first-run form, but when it moved to reruns on cable, I got hooked even as I ignored the overlapping new episodes that aired during prime time.
I have found myself doing the same thing with The Big Bang Theory, which now is the most popular prime-time sitcom. I could not tell you when the first-run episodes air each week and I had to think for a while to remember that its home network is CBS, but when the show hit that aforementioned Superstation, the aggregated ratings exploded and I likewise found myself watching regularly.
When the show originally premiered, some critics said that no one would voluntarily watch a show about funny physicists. Being an academic myself, I can attest to the warped humor of physicists but I had a hard time picturing how that would wear over time. And how the obligatory blond bombshell next door would interact with the guys. My thought was that some dolt at network programming had read all of the pundits and politicians begging for the U. S. to embrace “STEM” education initiatives (“Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math”) and figured they would do a public service by producing a sitcom for the STEM age.
The show is definitely a product of that sort of thinking, with enough scholarly esoterica to inherit Frasier’s former viewers, and a surplus of whiteboards with formulaic scribbling on them to assert at least a flavor of academia. The show’s relative hostility to religion, which has offended more than a few of my friends, reflects current academic culture. Likewise, the show’s almost desperate appeals to sex as a substitute for meaning reflect how hedonism has infiltrated elite academia.
Yet the show is not really a show about STEM but rather about life itself. The show is a dynamic setting for asking life’s biggest questions: Does my work have meaning? What if I get caught not knowing all of the answers to life’s questions? How can I be considered a real adult when I still have a roommate (or live with my mother)? What is the good life? Now that I have rejected religion, how do I deal with being just a meat machine in a random universe? Will I ever be loved?
Indeed, these are just the right questions to ask in the STEM age: Science reveals much to us, but meaning is not a part of its work. Science enables us to do many things, but its methodology offers nothing in the way of answering not only what may we do but also what must we do. These are exactly the kinds of disruptors that the nerds of the show find most vexing: How do we cope when reality rudely intrudes on the ivory tower worlds that we have generated? Science may describe the universe, but it doesn’t always help us understand that same world; the humanities and metaphysics help us with those questions. That which is human is exactly the part of us that matters the most; this conflict not only produces interesting comedy, it also reminds us that life is bigger than just the measurable material world, including “the whole universe” of the show’s opening theme song.