How obnoxious is too obnoxious for a TV character?

Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon means no harm, but he’s still a jerk


I spend more time defending The Big Bang Theory than I do criticizing it, mostly because I don’t think much of the internet’s most popular lines of attack against the show. (These are, as follows: the show laughs “at” nerds instead of “with” nerds; the show is not funny when you remove the laugh track; and it is “nerd blackface.”) I don’t think it’s ever been quite as good a show as we hoped it would be in its second season, though that season is still good enough to justify its success, and it can still turn out very good episodes.

To some extent, the issues with the show have changed a bit in the last couple of years. The thing holding it back was that it seemed to be stuck in the same groove, but there’s no doubt that the addition of two female regulars has allowed it to go different places, plus it’s turned one character, Wolowitz, from the most irredeemable character in the group to arguably the least immature. The changes have had problematic effects as well as good ones – for example, it’s split the show into “girl” and “guy” scenes, and Penny and Sheldon rarely have scenes together – but at least it doesn’t do exactly what it did for the first three years.

The other issue that I feel has come to the forefront, at least when I watch it, is that Sheldon gets away with everything, and it’s gone past the point where the group dynamics make a whole lot of sense. This has always been something people pointed out with the show, and they even made fun of it themselves (it was made clear that there wasn’t much reason, beyond force of habit, why the other guys hung out with him). But last night’s episode, the highest-rated in the show’s history, had him going to near-apocalyptic levels of jerkiness: being a sexist, a bad friend, and an egomaniac in the space of 20 minutes. And as usual when he acts particularly badly, the tiny amount of comeuppance he receives doesn’t really match up with his behaviour.

In a weird way, this may be where Sheldon most resembles Steve Urkel, a character to whom he’s often been compared, sometimes for the wrong reasons. Urkel was, if you look at him objectively, a complete jerk – he barges into his neighbor’s house, won’t leave anyone alone, and sexually harasses the girl next door. But any time someone tried to call Urkel out on this, they were the bad guys, because the audience (viewing audience and studio audience) loved Urkel more than they loved any of the other characters. There’s probably a similar dynamic at play with Sheldon: punishing him would not actually be satisfying because the audience would tend to side with him against anyone else. Last night’s episode was based on years of building up the premise that he is not malicious, that he simply doesn’t understand (or want to understand) social behaviour, and furthermore that he’s been badly psychologically damaged by his upbringing in Texas. The audience also knows that his “slave” talk in the episode is something he’s said in a previous episode, and that he has no idea it’s supposed to be an insult. The fans, then, know all this and apparently accept that he means no harm.

And also, part of the appeal of The Big Bang Theory is that in an era when every other comedy has to end with someone learning a lesson about being a better person – which they will immediately forget – Sheldon thinks he’s perfect already and that it’s the rest of the world that should change. If he started learning lessons, his show would be more morally satisfying but a lot less popular.

Still, it is a bit problematic for any show when your lead character is a jerk, but isn’t exactly treated that way. (Shows about actual jerks are a different matter; either they get punished, or you accept it as the comedy of sociopathy.) Urkel was like that – except worse because other characters kept having to learn lessons about how badly they‘d supposedly treated him – and so was Hawkeye on M*A*S*H.

Sheldon’s increased jerkiness may have something to do with his separation from Penny, the character who – in the early seasons – did the most to take him down a peg, and someone who seemed to hang out with him because she kind of liked him. The fact that he didn’t make a fool of himself over her, and treated her with the same condescending contempt he had for everyone else, sort of redeemed him because he didn’t treat her like a bimbo. He also presented a challenge for Penny, a character used to coasting on her looks, who had to find ways to talk to someone who simply didn’t care about her appearance. Now they don’t share many scenes, and the dynamic of the show now revolves around two groups where everyone is always doing what the most selfish member wants: Sheldon dominates the guy group, and Penny, the cool popular girl who gets whatever she wants, dominates the female group. Sheldon is the character who has no social skills and doesn’t want them, and Penny is the character who was defined as the only regular with social skills, but the way the show is set up at the moment they occupy almost the same social position, and seeing nice people stuck with them all the time can be a little saddening. (Though Penny does put up with a lot more punishment than Sheldon does, often completely undeserved punishment like having her nose broken. Sheldon is still the character who manages to float through life with only the mildest punishments possible.)

I don’t really enjoy doing “what’s wrong with Big Bang Theory” posts – I think this is my first one since season 4 – if only because a) It’s subject to a lot of silly attacks online and b) It’s pretty much earned its success by being a well-made multi-camera comedy at a time when no other network will bother to make them. (It’s all very well to say that Seinfeld and Cheers were better, which they were, but the networks are going out and making a million New Girls instead of finding the new Seinfeld or Cheers, and then acting surprised when Big Bang Theory gets most of the people who used to watch Friends on Thursdays.) But its second season was strong enough that it seemed like it was one step away from becoming truly great, and I don’t think it did (whereas I think How I Met Your Mother did achieve true greatness at its best, even if it wasn’t at its best for all that long). There are a lot of shows that are in the good-but-not great category, of course – there are plenty of good shows like Modern Family and Happy Endings that haven’t yet managed a season quite as good at Bang‘s second. But there has always been something holding it back, and right now I think it’s that the show is neither openly a comedy about a jerk, nor a comedy about a basically likable person: the show knows Sheldon is a jerk, but it doesn’t seem to know just how big a jerk he is.

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How obnoxious is too obnoxious for a TV character?

  1. Whether you go to Steve Urkel, Niles Crane or Felix Unger, there’s always been a fine line in writing for characters with ego-driven character flaws and continuing to find situations where they’re more funny than annoying. I think Sheldon tends more towards Felix than to Steve, in that Urkel was never intellectually condescending towards the people he irritated — he was depicted more as being clueless at what he was doing. Sheldon knows he’s annoying people but wants to bend the world to conform to him, much in the same way Felix’s fastidiousness and demanding nature would drive Oscar crazy or Niles’ obsession with one-upping his brother would irritate Frasier.

    The problem comes when you get to a variation in Siskel and Ebert’s old complaint about the “idiot plot” — the story line that only moves forward if one or more characters behave like idiots and don’t react like normal human beings. If you get to the point where Sheldon can say or do anything rude to get a laugh, with no redeeming flaws you also get to the point where the audience wonders why Leonard keeps living with him and doesn’t move in with someone else, or why anyone hangs out with him at all unless they’re idiots (in “The Odd Couple” Neil Simon and later Garry Marshall gave Oscar enough flaws of his own to make it clear both main characters were tough to live with; in “The Big Bang Theory” it’s only a one-sided equation).

  2. And also, part of the appeal of The Big Bang Theory is that in an era when every other comedy has to end with someone learning a lesson about being a better person

    This hasn’t been the case since at least Seinfeld. Amoral shows currently airing include 30 Rock, Always Sunny, South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, TaaHM, Happy Endings, Apt 23, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

    In fact, Community and Parks and Recreation were intended to be a deliberate response to the popularity of amoral sitcoms and a throwback to the warmer pre-Seinfeld-era sitcoms before “no hugging, no learning” became widespread.

    If he started learning lessons, his show would be more morally satisfying but a lot less popular.
    HIMYM turned Barney, an amoral narcisstic misogynistic cartoon, into a rounded character and the show became more rather than less popular.

    It’s pretty much earned its success by being a well-made multi-camera comedy at a time when no other network will bother to make them.

    Plenty of networks have tried to make multicamera comedies work.

    Since TBBT began in 2006, ABC/Fox/NBC have tried to launch Hank, Better With You, Do Not Disturb, ‘Til Death, Happy Hour, Back To You, The Return of Jezebel James, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, Are You There, Chelsea?, Last Man Standing, Work It and Whitney.

    Exactly three of those 12 shows made it to a second season (Whitney, Last Man Standing, ‘Til Death). The networks have made them but audiences haven’t turned up. The hit-to-miss ratio for single-camera comedies is much better, which is why networks kept making them.

    • I wouldn’t put all of those shows on a list of amoral sitcoms. 30 Rock is sometimes amoral, sometimes not. Happy Endings and Apt. 23 have their share of lessons, if sometimes with an ironic take on them. And South Park has a lesson in every episode (they’ve long since stopped pretending that “I’ve learned something today” is supposed to be ironic). “Big Bang Theory” certainly is much less structured toward that big lesson or revelation or theme than most of those other shows.

      Certainly the failure of networks’ multi-camera comedies is the big culprit here (there were a few other midseason bombs like Romantically Challenged and 100 Questions) but when I said “no network will bother to make them” I was referring specifically to “well-made” multi-camera comedies. The broadcast networks have, to some extent, figured out how to make single-camera comedies to a reasonable quality baseline, but as many of the examples you’ve mentioned show, they can barely come up with a respectable multi-camera comedy. If the networks had made some good multi-camera sitcoms that failed, then there would be evidence that audiences simply weren’t responding to the format. Until NBC, ABC or Fox comes up with a good multi-camera show, there’s really no way of knowing one way or the other whether the format can work there. We do know that the track record of single-camera, while OK, isn’t so good that these networks have a great incentive to stick with “New Girl” and “Modern Family” clones, yet they continue to shy away from multi-camera unless it’s packaged with a star who particularly likes that format for some reason (Tim Allen, Reba McIntyre). I don’t think it makes much artistic sense.

  3. I don’t find Sheldon to be a jerk, in fact I would say he is funnier and more relevant today than he ever was. He refuses to conform to society’s requirement that everything that isn’t gushing and overly fluffy is bad and negative and as such needs lying about. That’s exactly where the humour strikes home to me; it takes society’s need to never hear no, that’s incorrect or you can do better and mirrors it back to it. He is the kid who says “the emperor has no clothes” in regard to taking offence. Because society is becoming more and more about not offending rather than informing and we are all so easily offended by less and less nowadays.

    In your list of “great” comedies and I really have yet to understand why Seinfeld is considered great but maybe that’s because I’m from the UK, you neglected to mention one that probably influenced TBBT more than any and that was “3rd Rock from the Sun.” Now to me that was a ground breaking, great comedy from N America and it is impossible for me to watch Sheldon without flashbacks to the behaviour of Dick Solomon. If Dick had met up with “Mary” (oh, that’s just a coincidence I’m sure) Cooper and conceived a child it would be Sheldon. Dick’s intelligence, absolute knowledge and ego mixed with the evangelical zeal and assuredness of the modern religious fundamentalist equals Sheldon.

    I reckon Sheldon hasn’t become more of a jerk, we have all just become more insistent on fluffy, pappy and rose tinted ways of being told about reality, even if it fails to explain things adequately or even at all. The true genius behind TBBT is that the other characters mirror society’s shift while Sheldon hasn’t changed at all. This mirrors the move in N American politics from a reasonable approximation of the centre to extreme right, leaving those who never abandoned the centre to look very left wing indeed. TBBT as a metaphor for the political machinations in N America today? Why not?

  4. This discussion is also why anyone associated with the show won’t answer the frequently asked question about whether Sheldon has Aspberger’s. As a dad with an Aspberger’s son, I recognize his behavior in Sheldon. The lack of understanding of nuance and social courtesies, the inability to appreciate the necessity of give-and-take in relationships. They are so much alike that I can easily imagine my son growing up to be almost exactly like Sheldon.

    But that’s not a card they can use and still keep the dynamic of the show. Making Sheldon’s often jerky behavior the result of genetics makes him a much different character and sets up a situation where the response to any of his behavior is “He can’t help it.” I’m okay with the show not taking that route, since it’s much less commercial. But I’d love to see what that show would look like in some alternate dimension.

    • I could never see the Sheldon – Aspberger’s connection. I think part of the joke of the character is that he seems to completely understand and appreciate social cues and courtesies, he just doesn’t care.

      • Doesn’t that make him closer to a sociopath than someone with Asperger’s?

  5. You’re making too much of this. Seriously. Out in the real world one finds a lot of clueless people. You accept them for what they are and deal with them how you see fit. Maybe you need to get out more.

    • writing about this kind of thing is the author’s job here.

  6. The fact you can reference nuances about Steve Urkel and appreciate the weak comedy featured on The Big Bang Theory tells me I cannot trust your opinion of comedic television.

    • You probably can’t trust my opinion, I agree, but I’m not sure by “appreciate the weak comedy” if you mean that I like weak comedy too much, or if I appreciate that some of the comedy is weak. (Or maybe both.) Anyway, Steve Urkel’s show may not be very good (no, scratch that “may not”; it’s not) but he is a useful point of comparison. And if you have him for a neighbour, you should take the unprecedented step of locking your doors.

  7. I’m calling that last episode “The Black Gash Attack.” It was just foul. I was laughing and then I was crying because I realized I had thought that show was my friend. But it wasn’t, not at all. It always has bothered me how they promoted that sexist trope of smart=ugly and pretty=dumb with Amy vs. Penny. But this episode sunk the ship for me. I finally see that I had befriended my secret enemy!

  8. I found the author’s hesitant comparisons with Family Matters a bit disingenuous, since “Urkelization” – the practice of a show slowly contracting to be entirely about the fan favourite character, who can do no wrong – is a pretty well-known phenomenon, and it’s clearly been happening to TBBT since Season Three.

    • Yes, but I do think the show has somewhat avoided Urkelization – there was a period when it looked like every episode was going to be about Sheldon in some way, but I think the show has wound up as more of an ensemble show; he hasn’t taken over quite as completely as Urkel or The Fonz, though he’s clearly the dominant character.

  9. Its just a show.

  10. See, I have to disagree with this to a large extent. Sheldon, if you watch the first 3 seasons, was treated very badly by his supposed ‘friends.’ The Artic Expedition comes to mind. In the real, world, Leonard, Howard, and Raj would have been blackballed from any and every scientific environment for scrambling and knowingly falsifying data.
    The writers’ major mistake wasn’t so much in separating Sheldon and Penny as it was putting Leonard and Penny together as a couple. They Do Not Work. There is no spark, no chemistry, they have nothing in common, and they aren’t even funny. It’s ‘Twilight’ in reverse: Leonard ‘loves’ Penny because she’s beautiful and easy, Penny ‘likes’ Leonard because he’ll agree to/do anything to keep having sex with her.
    This is canon: both characters have said this, albeit in much more drawn-out terms.
    TBBT is having the same problem now that NCIS is: TPTB have forgotten it was written and designed as an ensemble show, and have decided that everything must be about sex and — well, sex. It’s boring, insulting, and tiresome. If I wanted to watch people having random sex, I’ll watch ‘Two and a Half Men.’

  11. We just need more Shenny and WAY less Lenny.