26 January 2011

The Big Social Bang Network Theory

Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons)

A recent plane ride afforded me the opportunity to watch, back-to-back, David Fincher’s film The Social Network, inspired by the founding of Facebook; and a re-run of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Having seen a few episodes of the series, I’d found much to admire in the dialogue and the casting, but regretted the stale plots, which, despite the originality of the characters, could derive from almost any other situation comedy. Now, at last, I understood why The Big Bang Theory doesn’t delve into the darker side of being a misfit genius: because then it would become The Social Network.

Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello), Narendra (Max Minghella), and Saverin (Andrew Garfield)
discuss algorithms.

Both the movie and the TV show concern a freakishly brilliant, socially inept young man (respectively, Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper) whose behavior creates tensions with the other, intellectually gifted people around him. The young man’s naïveté and emotional dysfunctions are played for laughs in both cases, but the consequences are tragic (in the Aristotelian sense) in one case, purely comic in the other.

A question of class: The Winkelvoss twins are played
by Armie Hammer, great-grandson of tycoon Armand Hammer.

Both shows raise issues of class: the Harvard students in Social Network are constantly one-upping one another, just as Big Bang Theory’s brainiacs twit Penny because she is merely a waitress. And both raise issues of religion: all the good guys in Social Network are Jewish, while the bad guys (Shawn Parker, the Winkelvoss twins) are goyim*; in Big Bang, Leonard grew up in an Evangelical Christian home, while Howard incessantly reminds viewers that he’s Jewish, and Raj is Hindu. Yet, typically for American entertainments, neither show takes these issues very far: in both cases, the characters’ backgrounds are primarily spice for the dramatic stew, which is primarily composed of emotional conflicts.

Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Howard (Simon Helberg)

The real surprise in both cases is that anybody managed to make out of this kind of material anything that people would want to watch, much less find themselves able to identify with the nerdy characters. It’s possible that Big Bang’s plots are so conventional precisely because the dialogue is so smart, so far over the heads of most people in its scientific interests, literate vocabulary, flawless grammar, and pitch-perfect fanboy references.

SatanBack: Timberlake

The Social Network includes simultaneous lawsuits, so there must be some conflict, and conflict equals drama — but still — we’re getting excited about a bunch of college nerds playing on their computers here, and it’s easy enough to know how the story turns out. (Wikipedia goes on for pages on the subject.) What counts, ultimately, is the relationship between Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and that’s what makes the movie entertaining.

Conflict and tension: Galecki and Parsons

We are left to surmise that the boys in Social Network might have gotten along better had they been subject to the civilizing influence of women, as the Big Bang boys are, and indeed we’re given to understand that Zuckerberg acts primarily to impress the girl who dumps him in the movie’s first scene, whom he is still forlornly pursuing at the movie’s end. The other women onscreen are barely characters, wheareas on Big Bang Theory, a woman takes center stage: Penny (Kaley Cuoco) serves as nanny to the boys, and sleeps with one of them, connecting them physically to the world beyond their computer screens.

Civilizing influence: Galecki and Parsons, with Cuoco as Penny

That The Social Network might have turned out happily with more active participation from women leads me to wonder what ideas Big Bang Theory might borrow from the film. First is the character of Satan, called Shawn Parker in the movie (and played by singer Justin Timberlake). The rerun I saw suggested that Star Trek: Next Generation’s Wil Wheaton is already close to filling that role, in recurrent appearances as himself, but why settle for annoying Sheldon when you could corrupt him? **

One more free idea, proven conclusively:
Everything is better with Christine Baranski.

I’d like to think that the success of the movie and TV show signals a new era, in which nerds are seen as sympathetic, and intellectual achievement is seen as exciting. This might indeed be the dawn of a new era, and the kind of winnable future President Obama seeks might be at hand. But then I look at the rest of the American cultural landscape — in particular at the low regard with which the sciences are held by so much of the political and religious establishment — and I return to my senses.

Hey, guys! I bet we could totally program this thing to play some kind of game, possibly a sort of ping-pong that we might call “Ping” or something, you know?

*NOTE: They are also litigious, so it behooves me to underscore that I am referring to the characters in the film, and not to the real-life people.

**I have other ideas, but the producers will have to hire me as a writer before I share them. So there.


Anonymous said...

the names and the photos you refer to don't jibe with the text you're writing, having seen neither of these pieces, that made reading extremely confusing, nonetheless fascinating. peace!

William V. Madison said...

Perhaps I'm too clever by half: in observing that the characters in both shows are similar, if not quite interchangeable, I switched the names of corresponding actors and roles. Glad you got something out of the essay despite my silly stunt.