The Zeitgeist of The Big Bang Theory

The hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory will start its final season on the 24th of this month. That’s eleven years to the day its debut episode was broadcast. This unique production’s success is partially explained by its timing, starting just three months before the beginning of the last recession, a recession that had the effect of accelerating changes in the economy that had been in the works for years and would inevitably continue for years to come.

These changes can be seen in comparing The Big Bang Theory to another widely popular sitcom of a generation before: Friends.  In the 90s, glamour seemed plausibly enough for success. Some characters on Friends had well compensated professional careers and others didn’t, but the show left the impression that, as long as a person was attractive and cool, it’s reasonable to expect the bills will get paid.

The Big Bang Theory depicts the opposite. Its most most attractive character, the hot blond, struggles to pay her bills as she befriends financially stable nerds with advanced STEM degrees. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematical skills have been outpacing the traditional tools of popularity and socio-economic status. A big man on campus today can no longer expect a high school education spent primarily on playing football and chasing cheerleaders to set himself up for earning the median wage.

When someone longs for more manufacturing jobs than our economy needs, a part of that longing is the hope people will not have to do the hard work required to acquire the skills our labor market actually needs. The romanticization of the factory floor is the dream that you can go through life ignorant of formal reasoning, show up to a plant, and be paid well to push buttons and pull levers for eight hours. It’s a form of avoiding work disguised as a willingness to work. The failure to have analytic skills is a new form of laziness.

From Khan Academy to MIT’s Opencourseware, there are many free ways to acquire these skills, but people who choose not to do so tend to be too quick to blame America for not being great. In portraying this with comedy, The Big Bang Theory has captured well the spirit of our times.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there