Sit-Com Philosophy

My wife and I wait eagerly each week for the newest version of “The Big Bang Theory.” In the interim we watch re-runs that we have stored on the DVR, so much so that we can say the lines with the actors. Very funny stuff! It has some of the cleverest writing I have come across on TV and Jim Parsons is the best comic actor I have ever seen. He makes a humorless, self-absorbed character almost likeable. Almost. And when they bring in Laurie Metcalf as Sheldon Cooper’s mother it makes our day. She is perfectly cast as the spiritually certain Texas mother of the brilliant theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper.

The episodes often provide food for thought as well, and Sheldon is a wealth of information, much of which his friends find boring (as do many in the audience, I dare say). But it is remarkably well done. One such episode struck me as worthy of extended comment. It appeared at the beginning of a new season when Sheldon and his three friends return from the North Pole where they have spent three months doing research to substantiate one of Sheldon’s theories.

Sheldon is walking on air as they return to the apartment because he is convinced the data prove him right and he has already announced his triumph to the scientific world  and he now awaits the inevitable Nobel prize which will give his life new meaning. But, as it happens, the data that “proves” his hypothesis was provided by the three friends using the static produced by the electric can opener. When Sheldon finds out, he is humiliated and furious. He is disgraced in the eyes of his peers and must write a detraction which, for him, is a gargantuan task. In a giant pout, he quits his job and returns to Texas and his mother.

During the entire episode, Sheldon’s attempt to put the blame for his humiliation on the shoulders of his three friends raises questions about his willingness to take responsibility for his own actions. It is true that they provided him with flawed date, but he is the one who spread the word about his latest scientific triumph. It never occurs to him that he is in any way responsible for the public humiliation one could say he brought upon himself. He didn’t have to shoot his mouth off! To make matters worse, his friends seem willing to accept the blame, though this is a comic device that makes the episode funny. If they confronted Sheldon with the fact that he is the one responsible for his own humiliation, it wouldn’t get laughs. And I dare say the character would deny it: he’s very good at that. But it would be true. One hears echoes of Todd Blackledge’s attempts to shift blame for Joe Paterno’s recent behavior at Penn State to the media when Paterno refused to take action upon learning that his assistant coach was seen abusing a young boy in the team showers. Only this episode is funny, Blackledge’s rationalization is borderline absurd. But the point is the same: actions have consequences, though we want to deny it.

In the end, we really ought to focus in on the fact that the freedom we prize so highly brings with it a responsibility to accept the consequences of our free choices. You can’t have freedom (even as we understand that term) without responsibility. And vice versa. They are two sides of the same coin. In this comic episode, Sheldon has made his bed but he refuses to lie in it. That can be funny when his friends go along with his dementia, but it sends the wrong message. Sheldon is a study in asperger’s syndrome, a condition that renders the subject unaware of the effect he is having on other people. He is so immersed in himself he is barely aware of others at all. As his roommate Leonard says Sheldon is “irony impaired” — a characteristic of this type of personality. (Leonard, by the way, is played by Johnny Galecki who is, unfortunately, talent-impaired in an otherwise gifted cast.) Sheldon must learn “social protocols” constantly just to muddle through a quasi-normal public life. That makes for terrific humor when handled by the likes of Jim Parsons. But it is just possible that we all share Sheldon’s condition to a degree in our self-absorption and our inability to acknowledge responsibility for our actions, not to mention the urge to find someone else to blame for our own mistakes.