Nerd Portrayal on TV

I wrote a lengthy post explaining why I do not find shows like The Big Bang Theory very appealing back in September 2010. Since then, not much has changed in the way geek culture is portrayed on TV. I find it quite ironic, considering that there has been a significant shift in popular opinion and what used to be considered fringe nerdity is now nominally mainstream. Stuff that used to be confined to the cultural nerd ghetto and shunned by the majority is now openly consumed by the people that were doing the shunning just a few years ago.

Let me give you a few examples. Every once in a while there comes a TV series that imprints itself on popular consciousness. A few years past, that series was The Sopranos – a gritty but often touching drama about the lives of New Jersey gangsters and their families. Today that series is Game of Thrones – a high fantasy series taking place in a completely fictional setting featuring dragons, knights and sorcery. Just about everyone I know is watching it, including my co-workers. That one fateful Monday everyone had something to say about The Red Wedding – starting with the CEO and ending with the janitor. This is quite a bit of a cultural shift, don’t you think?

Game of Thrones

Can you believe that this show is more popular than Sopranos?

Similar thing happened to super heroes. Once upon a time, following adventures of costumed crime fighters was the epitome of geekdom. But thanks to Marvel’s Avenger’s series, all kinds of people feel comfortable loving characters such as Iron Man or Captain America. The movies are not merely accepted or tolerated, but instead celebrated and beloved by the mainstream audiences. People who never read comic books are just as excited to see the next big Marvel movie as life long comic book nerds. In fact, because of the movies reading comics is no longer as stigmatized as it used to be.

Chris Hardwick has a talk show that airs after the critically acclaimed AMC series The Walking Dead where he invites various celebrities to discuss that nights show. It is quite an unusual show because the guests are actually not allowed to promote their own work – they are there to geek out on live TV and discuss the current episode. Most guests openly admit to being fans of the comic book on which the series was based.

Technology itself has also become much more mainstream and public. Everyone is more connected and engaged in social media and being adept at exploring and exploiting the benefits of these software platforms is no longer considered geeky or nerdy. Mobile hardware such as phone and tablets are coveted status symbols for everyone, and whenever a new version is released just about everyone gets super excited.

There are fewer and fewer things that can still be considered truly geeky. Being a Trekkie used to earn you an automatic geek badge, but nowadays TNG and DS9 fans typically can get a free pass because the J.J. Abrams movies. When I was growing up the only people who knew about Tolkien were fellow nerds and literary buffs, but thanks to Peter Jackson he is now a household name known and beloved by just about everyone.

Some people bemoan and complain about this appropriation and dilution of the true nerd culture, but I personally celebrate it. I think it is great that the things I like are finally being appreciated and accepted by the mainstream audiences. I love the fact that I can now talk about my favorite things with people who just a few years ago would just roll their eyes and scoff – but who now are totally into this stuff. It is a wonderful thing and we shouldn’t be hipsters about it.

Unfortunately our media is still refusing to accept this cultural shift, and nerd shaming series such The Big Bang Theory still exists. Both Hollywood and TV studios still cling to the outdated nerd stereotype: poor social skills, pocket protector, taped up glasses, etc. Most “nerd” characters are one-note, shallow, uninteresting and used primarily for comic relief. Producers and directors are still absolutely terrified to even briefly comment on anything that could be considered geeky or nerdy, unless it is to mock it. And so the stereotype of a nerd as a reclusive shut in, and a social leper who is to be shunned is perpetuated, but only on the silver screen. This demonized and much maligned TV nerd does not actually exist in real life.

Actually, that’s a lie. There are some series out there that not only do acknowledge this shift, but also create compelling and interesting nerd characters. For example, in one episode it is revealed that most of the characters on NBC’s Parks and Recreations are actually fans of Game of Thrones:

Parks and Rec

Game of Thrones reference on Parks and Rec

The typical TV series approach would be for one character to admit to liking a fantasy series and then shun and belittle said character because of it for comic relief. Parks however cleverly exploits the fact that GoT is about as mainstream as you can go right now, and instead chooses to invert the trope and poke fun at the character who does not watch the series.

That same series also has one of the most positive and interesting “geek characters” you can currently find on TV: Ben Wyatt played by Adam Scott. Ben is most definitely the nerdiest of the characters on the show, in probably the most classical way possible: he enjoys science fiction, reads comic books, obsesses about TV series, voices his strong opinions about Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Lord of the Rings and J. J. Abrams’ take on Star Trek. When he is depressed and his friends encourage him to treat himself to something nice and expensive he buys a Batman costume. That said, his geekiness is not actually the focal point of his character.

Ben Wyatt

Ben Wyatt after getting food poisoning from his favorite dish.

While his nerdy interests and obsessions are frequently used as punch-lines, he is actually a pretty well rounded character. Unlike for example Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon who is mostly a one-note joke delivery robot, Ben actually has life, goals and worries that have nothing to do with his interests. If anything, he is actually one of the most competent, level headed and capable characters on the show and his nerdiness is only one of his many quirks: some of the others being his weird obsession with calzones or his failed political career as the youngest and worst mayor in history.

The thing I really like about how Parks approaches this character is that even when Ben has an outburst of geeky monologue the audience is typically expected to laugh with him rather than at him. Whenever Sheldon has a bout of verbal diarrhea, there is usually a considerably less nerdy character in the frame who is instructed to roll his eyes and make exaggerated sighs. When Ben does the same he often gets the upper hand, or at most gets a shrug and then the scene moves on to something else. In fact, compared to characters like Ron Swanson, April Ludgate or Tom Haverford, Ben’s interests and obsessions actually seem normal and rather mundane.

Which is how it should be. I think this is how nerds should be portrayed in sitcoms: as actual people with varied interests, goals and desires rather than one-note joke characters devoid of depth and nuance.

Can you name other TV or movie characters that can be considered geeks/nerds but without falling into the usual “OMG, what a nerd – let’s laugh at him/her” trope? What are other examples of positive, non-mocking portrayal of geek culture in the media? Can you name any?

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8 Responses to Nerd Portrayal on TV

  1. How i met your Mother is an example of both…
    When Ted geeks out about something, everyone sighes, while Barney has at least equally nerdy sides and is pretty much never laughed about.

    Imho it’s not that geek-interests have become mainstream and public but that there was a shift in what geek-interests are. We live in a time where “former” geeks sit in many media-producing areas and have a strong influence on mainstream. So those interests move into mainstream.
    What is geeky on the other hand depends a big deal on what isn’t currently considered mainstream.
    So if you collect bugs or like to talk about WW1-Ships pretty much nothing might have changed for you. Those people still seem geeky.

    I would guess there are other areas where previous mainstream-focused things now became geeky, but i cant think of a single one.
    Maybe with internet and widespread information about hundreds others wo geek out about the same things as yourself, you no longer think about something sounding geeky. It’s just a different audience then who you know in real life.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Yeah, stuff like pen and paper RPG, and tabletop games are still firmly in the geek sphere, but even that is slowly changing. I think you are right that the internet probably was a bit equalizer here. I think Patton Oswalt wrote a bit on it somewhere – back in the day being a geek actually required effort and commitment. If you were a fan of something and you wanted to learn all about it you had to do the leg work – you had to stand in lines, buy magazines, hang out with other fans, listen to gossip, use mail-catalogs and etc.. These days you can just google-binge for a few hours, and then jump on a message board and circle-jerk with other fans and none of them will ever know you just got into this new thing.

    These days geeking out is virtually effortless, and these hobbies and interest areas that were previously kinda hard to get into are now accessible to mainstream audiences if they only choose to embrace them.

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  3. I know that it was suggested in the first blog’s comments (I could probably go back and read them again to see if you replied) but the IT Crowd is pretty awesome. I hate british comedy, and honestly it took me a while to get into it… but they have EFF stickers everywhere and all sorts of stuff. They make fun of their nerdyness from time to time, but they are also frequently making fun of the other peoples inability to understand the most simple IT stuff (in one episode they give their boss a box with a red light on top and tell her that it is the Internet — the whole internet — and they expect that she will realize they were fucking with her… but instead she gives a speech at a board meeting about this box being the Internet, and since everyone in the room were “dumb corporate people” they didn’t realize that it wasn’t either).

    I know that you hate when people suggest nerdy shows for you to watch (which I believe was the whole point of post number one) because you always get let down by them… buuuuut seriously give IT Crowd a shot.

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  4. Also — while doing things that you hate, might I also suggest Community, or at least this episode of community:

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Travis McCrea:

    IT crowd seems ok. I don’t think I have ever watched a full episode, but I did see the internet box clip you are referencing and it was pretty hilarious. :) It seems that they did get a lot of things right in that series. I just haven’t gotten around to watching it yet – other than the random clips that cop up on the net all the time.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Travis McCrea:

    Meh, hate is a strong word. I heard good things about community though. I’ve been meaning to give it a try as well.

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  7. Dave Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    IT Crowd – That show was hilarious. It didnt focus too much on nerdism imo. The best episode was where they go to a musical theatre production called ‘Gay – A gay musical’. To this day whenever someone in the office uses the word ‘disabled’, there are shouts of “I’m disabled” in faux Irish accents. If you watch only one, watch Season 2, Ep 1 – ‘The Work Outing’

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  8. @ Dave:

    “It’s a gay musical, called Gay.”

    I’ve always found the IT Crowd superior to The Big Bang Theory. While what I quoted from the show doesn’t exactly highlight the depth of what the writers got into with the IT Crowd, the show had some brilliant scenes, along with the great array of actors; there’s more to it than just IT jokes. The Big Bang Theory felt almost forced at points, with characters churning out jokes a bit too constantly.

    I would recommend watching the IT Crowd. It doesn’t really overdo the nerd aspect like Big Bang Theory can. It also has some rather amusing takes on people who have no idea how computers work.

    I’ve never really ever gotten into American sitcoms too much though, leaning towards British sitcoms more.

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