Monday, October 10, 2011

Why "The Big Bang Theory" distrusts parents

Christine Baranski as Beverly Hofstadter and Johnny Galecki as Leonard in The Big Bang Theory. Photo courtesy of

The first four episodes of The Big Bang Theory's fifth season have exemplified the show's recent unevenness. "The Skank Reflex Analysis" was solid, "The Pulled Groin Extrapolation" was wildly entertaining, and "The Infestation Hypothesis" and "The Wiggly Finger Catalyst" were mediocre at best. However, these four episodes shared one common attribute: each explored the twisted, traumatic relationships the major characters have with their parents, making The Big Bang Theory a show about the many, many ways that our parents screw us up. I haven't seen this many dysfunctional parent/child relationships on a TV show since Lost.

The trope of overbearing parents and the children who rebel against them is hardly a new phenomenon, and sitcoms in particular have been mining those relationships for comedy for decades. The real difference between other shows that explore these relationships - like Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld - and The Big Bang Theory is that the former always assumed a relationship that, at bottom, wasn't so bad. Ray Barone's parents may have driven both he and his wife absolutely crazy, but there was no doubt that everything they did came out of love for their son. Seinfeld showed a dysfunctional relationship between George Costanza and his parents, but it was balanced out by the fairly normal (by sitcom standards) Seinfeld family.

The Big Bang Theory, however, has never shied away from linking the characters' present-day difficulties to their twisted relationships with their parents. The first four seasons showed us that Leonard's desperate need for affection - a need that manifests itself in his constant desire to be part of a couple - is the direct result of a mother who was so cold and detached that the boy had to build a robot in order to ger a hug. Sheldon, on the other hand, rejected the affection of a mother who didn't understand him along with her evangelical beliefs. Penny clearly has a problematic history with her father, as she remains convinced that he wanted her to be a boy, and it has been heavily implied that her string of hookups and failed relationships is an attempt to validate herself to a replacement father-figure. And in case that last one wasn't Freudian enough for you, Howard has a stereotypical, unseen Jewish mother on whom he is completely dependent, and who he is currently trying to replace with Bernadette.

The current season, however, has taken the parent-bashing to new heights. The last four episodes have nodded at the strained relationships that six of the seven major characters have with their parents. (As of yet, Bernadette's family has been unexplored, as her character exists mostly as a way for Howard to explore his own maternal issues.) In these episodes, we've found out the following facts about the character's relationships with their parents:

  • Penny doesn't just have issues with her father. Her facial expression when Sheldon fires off a comment about her mother's weight after she takes the last pot sticker tells you all you need to know.
  • Dr. Beverly Hofstadter has not softened. Her instruction to Leonard to buy one of her parenting books from Amazon if he needs more relationship advice is cold, to put it mildly.
  • Howard, in attempting to marry the opposite of his mother, is now preparing to marry his mother. Also, his dependence goes further than we thought, since he can't even cut his own food.
  • Raj's parents will take away his money if he dates a non-Indian girl. (Odd that they don't care about Priya and Leonard, but that's inconsistent writing for you.) I feel like fear of parental disapproval has to be at the bottom of his inability to talk to women.
  • Amy is trapped in a state of perpetual adolescence by her repressive upbringing, in much the same way Sheldon and Wolowitz are. Her friendship with Penny is an attempt to escape from the mother who signed her yearbook, "Self respect and a hymen are better than friends and fun."
  • We don't get into specifics about Sheldon's upbringing here, but the man spends an entire episode playing with trains and another episode being unable to understand that "It's not what it looks like" isn't some kind of riddle, but rather Penny's attempt to cover up her one-night stand with Raj.
When you look at that list, you get a picture of a group of emotionally stunted people, trapped at different points in their development by terrible parenting choices. Raj is still in a "girls have cooties" phase, Howard can't wean himself from his mother (figuratively... we hope), Sheldon has no understanding of adult sexual relationships, Penny acts out in order to get attention, Amy just wants to be one of the popular girls, and Leonard enters relationships in a desperate quest for affection. This is some seriously dark stuff. Honestly, if it weren't for the laugh track, there would be moments here that would rival the darkest moments in Community episodes like "Mixology Certification," "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," and "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons." These characters have moments that make George and Lucille Bluth look like good parents and Lindsay, Buster and G.O.B. look like well-adjusted people.

I'm not saying that I have a problem with this, or at least with the specific material presented here. And I'm not saying that family dysfunction and bad parenting can't be funny, because I love Arrested Development and Archer. I'm just a little queasy about the uniformly bad portrayals of parents that Chuck Lorre is giving us here. There is not a single parental figure on the show who appears to have effectively raised a child: the most normal person here is probably Leonard, and he was raised by Beverly Hofstadter (who, for the record, is one of my favorite characters on the show). If you can get past the easy jokes that these relationships provide, and get right down to the show's core, it's about a group of broken people trying to work out their parental issues with each other, a fact that might make The Big Bang Theory, of all things, one of the most depressing shows on network TV. Who would have ever expected that?


  1. I can totally see your points, but I don't think Raj's parents were threatening to take away the money just because she was white. I thought Penny told them about the gold-digging. Since Leonard has yet to show signs of gold-digging, they give him a little more tolerance (but not very much). I think if Leonard and Priya started talking marriage (oh god, please no) then they would be more seriously against him.


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