Geeks on TV: More Than a Pair of Glasses?

When I was a child growing up in the 80s, it felt like brainy or “geeky” characters were few and far between.  You were lucky if you got a token kid in glasses (like my favorite, Shy Violet from Rainbow Brite) or a slightly sinister love of science (Hi, I’m Bunsen, and this is my assistant, Beaker!).  As an adult, I think there’s still a part of me that seeks to identify with the characters I see every week on TV.  I decided to take a look at TV shows on the air currently, and see how “geek-friendly” they are.

Castle

Richard Castle is a best-selling mystery writer who follows around a NYPD detective to bring extra authenticity to his novels.  A stark contrast against most of the NYPD, he’s unabashedly dorky, full of bad puns and crazy theories (only some of which actually pan out).  Lest you think he’s all brain, however, Castle is also something of a handsome playboy.  He’s charming and socially aware enough to befriend most of the detectives he works with, despite their varied backgrounds.  As a dyed-in-the-wool mystery junkie, Castle takes authentic aspects of mysteries and mystery writing – and makes them cool, to boot.  Oh, and the show’s star, Nathan Fillion, has a resume that makes geeks drool, but that’s really just icing on the cake.

Bones

Bones, a show about a forensic anthropologist (Emily Deschanel), is actually a show about a crime-solving dream team – the stuff Michael Crichton novels are made of.  The rest of the main cast is the crew at the Jeffersonian (Smithsonian-esque) Institute, and is comprised of an entomologist, a pathologist, a psychologist, a forensic artist/computer genius, and more interns than the show can utilize at one time.  Oh, and David Boreanaz as sniper/FBI agent/love interest.  Of course.

It all seems a little much on paper, but the cast does a good job of humanizing their superhuman roles.  The only character, besides the main one, who played into the socially-disconnected nerd stereotype was tragically written off the show, and now we’re left with a group of attractive, competent, well-dressed geniuses.  Again, it might be a little much, but science has never looked so glamorous.  And maybe it’s hard to believe that someone can be the leading scientific expert in their field and an author of  best-selling thrillers, but actually the bare bones (heh!) of the show were based on forensic anthropologist and best-selling author Kathy Reichs.

At any rate, much credit goes to cast, which manages to take the most incredible characters and plots and make them believable.  They’re really the ones who keep me tuning in, despite product placement that is jaw-droppingly obvious and a love story that’s been dragged out at least three seasons too many.

Doctor Who

Yes, the Doctor is an alien – but he’s also a genius and the ultimate outsider.  He does his best to fit in wherever he goes; sometimes he’s successful, sometimes he isn’t.  The current Doctor, played by Matt Smith, is unapologetically dorky – and, in his confidence, makes everything from bowties to fezzes to wacky dances cool.  The Doctor, Amy Pond, and even Rory are all people who are a little strange, but they’re having adventures and saving the world.  There are worse messages that could be sent to the watching children.

The Big Bang Theory

Ooh, I can feel I must tread lightly here.  You see, I’ve never seen more than one episode of this show.  When the The Big Bang Theory first came out, honestly it snuck right by me.  Then when the DVDs of IT Crowd finally made it over here I’d hear friends say, “I dunno, it kind of reminds me of Big Bang Theory,” so I didn’t even bother seeking out this show people were raving about (because apparently There Can Be Only One Geek-Themed Sitcom…?).

Recently, however, I decided I must give this show a try – but that proved to be more difficult than I thought.  It’s not available on Netflix Instant or Hulu.  Still, I can’t write about geeks on TV without talking about this show, and I can’t talk about this show without seeing it, so, without context, I sat down and watched the most recent episode.

Once I buckled down and focused (the opening scene had cozy mystery covers prominently displayed in the background), it was really a cute show.  I didn’t have any trouble jumping in and getting the basic relationships.  The science-related jokes made me grin from time to time, but honestly, the most laugh-out-loud moments were just pure sitcom fun, not really “geek” humor.  I have a soft spot for Mayim Bialik, and she brings serious geek cred.  I might watch more episodes just for her, actually.

Still, this show is definitely a sitcom, and as such, it reduces many of the characters to sort of broad sketches.  Sure, I suppose I’ve known people like Sheldon and Amy, but deriving all the humor from that seems very… Revenge of the Nerds.  Not quite what I’d call progress, based on this one episode.  Of course, I am nothing if not inconsistent, and that is why probably my favorite geek show is…

The IT Crowd

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the reasons I love The IT Crowd is that it’s silly.  It’s a silly sitcom.  All of the characters are ridiculous – not just Maurice Moss, the show’s token socially inept nerd, but also slacker Roy, “normal” (or anything but) Jen, the bosses, the coworkers… it’s all over-the-top.

Sometimes it seems like a big thing in geek media is pop-culture or geek namedropping.  This is something that I found seriously cool when The Gilmore Girls first came out and every other sentence had a literary or musical reference.  However, the show subsequently pounded that gimmick into the ground, and then for awhile it seemed like all you had to do was reference Wil Wheaton or Portal and you were instantly funny.

I knew people who actually didn’t like The IT Crowd because there was all this geek-related material in the background and no one was talking about it.  I like IT Crowd because they aren’t talking about it.  Yes, it’s cute if you see a t-shirt you recognize, but honestly name-dropping isn’t that funny, and they don’t do it all that well (just look at Richmond’s monologue about Cradle of Filth).  Instead, they stick with what they do do well – the silliness.  And as over-the-top as is the show is, I find Jen’s slow transformation into a nerd herself incredibly believable.

What do you think of geeks on TV today?  And who are your favorite brainy heroes of the small screen?

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