Having just finished an episode of The Big Bang Theory is as good a time as any to write this post, which elaborates on an article I found on Macleans.ca titled “How obnoxious is too obnoxious for a TV character?” In it TV writer Jaime Weinman primarily writes about TBBT and its most popular character, Sheldon Cooper.
Weinman points out that the 12th episode of this season, “The Egg Salad Equivalency,” was actually the highest rated in the show’s history, an astonishing fact when you realize that a large chunk of it features Sheldon being extremely [albeit unknowingly] sexist and racist. I’ve embedded the primary scene in question below:
It’s pretty awful, but the fact of the matter is that Sheldon Cooper is far from being the only popular sitcom character you would actually hate to be around in real life. Two years before TBBT even aired the US version of The Office was around, and the original British version came out four years before that. Michael Scott was a huge draw for people who tuned in weekly to see how a particular Scranton paper company was doing [as well as being solely responsible for repopularizing the phrase “that’s what she said”], but was also one of the most blindly insensitive people on the planet.
Very old television spoilers ahead.
Steve Carrell’s departure at the end of Season 7 meant that someone else had to be the new boss, and in spite of my suggesting that Matthew Perry would fit the bill that role was given to Ed Helms’ Andy Bernard. While his character managed to be a fairly likeable manager earlier on, the current [9th] season has had him transform into what is essentially a terrible human being.
He leaves the office to sail a boat out to some island, comes back expecting everyone to have covered for his month-long absence, and then, upon having his girlfriend [understandably] break up with him for another coworker proceeds to make both their lives a living hell. Crazy-talented webcomic artist Anthony Clark tweeted it best when he said:
And speaking of Ed Helms, take as another example his companion in the Hangover films, Alan Garner. Essentially just Zack Galifianakis playing the role he always plays [see: Due Date, Dinner For Schmucks, etc.], he is, as we’ve been talking about, a person who is so obnoxious that you wonder how they continue to be alive; there are times when you want to reach through the screen and slap them in the face.
Most TV shows [that’s the end of the movie portion of this post for now] have them, too. Adventure Time has the Ice King, Community has Pierce Hawthorne, Modern Family has Manny Delgado [which you might debate, but I stand by this], and 30 Rock had the one-two punch of Tracy Jordan and Jenna Mulroney. Not only are the prevalent in television, but they also manage to become a huge draw for viewers.
Weinman ends his article by stating that “the show knows Sheldon is a jerk, but it doesn’t seem to know just how big a jerk he is.” I think it’s a fair assessment to say that all of the shows I’ve mentioned are aware that they’ve added obnoxious jerks to their casts, but the exact purpose for this is lost on someone who only had four hours of sleep last night. Sure, they can act as semi-antagonistic friends for our hero, usually the straight man, but eventually as the audience we’re forced to ask ourselves how people can bear having them around.
You could even justify it as being some sort of catharsis, rooted in schadenfreude, for whenever these character get their comeuppance, but it never happens. Sheldon will continue to be unaware of how his actions affect others, Pierce will continue to be extremely racist but get away with it due to his age, and we will continue watching them, amused, annoyed, or somewhere in between.