Throughout its 12-season run, "The Big Bang Theory" remained a ratings and cultural juggernaut. Frequently compared to other classic sitcoms like "Friends" and "The IT Crowd," "The Big Bang Theory" focused on a group of scientists who enjoy nerdy pursuits and whose lives are turned upside down when pretty waitress Penny moves in across the hall.
"The Big Bang Theory" was hailed for bringing obscure aspects of geek culture into the mainstream and for making hyper-intelligent characters the center of the narrative rather than having them function as "tech support" sidekicks, as is frequently the case in many movies and shows. Thanks to its reputation for "nerd chic" humor and its popularity, "The Big Bang Theory" played host to a number of notable guest stars from the actual scientific community.
But just because something is popular does not automatically mean it is perfect. Over the years, "The Big Bang Theory" has showcased a number of problematic storylines and recurring gags that have rubbed certain sections of its audience the wrong way. Here are 14 such instances from the show.
How can Penny afford her own apartment?
We are first introduced to Penny (Kaley Cuoco) when she moves into the apartment across from Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) in the very first episode of "The Big Bang Theory." We learn that Penny is an aspiring actress who pays her bills waiting tables at the local cheesecake factory.
This begs the question, given her straitened circumstances, how is Penny able to afford her apartment without a roommate to split the cost with? In one episode, Sheldon remarks to Leonard about them being roommates, "Frankly if I could afford to live here myself, I would." So clearly, renting an apartment in their building is not cheap.
In the early seasons, we also Penny being frequently broke and unable to pay for the food she eats at Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment. She also had the electricity cut from her apartment because she couldn’t pay the bill on time. So where was she finding the money to pay rent? We should have seen Penny at least trying to find a roommate to split the costs with, or getting some kind of a special "rent-control" deal for her apartment, similar to how Monica was able to afford her giant apartment in the middle of New York in "Friends."
Howard was basically a predator
Fans who only started watching "The Big Bang Theory" after Howard (Simon Helberg) married Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) might not realize just how big of a creep Howard was before he settled down with the love of his life. In the earliest seasons, Howard was basically a predator, and Penny was often the unfortunate recipient of his unwanted attentions.
One of the most unsettling throwaway jokes from early on in the show was when Howard asked Penny if she would have opened the door if she knew he was standing outside. To this, Penny replies, "Not since I found out that the teddy bear you gave me had a webcam in it." This was not even the only time Howard tried to use technology to spy on an attractive woman without her consent. He and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) went to great lengths to figure out the location of the house from "America’s Next Top Model" where all the models were staying, even making illegal use of a government satellite in the process.
Howard’s antics are always played for laughs, but it is clear that his behavior rubs every woman he meets the wrong way. This was confirmed when he tried to kiss Penny, and she punched him in the eye in retaliation. The truth is, if the show was even slightly realistic, a lot of the stunts Howard pulled to try to get with women could have landed him in jail.
Raj was bullied and mocked over his culture and everything else
"The Big Bang Theory" was a show that thrived on making jokes about stereotypes. As the show’s rare main character who’s also non-white, Raj (Kunal Nayyar) was often the subject of mockery based on his Indian heritage. Over the years, many jokes were made about Raj coming from a country that is poor and overpopulated, where animals are considered "magic," and a Hindu goddess is described as a "blue chick with a hundred arms."
After a time, the show eased up on the Indian jokes somewhat, but the attacks against Raj became more personal. Every aspect of the character’s life, from his lack of a romantic partner, to his inability to talk to women without getting drunk, to his liking for things considered "feminine," were constantly made fun of. Worse, it was usually Raj’s best friend Howard making those jokes, to the extent that the two had a brief falling out because Raj did not like the way Howard constantly bullied him.
The end of the show did nothing to give Raj any sort of a redemption arc. He remained the only main character to not have a special someone when the series ended due to facing one bitter disappointment in his love life after another. He was also shown to have become much more dependent on his parents for financial support and essentially replaced Sheldon as the man-child unable to function as a mature adult.
Penny’s constant put-downs of Leonard
Before Jim Parsons made Sheldon the star of the show, "The Big Bang Theory" was mainly about Leonard Hofstadter trying desperately to date Penny. In time, after many false stops and starts, Leonard and Penny finally become a couple when they tie the knot and move in together. But that was far from the happily-ever-after scenario that fans had been expecting.
Soon after their marriage, fans started noticing that Penny was becoming more than a little mean towards Leonard. She belittled his accomplishments, made fun of his relationship with his mother, and frequently made fun of him in group settings, so much so that when Penny and Raj were discussing how Howard constantly makes mean-spirited comments about Raj, he points out that Penny does the same thing with Leonard, and she agrees with that assessment.
But perhaps the biggest sign that all was not well in Penny and Leonard’s marriage due to Penny’s attitude occurs in the episode "The Romance Recalibration." At first, Penny thinks Leonard has stopped trying to stay attractive in her eyes since getting married. But then Leonard points out that he is the only one in their relationship who constantly makes an effort to be attractive to the other and does romantic things for Penny to make her like him.
Treating women like aliens
Later seasons of "The Big Bang Theory" gave us strong female characters and storylines thanks to the addition of Amy and Bernadette to the main cast. But this only serves to highlight how the early seasons of the show were only interested in presenting women as the mysterious "other," almost like they were aliens.
The central premise upon which the show itself was built had to do with the awkwardness of the main four male characters in social situations, particularly pertaining to women. Howard acts like a thirsty creep around females. Raj is literally unable to even speak to them without getting drunk. Sheldon has no interest in interacting with them. And Leonard, perhaps the most "normal" of the group, can’t even ask out Penny or any other attractive woman due to a crippling inferiority complex.
Because of this setup, females on the show were all too often presented as one-dimensional characters whose only contribution to the plot was being hot and whether or not the male characters had a chance of sleeping with them. This trend was summed up perfectly in the episode "The Justice League Recombination." When Sheldon questions whether Penny’s Wonder Woman outfit is authentic enough without a black wig, Howard dismisses his concerns with the remark, "Relax. No one’s going to be looking at her hair," referring to Penny’s exposed cleavage.
Looking down on less educated people
All four main male characters on "The Big Bang Theory" are extremely smart. Three of them have PhDs, and the fact that Howard merely has a master’s degree from M.I.T. often becomes a mocking point, especially from Sheldon.
But if the other three sneer at Howard for not having a PhD, they behave even worse towards other less-qualified friends. A frequent point of contention in Penny’s relationship with Leonard is that she does not feel smart enough to keep up with him. It is shown that Leonard agrees with this assessment, so much so that he reacted with confusion when Penny thought she could get on his level by attending community college.
But it is Sheldon who is the king of looking down on others for not being as smart or educated as him. Aside from a long history of belittling Penny’s intelligence and lack of education, he is also famously dismissive of other branches of science that do not interest him. Who can forget the time Sheldon had a heated argument with his girlfriend Amy (Mayim Bialik) about why his work as a theoretical physicist was more important than her work as a neurobiologist? Or the time Sheldon got onstage in a room filled with other scientists and proclaimed, "I kid the geologists, of course, but that’s only because I have no respect for the field."
The mockery of Howard’s mom
Although we never got to see Howard’s mom in person, she remained a strong presence for the early seasons of the show. Unfortunately, her role was all too often being the butt of jokes due to her large size and her unhealthy relationship with Howard.
It was Howard himself who was always the first one to make fun of his mother in front of his friends. From, "Have you met my mother? I live in Jewish hell," to, "[My mom] says if I don’t back out, she’s gonna go on a hunger strike. It’d take years before she’d be in any kind of danger, but still." There were many instances when Howard took shots at his mother based on her appearance, called her a "crazy lady," and bemoaned the fact that he had to be stuck living with her.
As time passed, the other characters also started getting in on the action by making fun of Howard’s mom’s physical appearance and voice. This is something that never happens with anyone else’s parents. It should also be noted that Mrs. Wolowitz is consistently shown to be a nurturing caregiver whom Howard mooches off of. She certainly did not deserve to be constantly belittled based on her size, her voice, and her medical conditions.
Penny used the guys
In a sea of awkward, antisocial geeks, "The Big Bang Theory" initially presented Penny as the sole voice of reason. The street-smart, kind-hearted simpleton did not mind being friends with geeks and even helped them open up to the rest of the world. This, however, is a far from the reality of Penny’s relationship with the guys.
Penny is shown to be clearly aware of the effect her looks have on Leonard, Raj, and Howard, and she often uses it to her advantage. She eats food that the guys order without paying her share. She steals their Wi-Fi and uses their brains whenever she needs something technical done. Even worse, she made Leonard go to her ex-boyfriend’s house to pick up her things after only knowing him for a few days, leading to Leonard getting bullied by her ex.
It is also shown that Penny is aware of her manipulative behavior, since she grows insecure when a new pretty girl moves into their building and proceeds to use the guys in exactly the same manner as her. It is also shown in later seasons that Penny used to be a bully in school, so clearly she had become used to placing herself above others from a young age.
Sheldon is just the absolute worst
In the hands of a lesser actor, Sheldon Cooper would have become the most insufferable character in the history of television. It is a testament to Jim Parsons’ skill as an actor that he managed to make audiences fall in love with Sheldon, instead of viewing the character as the awful, awful person he really is.
From the start of the show, Sheldon has proven himself time and again to be petty, selfish, vindictive, controlling, and callous. He constantly makes fun of his friends for not being as smart as him. He has made several jokes at the expense of women about them being on their "period." He spoke in a racially insensitive manner to the administrator of human resources management where he works, and he showed his assistant Alex graphic images of human genitals against her wishes.
Whenever Sheldon acts like a complete tool, the show makes it clear that he does so out of ignorance rather than active malice. That excuse would only work if Sheldon himself did not take offense when others act inappropriately towards him. But in those cases, Sheldon is always very quick to take offence. Clearly, Sheldon has a working understanding of right and wrong. But his dismissive attitude towards the entire human race save for his closest friends and family makes him indifferent to any offence he might cause to others until he is specifically called out on his behavior.
Leonard’s mother emotionally abuses him
Over time, Leonard Hofstadter became one of the most pathetic fictional characters ever created. In the beginning, he was shown to allow Sheldon to walk all over him in terms of their living arrangements, even doing odd jobs for Sheldon outside their apartment. After marriage, Penny replaced Sheldon as the person who constantly orders Leonard around. And then to cap it all off, we meet Leonard’s mother Beverly (Christine Baranski).
It would be hard to overstate just how much emotional abuse Beverly subjected Leonard to from a young age. She withheld affection, turned a critical gaze on everything Leonard tried to do, and acted dismissive towards his achievements. To top it all off, Leonard discovers that his mother subjected him to a number of psychological experiments from an early age and published the findings for the world to see.
All of this left deep scars on Leonard’s psyche. But in a case of adding insult to injury, Beverly remains largely indifferent to Leonard’s feelings. She often acts as though Leonard is being unduly emotional and that she had, in fact, been a model mother. Even though Leonard and Beverly eventually reach some sort of an understanding, the damage done to Leonard in terms of turning him into a human doormat will probably never be reversed.
A poor representation of geek culture
"The Big Bang Theory" is often held up as an example of a show that brought the geek way of life into the cultural mainstream. While it is true that the show is chock-full of references to the most obscure facets of geek culture, how it explores those facets is more than a little questionable.
Oftentimes, the entire punch line of a joke is that these grown men are actually interested in something so "geeky." Consider the following actual joke from an actual episode of the show: "The fate of Doctor Who’s Tardis will be decided by a ‘Game of Thrones’-inspired deathmatch on the battlefield of Thundercats versus Transformers." That’s it. That’s the entire joke. Just a bunch of references to various sci-fi and fantasy franchises.
Instead of setting up a reference to an aspect of geek culture and then using that reference to create actual humor, the entire joke all too often is "look at how obsessed these man-children are with something meant for kids, like comics or action figures or cosplay."
Piggybacking on real disorders for comedy
Although many characters in "The Big Bang Theory" have traits that are clearly inspired by real-life medical disorders, the show rarely makes direct references to those disorders. For instance, Sheldon’s behavior is often compared to someone on the autism spectrum, but the writers of the show have denied that the character is actually autistic.
In the case of Raj, his disorder actually has a name, which is "selective mutism." Leonard has a myriad of behavioral issues due to how he was raised by his mother. Howard has mentioned suffering from a host of ailments, like transient idiopathic arrhythmia. Raj’s ex-flame Lucy (Kate Micucci) suffered from extreme social anxiety, while Howard’s mom was dangerously overweight.
Whether the characters suffer from an identifiable medical issue or merely mimic the appearance of one or two symptoms, those issues are rarely used for anything except punch lines for jokes. Granted, "The Big Bang Theory" is a comedy, but it could have given more depth to the characters by showing how their disorders affect their lives in more realistic ways, like the time Raj broke down crying because he thought his condition made him completely "unlovable." We needed more of those scenes to realize just how difficult life can be for individuals suffering from such conditions.
Bernadette is also pretty terrible
Sheldon is openly acknowledged to be a pretty terrible person because there’s very little artifice in him, and he doesn’t try to hide his true nature. But Sheldon has some tough competition in the "biggest douchebag" department from none other than sweet, tiny Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), who is deceptively sneaky about being a major bully.
A prime example of Bernie’s bullying ways back when everyone thought she was sweetness and delight personified was when she and Howard were supposed to entertain a group of children. Bernadette makes it very clear that she has a marked dislike of children from her past as a babysitter. She orders the children to stop talking and threatens to withhold treats if they don’t listen.
But the true extent of Bernadette’s mean-spirited nature was realized once her professional life came under focus. It comes to light that everyone at her office is terrified of Bernadette, even her boss. In fact, everyone working in the same building as her collectively decides to repurpose the handicapped washroom as Bernadette’s private lavatory after she keeps on using it. This bullying aspect of Bernie’s nature later often leaks into her private life, so much so that even Penny grows wary of accidentally making Bernadette angry.
The male characters should be in jail many times over
In general, it is repeatedly emphasized just how smart and capable the male characters are when it comes to their jobs, particularly Sheldon. But just because they have the brains to be good at their jobs doesn’t mean they have the ethics for it, as well. In fact, Leonard, Sheldon, Raj, and Howard should be in jail for some of the things they’ve done while on the job.
For instance, there was the time when Leonard almost divulged state secrets to a North Korean spy to make her sleep with him. Or when Leonard, Raj, and Howard illegally tested an experimental rocket fuel formula in a public area and blew up their residential building’s elevator as a result.
Then there’s the time when Howard crashed the Mars Rover space vehicle while trying to impress a random girl he met in a bar. And let’s not forget when Sheldon and Leonard tried to illegally procure liquid helium through a shady contact. Honestly, sometimes you have to wonder how the guys have managed to stay out of jail and hold onto their jobs for so long.