Like junk food, I expect my consumption of sitcoms to be unsatisfying and flippantly derogatory. I do not expect the same from films calling themselves "documentaries" but unfortunately that is what I experienced.
Last week an episode of the The Big Bang Theory (season 6, episode 13) featured the guys going to a small convention in costume, leaving their girlfriends to explore comic books. As usual, it was presented in a denigrating and ridiculous manner, belittling everyone involved. No big surprise, it was the usual mildly amusing collection of silly clichés played out by an ensemble of two-dimensional characters.
While I've written about the show before, I was careful not to express my own feelings lest I attract the fury of angry commenters. Ironically there will still plenty of comments from both sides; people angry at me for liking the show, and people angry at me for NOT liking the show. (I guess the moral of the story is not to worry too much about the fact that my having opinions might piss anyone off...) So here I am, telling you that I happily watch The Big Bang Theory. In fact, while I'm coming out with this not-very-interesting-revelation let me be really open; I watch a lot of terrible TV shows, and not just to mock and hate-watch them, but because I can get into them and enjoy them. I even like things I'm not supposed to, like Sherlock and Elementary. (I think the world is big enough for two shows about Sherlock Holmes.) I do all sorts of things I don't talk about: I watch terrible romantic comedies about women with terrible value systems which I find embarrassing and destructive. I read some lousy comic books with bad art and lazy stories just because I like the characters. I go to crappy gossip websites and read about celebrities I don't care about. I even eat unhealthy food on a regular basis. Shockingly, I can get into these things because my expectations of them are realistic. I know that these are disposable, pop-culture artifacts which will not feed my soul in any sustainable sense and I can enjoy them for what they are - trash.
Let's set the scene; I'm sitting on the couch eating cookies for lunch even though I have a kale salad and steamed salmon with herbs already cooked. Yes, despite the tasty leftovers in my fridge, I am making a conscious decision to eat cookies and watch the much hated episode of The Big Bang Theory. After all the fury and crazy talk, it is quite dull, just what I expected - silly and just about amusing enough to outweigh how depressing and ridiculous it is. Just as I don't expect to get any nutrients out of a cookie-lunch, or build muscles from sitting on the couch, I understand that this is a pretty low-quality sitcom and I get out of it what I expected to. To paraphrase Mr Smithers, I'm fine with wallowing in my own crapulence once in a while.
People and things insulted in this episode of The Big Bang Theory include:
- superhero comic books are described as stupid in various ways
- comic book shoppers are shown as unnatractive, poorly-dressed men who have never seen a woman
- women are depicted as uninterested in comic books
- women are also depicted as bitchy and mean to each other
- male scientists are portrayed as socially inept with clichéd camp/homosexual tendencies
- which leads to the fact that men who like dressing up and wearing make-up are depicted as having questionable sexuality
- small, comic book-oriented conventions are disparaged as being not as good as the ones with movie stuff
- convention attendees are shown slavishly attending, despite their supposed non-enjoyment of them
- people who dress up for conventions are made to seem impractical and delusional about their appearance outside of conventions
- Star Trek Next Generation fans are depicted as having little or no awareness of the "real" world
- Diner waitresses and patrons are mean and bitchy
- Car thieves are portrayed as stubbly men with shaven heads and tattoos
The list could go on and you know why. Tacky sitcoms are designed to depict a series of "amusing" stereotypes for the mass market in order to create advertising opportunities for a new market i.e. the "geek curious". Sitcoms are not created to educate and enlighten. While a few may do this once in a while, they are the exception to the rule and to be applauded, but they are not the norm. Of course The Big Bang Theory doesn't depict my interests as a comic book reader accurately, for the same reason it doesn't accurately portray scientists, men, women, or relationships; because it is a just a dumb sitcom and like all sitcoms, it has almost nothing to do with the real, multifaceted nature of human culture.
A place where I do looked for a more informative, broad view of comic book culture is in a documentary, which is why I was so disappointed by Morgan Spurlock's exploration of the San Diego Comic-Con; Comic-Con - Episode IV: A Fan's Hope. Here is a film which purports to provide actual information about our comic book culture to the rest of the world, to be a sensible "documentary" film, offering real insight into Comic-Con and the attendees who love it. Spurlock has engaged comic book pros Joss Whedon and Stan Lee to "present" it with him (which doesn't seem to translate to any overt involvement by the two so I'm not sure what that engendered on a practical level). Unfortunately it does not seem to have helped Spurlock to do anything more than present an extended Big Bang Theory episode to the world.
For some bizarre reason the bulk of this film focuses on five specific convention attendees, from their planning and preparation to attend, through to the end of their convention experience. None of these people are simple comic book readers who are excited to go to a conference to meet other comic book fans and hear creators talk about their work, not a single one. Instead there are people who want to be "in" the industry of comics or film, people who somehow expect to be deeply involved in the lives of comic book and film creators, and one is even an old-school comic book seller with a very tenuous grasp on the new economy. What unites them is not that they're attending comic-con, but that they all have (unrealistic) expectations and dreams about how this one convention is going to change their lives. Not only is this not at all representative of the people attending the show, but it is not representative of most sane adults. While a convention or trip can be transformative, it is rarely in the ways we expect it to and most people are aware of this.
This strange choice of people to focus on is clearly simply to cater to the filmmakers' idea of the audience's expectations. In order to create something overtly marketable he focuses on these extremes, not on the reality of regular people who currently attend Comic-Con. I've been interested in comic books for most of my life (as have many of my friends), and the bulk of comic convention attendees are similar; we have regular jobs and a wide range of interests so our passion for the comic book medium and enjoyment of SDCC is a small facet of our personal life. The unifying factor amongst the many, many people I meet attending the convention is that we enjoy sharing our love of the medium, we like talking about the books with passion and enthusiasm to other people who share our interest, that is all. But I suppose that wasn't inflammatory enough for the makers of this film.
The worst thing about Comic-Con - Episode IV: A Fan's Hope is that it does the thing a documentary maker should never do - completely and absolutely changes the subject by filming it. It is obvious that every person that these five chosen people interact with is deeply aware of the cameras following them and they change their behavior accordingly. These poor, unfortunate caricatures become increasingly forced and awkward as the so-called documentary progresses and it becomes increasingly depressing to witness.
In between the semi-tragic stories of these socially awkward five individuals are a series of brief, one-on-one interviews with attendees, comic book creators, and actors at the convention. Filmed against a simple white backdrop, there is a simplicity to this format which could give an interesting insight into the people's experience of the convention and what it means to them. However, while the comic book professionals are interesting, the large portion of interviews with attendees (again) focuses on choices which are predominantly clichés. Beyond lampooning the convention and insulting the attendees, there is no reason for Spurlock to have chosen only to show stereotypes of what non-comic book readers expect to see (i.e. overweight men, overweight women in corsets, underweight men with bad haircuts, etc.) The regular attendees I frequently bump into at Comic-Con are socially comfortable men and women who're healthy, attractive, employed, getting laid (and they look it.) To go out of his way to find only antiquated stereotypes shows a disregard for the convention, for the medium, and most of all for the audience.
While I expect disposable sitcoms to ridicule and lampoon my interests, I do not expect this from a so-called documentary. It is far more disappointing and depressing and I can only hope that people who are interested in learning more about the passion we share for comic books will see it for the utter rubbish it is.