I love television. It is my second favorite medium for story consumption right behind audiobooks. Well-written television shows are masterpieces. But, when they aren’t well written, they are dangerous and destructive garbage leading our society into a dystopian future so mind-numbingly horrible it makes Idiocracy look like a nieve dreamland for tomorrow.
Most television is written poorly.
Television is the biggest influence on American culture. The way TV writers treat subcultures and minorities has a direct impact on how the rest of the country treats the same people in the real world.
Lazy writing hurts people. Period.
I’m most sensitive (and qualified to write about) the way television treats my subculture, Geekdom.
I’d like to state for the record the worst offenses I see against Geekdom on Television.
9. Geeks and nerds are interchangeable
I’m not here to start the “Geek or Nerd” debate, but I can end it. After countless hours skimming the Internet and reading every possible opinion on the subject, I’ve come up with the definitive answer.
Geeks and nerds are the same except:
- Geeks are extroverts
- Nerds are introverts
Problem solved, move on.
No, when I say television sees geeks and nerds as interchangeable, I don’t mean the terms.
They think the characters can be swapped in-and-out. There isn’t much diversity of any kind in television geekdom.
I’ve been a geek my entire life. Some might even consider me a super geek. I ran a Live Action Role Playing game. According to the Internet, the only level of geek higher than LARPer is Furry.
And, yes, there are layers of geekdom. Like most things in human psychology, it is a sliding scale. Although my current pseudo-academic model is a massive spider web flow chart.
What do Aisha Tyler and Vin Diesel have in common? They are both massive geeks.
And yet, television geeks are still played almost exclusively by Jesse Heiman…
8. Only hyper-dorks play Dungeons & Dragons
So, speaking of Vin Diesel, let’s talk about Dungeons & Dragons.
I’ve played D&D since I was nine or 10, first with my older brother and later with a dedicated gaming group I am still friends with today.
Now, in high school, I was a hyper-dork, and I wasn’t the only one in my gaming group. But not all of us were. I’ll leave it up to the group to debate who was and wasn’t.
There were at least two people in our party who didn’t fit the mold. If we were all cast in a teen comedy, they would be the guys shoving me into a locker, not calculating THAC0.
In the past twenty years, I’ve rolled dice with people from all over the social spectrum from different backgrounds.
The closest any TV show has come to any gaming group I’ve been part of is the D&D episode of Community.
Role playing brings people together.
7. All geeks have the same interests
To be fair, I am a geek generalist. My geek merit badges come cover a wide variety of interests. I’m a computer geek, a gaming geek, a recent food geek, and wannabe fashion geek.
I like Japanese cartoons and if asked to choose between Star Wars and Star Trek, I will say Babylon 5.
My geek cred is solid.
But, I’m not into video games. I don’t collect comics books. I love role playing, but never got into war gaming.
As many geek-boxes as I can check, I don’t even come close to filling them all and I’ve never met a geek who can.
To an outsider, it might seem like we’re all into the same things. One signifier of a geek is passion for a specific topic and when we get together, our conversations gravitate to the ones we have in common.
I’ve never painted a miniature. I have a friend who does all the time.
He’s never read an in-depth study on the existential metaphors in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have.
Which of us is geekier?
It’s impossible to say. There are just too many types of geek.
Like I said above, everyone falls onto the geek scale somewhere and it isn’t a hierarchy as much as a giant interconnected tapestry.
6. Geeks stop being geeks if they get cool friends
We see it all the time. A member of the “geek” group gets a cool friend, learns what it’s like to be cool, and gives up their geeky stuff. It’s the formula for our beloved 80s teen movies.
And, yet, this is the exact opposite of my experience.
From my observations, geekdom is infectious. The entire basis of our subculture is indulging in passions most people find strange, so being a geek is liberating.
As a whole, the geek community is both passionate and tolerant. Yes, there is a dark underbelly in the Geekdom, but despite what television wants you to believe, these are exceptions, not the rule.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone tell me LARPing is for geeky losers for months as I wore them down. Then, when they go to their first event, they are converts for life.
Human nature lends toward geekiness. Geeks are BORG. Resistance if futile.
5. Geeks are men. White men.
The most damaging geek stereotype of all. This false rule is so engrained in our collective psyches it has caused death threats, lawsuits, and organizations to crop up in its defense.
This one lie is the fuel powering dark-geekdom’s energy reactor.
Thank god it is dying. A decade from now we might not even remember a time when we refused to believe in a geek who was anything other than a white male.
It might takes us longer to shake the loser vibe though.
4. Geeks are afraid to get into trouble
I love the TV show Freaks & Geeks even if it does exemplify most of the things on this list. It at least tries to bridge the gap and address some of the issues. The entire point of the show is talking about how the two groups have more in common than they realize.
But, the biggest difference between them is the Freaks are rebellious rule-breakers and the geeks always do everything according to the rules.
Steve Jobs built Apple’s entire identity as a brand by fighting against this concept.
Geeks are rebels. We get into trouble. We shake things up. We break rules just to see if we can.
But, we’ve also earned our reputation. Like I said above, we’re an accepting and polite subculture.
I think it says something about our society when a group of people who show basic human courtesy are considered a pure, chaste, and naive lot.
Trust me when I say none of those words apply to the majority of us.
And, yes, I want to reiterate the dark side of the geek. The average web-troll is a geek who does not play well with others. And, like Sith to our Geek Jedi, the fall to the dark side is tempting and easy.
3. Geeks are weak willed and easily manipulated
When TV shows us making poor choices, breaking the law, or otherwise behaving as anything other than “such a polite young man,” it isn’t our fault.
We’re naive. A little peer pressure and we’re a spiraling basket case on our way to some whacky and troubled hijinks.
If the show has a darker tone, geeks become the loyal minions of a charismatic psychopath, doing his (again, almost always a white male) bidding to bring havoc, destruction and ruin to the world.
Even my beloved Joss Whedon went with this trope in BTVS season 6.
Jonathon and Andrew were geeks who followed Warren’s psychopathy just because they wanted to feel cool.
Let me be clear: Geeks are people. Some people are scumbags. Therefore, some geeks are scumbags.
I find the entire concept of a “weak-willed geek” to be inconceivable.
In my experience, geeks are the most stubborn people you will ever meet. We know what we like. We know what we believe. We have enough passion in our souls to burn out the sun.
You will have to do more than just peer-pressure me if you want me to question my loyalty to David Tennant’s 10th Doctor. You think you will convince me to violate one of my morals?
Yeah, that’s likely.
2. Geeks are hopeless romantics, dirty perverts, or asexual oddballs
To be fair, the romance/horn dog dichotomy is prevalent in all of our media. But, since TV writers like geeks to be bad at relationships, they take it up a notch.
Any group of geeks you see on TV will have these three characters:
- The lead geek will be a hopeless romantic, in love with someone “out of their league.”
- They will have a friend obsessed with sex. This person will either be someone who isn’t getting any and can’t think of anything else, or they will be a genuine sexual predator who should be in prison or at least seeking treatment. (It will be played for laughs)
- They will have a different friend who finds the entire concept of sex disturbing.
As a writer, I get it. These characters are archetypes representing Freudian concepts ego, id, and superego.
It is easy shorthand for a complex idea. But, easy is lazy. archetypes lead to one-dimensional characters, which is my biggest fear as a writer and my biggest peeve as a story consumer.
I’m tired of seeing it. Without even doing research, I can name 4 sets from television:
- Big Bang Theory: Leonard, Howard, Sheldon
- Freaks & Geeks: Sam, Neal, Bill
- BTVS: Jonathon, Warren, Andrew
- Community: Annie, Troy, Abed (This changes in later seasons as Community is the rare sitcom where characters get more complex as the show goes on)
And here I thought I was clever.
1. Geeks are emotionally stunted losers
Finally, we get to the biggest complaint about geeks and nerds on television you can find online.
Somewhere in the last 20 years, it was decided a person could be smart or empathic, but not both.
I could list the characters representing this: Sheldon Cooper, the BBC Sherlock, House, Walter O’Brien, Bones (Brennan, not McCoy), and on and on and on.
Someone decided smart people are robots, and it stucks.
I don’t mind the trope. I think part of it comes from writers—who are geeks—trying to invert the relationship geeks have with non-geeks.
I’ve been told sometimes it sounds like I’m speaking a different language. You put my brother and I in a room, and we’ll go down rabbit holes other people don’t even want to know exist. If your character doesn’t understand or want to understand the most basic universal experiences, you can show non-geeks the other side.
Bonus, if you make them emotionally stunted, you can use them as a sock puppet asshole to make fun of anyone you want. And didn’t we all get into this writing gig to fulfill a deep need for vengeance?
Can’t we have geek heroes with normal levels of humanity?
I mean, outside of CHUCK. It might be too much to ask for.
Geeks and nerds on TV suffer from the same problems as any subculture or minority—they don’t get treated as people. Bad TV likes stereotypes. They are easy and require little thought. There are more important things to worry about than character development. How can I develop a character and come up with a clever, twist murder or expertly-crafted dick joke?
I don’t work in a TV writer’s room, so I can’t tell you. But, it can be done.
There are shows pulling this off—CHUCK and Community as examples. The foundations are there. Let’s use them to make the world a better place.
So, these are my thoughts on what TV gets wrong about geek culture. I’m sure there are more. I could go on about some of these topics. People smarter than me have.
Is there anything you think I should add to the list? Anything you disagree with? Anything you think TV gets right about geeks?
Leave me a comment below or hit me up on Facebook and leave me your thoughts.
I look forward to reading them.