A theory is, my dictionary says, a supposition intended to explain something. In the Wall Street Journal today, Virginia Postrel offers a supposition intended to explain this:
… “The Big Bang Theory,” the CBS sitcom featuring Sheldon [a theoretical physicist] and his three almost-as-elite geeky friends, is among the most popular shows on TV. Kicking off the network’s now-dominant Thursday-night lineup, it attracts about 15 million viewers a week. Now in its fourth season, it’s the top-rated Thursday-night program among adults 18 to 49 years old and those 25 to 54.
This set of facts came to me as a surprise. Although I have let my Us Weekly subscription lapse, I still like to think I am fairly tuned into popular culture — I’m on Team Edward, I know which Taylor Swift songs are about which Jonas Brother, and I generally have an accurate understanding at any given time of whether Lindsay Lohan is or is not currently incarcerated. I occasionally watch “American Idol.” However, I have never seen “The Big Bang Theory.” In fact I had never heard of it until I happened to be in a hotel room this past August with nothing to do but to watch the Emmys, at which the show’s lead actor, Jim Parsons, received an award. That was the first I’d heard of the show and Postrel’s article is the second. In the interim I’ve never heard a friend or acquaintance mention it, even though just about everyone I know is 25 to 54.
Postrel’s theory for explaining the show’s popularity strikes me as fairly overwrought. It involves “overlapping subcultures” and “the wisdom of geek culture,” “a welcome alternative to the cultural politics of elitism and populism.” A program that combines dinners at the Cheesecake Factory with fighting robots does not sound, to me, like a program whose popularity needs that much explanation. Delightful though the program sounds, however, I’ll have to continue in my ignorance of it, at least in the near term, as CBS doesn’t seem to make its shows available via Hulu or Netflix Watch Instantly and nor do episodes seem to be available for purchase on iTunes. No wonder I had never heard of this show. The thing I’d like a theory to explain, then, is who are the 15 million people who still watch television via television? Or can it be that my TV-free apartment is an overlapping subculture of one?