The IT Crowd (2006 – 2013) and Big Bang Theory (2007 – Present) both feature two nerdy male central characters (Maurice and Roy in The IT Crowd, and Sheldon and Leonard in Big Band Theory) with a third ‘normal’ woman to contextualise their male-nerd behaviour (Jen in The IT Crowd, and Penny in Big Bang Theory). The nerds possess high IQs but lack basic social skills and common sense. They’re unable to separate irrelevant details from important points, and they live within a framework of geeky popular entertainment. Often accused of lacking emotional empathy, they’re unable to see things from the perspective of ‘ordinary’ people. The nerds’ dilemma is coping with the unfathomable rules of the world and the unpredictability of human interaction (in contrast to the child-like safety of consuming Star Trek and Star Wars stories, with robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO that nerds can relate too). To them, the real world seems chaotic, but computers and science provides a haven of logic and the reassurance of predictability.
Relationships cause the nerds their biggest headaches, especially romantic ones. Roy in The IT Crowd is never able to make his relationships go anywhere due to his self-obsession and inability to relate to non-nerds. He’s always falling prey to misunderstandings and accusations of emotionally immaturity. Maurice lives at home with his mother and inhabits an introverted nerd-world. The possibility of him finding a romantic relationship is unlikely. In Big Bang Theory Sheldon’s girlfriend is another nerd, but even she phlegmatically accepts his social awkwardness, lack of a conversational filter, and OCD, with loving despair. Leonard dates ‘the girl next door’, in the apartment opposite his. Penny is an attractive all-American ‘gal’, falling for his self-mocking humour, and sensitivity—Leonard is the anti-dote to her previous relationship with a self-obsessed, arrogant ‘jock’. Anxious (but successful research scientist) Leonard and all-American Penny (sporting, and popular at school, but now working as a waitress) provide a space where the writers can explore the marriage between two different social ‘tribes’.
British TV comedy is usually more downbeat and cynical than its American equivalent. One of the advantages of writing a show about nerds is that it provides characters with an excuse for saying and doing things an audience might otherwise tire of, and to use nerdy characters to unknowingly make cynical sounding observations about human nature that might otherwise seem too dark. The IT Crowd is mostly set in the basement office of Reynholm Industries, a conglomerate run by the bonkers, womanising, Douglas Reynholm (after his father committed suicide when it was discovered that the company pension fund had been raided to prop up the business). Jen, the IT departments ‘Relationship Manager’ (who knows nothing about IT) has been installed to smooth the lines of communication between the rest of the company and the despised IT department. Reynholm Industries is a Kafkesque-meets-Orwellian dystopia, the epitome of corporate megalomania, pointless politics, petty rivalries, departmental silos, and mind-numbingly wasteful schemes that have obvious flaws. Sheldon and Leonard operate less in a work environment and more within the personal arena. There are only occasional references to their work being sponsored by the US military and its potential use in missile guidance systems—the nerds are more interested in pure science than actively developing military applications.
What makes these stories work is that each of the nerds possess different character traits and flaws, which those around them react to, but they are unaware of. Maurice and Sheldon’s self-obsession and self-consciousness contrasts with their lack of understanding about how they come across to other people. But, despite their awkwardness and irritating quirks, these nerds are good people learning to embrace others in their lives and accept the reality of who they are.