The Smile of Sheldon Cooper

The Smile of Sheldon Cooper


So there I was holding a book called The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy and something was very wrong with the cover. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then it hit me – Sheldon was smiling.

I refer, of course, to Dr Sheldon Cooper, hero of The Big Bang Theory, that amusing sitcom about four nerds and a waitress. And there beaming up at me from the book’s cover were the joyful, grinning faces of Sheldon and his roommate, Dr Leonard Hofstadter.

What a clanger! You see, it is so rare that Sheldon smiles. His default expression is one of Spock-like detachment. The grin is fine from Leonard who, in spite of his various neuroses, is an even-tempered and cheerful fellow. Yet if a clanger is defined as ‘a conspicuous mistake,’ the sight of Sheldon Cooper grinning wildly from the cover reverberates with a sizeable metallic booiinngg!

It is of course extremely hard to get everything right in any given book, movie, or TV show. A great deal of care is usually taken to ensure a production has internal logical consistency. For example, the sitcom in question consults with scientific experts to make sure they get the science right.

Getting it right is especially hard in historical dramas.  A lot of care is taken whether it’s the clothes, customs or the language of a given time. It wouldn’t do, for example,  for someone to walk into King Henry’s court in The Tudors wearing a wristwatch. In fairness, the fact that they get so much of it right only makes the occasional error stand out all the more glaringly.

A fine example was in the recent TV drama, Howzat about Kerry Packer’s cricket war of the 1970s. The seventies were only forty years ago and for the most part the producers got it bang on. The long unkempt hair and dodgy moustaches; the bad taste disco style shirts; the male chauvinism, and so on. There was only one clanger, one conspicuous mistake, that I picked up. It came in one of the press conference scenes when a reporter asked “Mr. Packer, how will World Series Cricket impact the game?”

Does the mistake jump out at you? It certainly did at me. It was an anachronism so glaring that  someone may as well have pulled out an IPod during that scene and it would have been no less jarring. Seriously, can anyone remember the word “impact” ever being used as a verb in the 20th century? Even in the 1998 movie Deep Impact when the word had a double meaning (the collision of two objects, and the effect of that event), the word was a noun in both senses.

The use of ‘impact’ as a verb is one of those unnecessary verbal fads that pops up from time to time (such as people saying ‘signage’ instead of just ‘signs.’) So, nowadays you’ll hear someone on TV say “home owners will be impacted by rising interest rates” rather than “rising interest rates will have an impact on home owners.” It’s funny that in the past “impact” was a synonym for “effect” (a noun) and these days it’s a synonym for “affect” (a verb).

This mildly irritating fad only caught on in the 21st century, so to see it used in a dramatized late 1970s press conference set off a resounding clang! Other than that, the show was superb.

So what’s the deal with Sheldon’s smile?

Well – Sheldon hardly ever smiles. It’s not that he is a grouch or a misery guts, he just has no normal emotions at all. Indeed he’s a poster child for certain forms of autism that couple high intellect with social and emotional retardation. Much of the show’s humour comes from Sheldon’s futile attempts to deal with normal social interactions. An intellectual genius, he’s puzzled and bored by the mundane behaviour of his friends. We forgive his frequent and inadvertent rudeness because it’s funny that such an intellectual genius can be so socially ignorant.

Sheldon  occupies a world of the mind where smiling is not required. Occasionally he’s obliged to go through the motions in the attempt to be normal, for example in the episode where he’s forced to congratulate Raj for landing the cover of a science journal. The result is not a pretty sight! More a grimace than a grin, the Sheldon smile is rather terrifying. It’s a relief when he reverts to his normal C3PO look of robot indifference.

So who the hell signed off on this book cover design of The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy with Sheldon grinning like a loon? Whoever it was must never have watched the show as they clearly have no familiarity with the character. It’s probably an American book as they seem to have the habit of putting smiles onto everything (animals, inanimate objects etc). But they invented Star Trek and Mr. Spock doesn’t smile either, so they might know better.

You would think a book that tries to make philosophical sense out of the Big Bang Theory sitcom would come up with a proper cover photo rather than one that is glaringly wrong. Clang! Oh well, the essays themselves are probably very good. Perhaps the only error in the whole book is the Sheldon photo. If so, it’s a shame that the book’s only error appears on its cover.


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