They’re not particularly good-looking. They’re never well dressed. And they’re painfully familiar with the atomic wedgie. They’re your garden-variety geeks, and as the broadcast networks prep their fall schedules, one thing we can’t help noticing is…that they’re taking over TV! During this year’s upfronts presentations (which ran May 14-17), network presidents unveiled no fewer than six new series, from The CW’s Reaper to CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, that feature cool-challenged — ”awesome-deficient” is another acceptable term — shlubs and their life-changing obstacles. Considering the success of shows like The Office, Heroes, and Ugly Betty, it’s adding up to a veritable geek coup d’état. Says Heroes star Masi Oka, a fan favorite for his portrayal of lovable dork Hiro Nakamura, ”People are attracted to geeks these days because they’re not afraid to show their passion. It’s about expressing your individuality.”
Now, this is hardly the freshest trend to hit the airwaves. The quest for acceptance — a hallmark of many geek-centric stories — is age-old fodder for writers in any medium. (Just ask Napoleon Dynamite. Or for that matter, Jane Eyre.) As self-proclaimed geek Kevin Smith, who directed the Reaper pilot, puts it: ”Most of your classic comedies are based on an outsider making good.” On TV, however, that outsider has historically not been the protagonist, but rather the pathetic pal good for a one-liner and a laugh. For example, when doofy Walter Denton first appeared on Our Miss Brooks in 1952 (ask your parents), he paved the way for decades of dweebs like Arnold Horshack, Steve Urkel, and Screech Powers.
There’s one dork in particular that you can thank (or is it blame?) for this latest shift: Seth Cohen, the fanboy who became the breakout star of Fox’s The O.C. when it premiered in 2003. This, despite the fact that the network was hesitant to even use him in the teen soap’s marketing materials. ”In the beginning, it was not a character that the network really embraced,” says creator Josh Schwartz. ”We kept being told, ‘Find your Luke Perry! Who’s your Jason Priestley?’ And we were like, That’s not [what] we want to do anymore.” His instincts paid off — one of Schwartz’s two new fall series is Chuck, an NBC dramedy about an information technology whiz (he works at an electronics-store help station called the Nerd Herd) who unwittingly becomes a spy.
And exactly what inspired producer Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men) and creative partner Bill Prady (Gilmore Girls) to dream up Theory, about two drips (Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki, left) whose lives — and hormones — are turned upside down when a beautiful blonde moves in next door? Guess. ”Bill is kind of a genius and I’m kind of socially awkward,” says Lorre. ”When [Bill] was in his 20s, he knew a group of guys that were extraordinary minds but were completely ill at ease in the real world.” Adds Schwartz: ”They always say, ‘Write what you know.’ As cool as Jack Bauer is, he’s a far cry from most of the writers I know.”
It’s possible this glut of dweebilicious shows — like serialized dramas, single-gal-in-the-city sitcoms, and prime-time newsmagazines before them — will eventually wear out their welcome. Heck, given the rough prime-time landscape, it’s possible they may not live to see their second seasons. But it’s doubtful that the geek story arc will ever completely lose its appeal — whether it’s told through the eyes of a glammed-up guidance counselor (see: ABC’s midseason comedy Miss/Guided) or a shaggy-haired Wisconsin teenager (see: The CW’s Aliens in America). Says Lorre: ”Feeling like you’re outside looking in and that everybody knows the rules of the game but you has become a universal sentiment.” Kinda like how it felt to get your first atomic wedgie.