At some point words like “geek” and “nerd” stopped being insults. I’m not sure when it happened, exactly, but it’s typical of American culture for minorities to “take back” derogatory terms aimed at them and use them as a source of empowerment, essentially owning who and what they are and taking the negative connotations away from it. It’s actually kind of wonderful. With nerds being around twenty or so years ahead of mainstream culture tastewise, most of the stuff I loved as an ostracized kid obsessed with Batman, kaiju films, Tolkien, and science fiction has now become en vogue in my adulthood.
Part of me feels validated by this, but another laments the bandwagon hoppers who may like the idea of Pacific Rim or The Avengers in theory -or at least understand that people like that stuff now- but in no way, shape, or form understand the fandom and history that spawned them.
As a side effect, now there are pandersome shows like Big Bang Theory where Hollywood executives approximate nerd stereotypes for laughs and shallow “reality” slop like Beauty and the Geek where the idea is to point and laugh at them while feeling good about yourself for being so superior to these wretched creatures but still feeling compassion for them.
In films like The 40-Year- Old Virgin, the likable geek gets the girl in the end, but he does so by pretty much giving up all of the things he loves; in a way, the very things that make him who he is. But how about we find us some entertainment that is was literally created from a nerd point of view and represents our actual lifestyles? Something by us and for us that truly attempts to capture the essence of the dorktastic communities that led up to this pop culture revolution. These are my favorite shows that fit that description, in no particular order.
1. The Guild
I’ve mentioned Felicia Day before, and with good reason. In my mind, she’s kind of the epitome of what I’m talking about here. She got her break in nerd entertainment with Joss Whedon, but has since branched out into a mini-industry of her own, traversing the entirety of the geek-o-sphere from video games to award shows to cons and everything in between.
Day’s home base is her very own show, The Guild; a webseries created by, owned by, written by, produced by, and starring herself. It is based on her personal obsession with World of Warcraft and it is simply one of the funniest series out there.
While obviously this is another comedy show where you laugh at nerds, there is something extremely legitimate about Day’s self-deprecating awkwardness and the various neuroses of her cast. There is no one geek stereotype here. In addition to Day’s neurotic mess, there’s the pretty girl who shuns social contact, an irresponsible housewife, an excessively-frugal square, the pitifully enthusiastic would-be romantic, and a slacker who is a bit out of his element. The diversity is refreshing to say the least.
And let me just point out that every now and then, the cast gets together to shoot an original music video together. Why? Because they can, noob. Observe.
If you don’t get why Bollywood is awesome, you ain’t geeky enough
Genshiken may be the most legit show on this list, because as far ahead as American geek culture is from the mainstream, Japan has almost perpetually been as far ahead of American geek culture. Compare He-Man and GI Joe to the likes of Macross and Dirty Pair for a bit of perspective there. The subject of this piece of animated brilliance is the otaku subculture, which focuses on Japanese gaming, manga, and anime.
There is a moment in the second season of Genshiken that literally changed my entire outlook on a subset of geek art. In the show the club collects dojinshi, which is essentially fan-fiction manga. Now, fanfic is kind of the darkest corner of nerd culture in that it contains all of the stuff we don’t want the rest of the world to see as it tends towards the pornographic and, well, it’s just a bit much, even for a lot of the hardcore.
At one point in the show, a character points out the guts it takes for a person to put their fantasies out there in the world for other people to judge, and it put me on my ass. It was a whole new way of thinking about the creators of the most derided of guilty nerd pleasures. I still think slash fiction needs to stay in the underground, but I think twice now before I judge those who write/draw it as harshly as I have in the past, and Genshiken takes the credit for that.
In addition to manga, the series explores and satirizes several other aspects of otaku culture, including a master cosplay enthusiast in the cast, some awkward romance including a first kiss from someone whose only experience in the area was from watching hentai, a hilarious look at how the Japanese community views American otaku who learn the language from anime, and the requisite convention visits. If you want a crash course in otakuism, this anime is definitely a place to start.
Sometimes, to appease the rage in your soul over a failed relationship with the only woman you’ve ever loved who wasn’t computer-generated or Agent Scully, you just want to drown Lara Croft over and over. If you identify with that statement in any way, you’ve probably already seen this, or at least you should have.
Spaced is the genesis of the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright trinity of brilliance that would spawn Shaun of the Dead and make the three of them worldwide nerd comedy icons. The lead protagonists in this one are an aspiring writer and a wannabe comic artist sharing an apartment together. The flat’s decorative centerpiece is an Evil Dead 2 poster.
Pegg’s character, Tim, spends a lot of the time he’s not playing his PlayStation imagining he is playing his PlayStation, at one point drunkenly assaulting pretentious “artists”, imagining them as zombies. Satire! And interspersing shots of an argument between roommates with a Tekken match? It doesn’t get much nerdier.
Tim also works at a comic shop (where he berates children about the evils of Jar-Jar Binks) and just generally represents a slightly exaggerated rendition what most of us think of when we picture an actual geek lifestyle. He’s got friends, he’s not a virgin, he doesn’t live with his mother; he’s just an adult who still loves all of the things he loves, often uses those thing as a lens to view the real world through, and isn’t ashamed to fly his flag.
Spaced is likely the heavyweight champion of most Star Wars references per episode, and stands tall as one of the funniest and most genuine examples of nerd culture on television.
4. Welcome to the NHK
Time to take a ride to the dark side. Like I said before, Japan is way ahead of us when it comes to the art of nerdery. But there are two sides to that coin. Yeah, their cartoons are better, but what about their lives? What can too much geekiness lead to? Welcome to the NHK explores the unpleasant extremes of the social anxiety and media obsession that defines nerds, and represents an actual growing social trend in Asia.
NEET: Not in Education, Employment, or Training. You know the type. Freeloaders, slackers, whatever you want to call them. The most extreme form is known as hikikomori, which combines NEETness with agoraphobic tendencies to create, in a sense, the perfect geek. Somebody who lives alone, literally almost never leaves their home, lives off of their parents (or perhaps by farming in MMO’s), and does NOTHING but play video games, watch TV, and fill the wastebasket by their computer with sticky tissues.
Welcome to the NHK is a unique cocktail of humorous satire, heart-rending struggle, and deep examination of the psychology that leads to that level of social isolation. And it ends up in such a different place than it begins that it’s kind of shocking. This thing gets DARK, but the end message is fantastic. Absolutely a one-of-a-kind series, and possibly the only one that deals with this topic in-depth.
It would be possible to make an argument that Community isn’t really about geeks. But that argument would be buried under the constant barrage of nerd culture displays this show puts out. A Claymation Christmas special, recurring Dr. Who parody, zombie episode, parallel universes complete with goateed evil versions of the cast, 8-bit video game episode, and oh so very much more puts this one at the top of the heap.
Beyond the cutesy opening theme lies one of the best casts of lovable losers ever assembled, but if your geek knowledge is found lacking I fear for your ability to comprehend the awesomeness of a D&D episode or the appeal of a Kickpuncher marathon. There’s still something for everyone here, but that being said Community is arguably the most cartoonish show on this list, including the actual cartoons.
Community was the funniest show on television for three seasons before creator Dan Harmon was sacked, leaving control of the show in the hands of television executives. The fourth season was a mixed bag at best. A lot has been said about the trials and tribulations this series has been through, and it looks like six seasons and a movie is out of the question. But we’ll always have the good times. I’m just happy it lasted as long as it did, considering it’s the only show here to actually air on American television (not counting BBC America).
The white area is social skills.
The great 20th century philosopher KRS-One (it’s my article and I’ll call a rapper a great philosopher if I want to) once said that if you don’t know the history of the author, you don’t really know what you are reading. In other words: context is everything, and you need to understand where an artist is coming from to fully appreciate the work they do for better or worse. Naturally, he same principle applies to other forms of media as well. This is why Tim rages about The Phantom Menace, and why dorks in general often complain about the co-opting, judgment, and degradation of their “childhood” by the mainstream media.
There are people who appreciate film, television, literature, and the like for the art and creativity of it and wish to fiercely protect that integrity. These are the geeks. Then there are people who just want stuff to go boom and for the guy to kiss the girl and live happily ever after, and those who want only to profit by selling that to them. That’s the mainstream. The current mixing of the two differing philosophies of media appreciation is creating a kind of cultural exchange that is proving to be bumpy at times.
Shows like these are kind of an oasis from the anxiety of the present watering-down of nerd culture; something we can watch that is just for us… at least until the show-runner gets canned. And for those on the outside who are beginning to think this mysterious subsect of humanity may be something worth looking into, they provide a funny and endearing window into a world that is seldom portrayed properly in the media and thus almost never understood outside of their own circles. So check ‘em out after Felicia and company play me off.
Geek cred: established. Punk cred: not so much.