Um, did anyone watch NCIS: Los Angeles last night? The NCIS spin-off procedural about Navy cops who are also somehow terrorist-fighting super spies that have gunfights in the LA streets every single episode? No? Well, then you missed a watershed moment in the portrayal of nerds on mainstream TV. Seriously! Last night's episode of NCIS: LA ("Collateral") did more good for nerds than The Big Bang Theory has ever done, and here's why.
Let me start out by saying mainstream TV and procedurals like Law & Order, CSI, NCIS and all the other acronym-based dramas are TV's bread and butter, and rife with stereotypes. Not in the racist or sexist sense, but in that they present familiar character archetypes because they're more easily digestible for mass audiences. The "nerd" is one of the last palatable clichés, which is why so many shows have a "nerd" on them - usually a tech/computer person, invariably into every single nerdy thing the writers can think of, always socially awkward (especially with the opposite sex), etc. Basically, these characters can never be slightly nerdy, they pretty much have to be Sheldon. Otherwise, how would people understand that he/she is a nerd?
Which makes what happened on NCIS: LA last night so amazing. First of all, the show begins with a retired spy working as a consultant for a Call of Duty-type videogame company. As a dude who has seen pretty much every single Law & Order, I can assure you every time a videogame is mentioned in a procedural, the episode invariably involves the protagonists finding a little coven of nerds who either 1) make the game obsessively or 2) play the game obsessively, and generally the murderer ends uo being the nerd who has gotten so obsessed with the game he's become unhinged from reality.
But the spy's videogame consultant gig isn't portrayed as him selling out to nerds. It's not even discussed dismissively. It's actually mentioned simply as a viable career choice, one that pays him well, and one that doesn't require this super-manly James Bond wanna-be to even be nerdy - a first on mainstream TV, as far as I know.
Obviously, that's not close to all. NCIS: LA's nerds - because again, these shows have to have them - are Eric and Nell, the tech geeks (pictured above). Throughout the show's four seasons, they've been portrayed as extremely nerdy, into comics, cartoons, getting flustered when flirting, etc., although the show has generally been pretty good about also making them seem like rational human beings who can still function in society. But last night, something insane happened.
They revealed they were into football.
Nerds?! Can have hobbies that aren't nerdy? MADNESS. As a nerd who loves football himself, the fact that mainstream entertainment has even considered the possibility that nerds might have non-nerd interests BLOWS MY MIND. It's not about liking sports, although certainly that's the easiest signifier TV has for something that is non-nerdy. Seriously, this weird, wonderful scene alone reveals to the masses that nerds do not have to be solely defined by their nerd-dom - that nerds can be fully realized people, too. Look, I won't pretend that nerd stereotyping is anything as awful as sexual or racial stereotyping, and it's not like this is the world's biggest achievement. But personally, as a nerd, to see this? I was both excited and gratified.
As an echo of this incredible revelation, NCIS: LA's main protagonists - super tough heterosexual alpha males Chris O'Donnell and LL Cool J - have a discussion about cartoons and who is better, Hong Kong Phooey or Underdog. THE MAIN CHARACTERS HAVE A NERDY CONVERSATION AND AREN'T CONSIDERED DISGUSTING, GROSS, INSANE, SOCIALLY MALADJUSTED NERDS. Although LL Cool J is called a geek later, but mostly because he recites a lengthy diatribe about how vinyl being better than MP3s.
Nerds having non-nerd interests! Non-nerds having a nerdy discussion and not being embarrassed or chastised for it! Working on a videogame portrayed as a legitimate profession! Look, I know NCIS: LA isn't in io9's wheelhouse, and I probably sound insane right now (as I was excitedly ranting about how nerd-positive this episode was for "my people," my wife certainly laughed at me like I was insane). But I honestly think this was a watershed moment in the portrayal of nerds in mainstream pop culture. It's the most nerd-positive hour of TV I've ever seen, and the fact it was on a CBS primetime procedural - hardly the bastion of cultural progress - made it even more astounding.
I wouldn't watch the episode - unless you're into these kind of shows like I am, I've told you all the good stuff (besides, it was a pretty goofy episode otherwise, which for NCIS: LA is saying something). Just know that for one wonderful, weird hour, the most mainstream of mainstream TV shows talked about nerds like they were actual people. It was not something I was expecting to see. And it was really, really nice.