Difficulties with social interaction. Unusual posture and diction. An intense preoccupation with a specific subject matter. These are symptoms of the Autism Spectrum Disorder called Asperger syndrome. They’re also fair descriptions of three of the most popular sitcom characters currently on television. And these characters – specifically Moss (The IT Crowd), Abed (Community), and Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory) – aren’t just popular because they’re objects of ridicule or obnoxious catchphrase generators. Fans are truly identifying with these weird side characters, often more than they do with the actual “heroes” of these shows. Does having the symptoms of a pervasive developmental disorder somehow make these characters more compelling to us? If so, what does that say about us as fans?
(A minor disclaimer: Of these three shows, only the characters of Community have used the word “Asperger’s.” The writers of Big Bang Theory are coyer, with Chuck Lorre saying he considers Sheldon simply “Sheldon-y.” I don’t believe The IT Crowd has addressed the issue either way, but please correct me if I’m mistaken.)
Possibly the most important component of Sheldon, Moss and Abed’s appeal is that they’re all supremely comfortable in their outsider status. They’re not Urkel, literally pushing to be let in to the Winslow household; in fact, they’re the exact opposite. Sheldon and Moss are content to stand back and pick apart their friends’ quirks and actions; Abed goes a step further and actually dissects the show itself. Standing apart from the group turns out to be a position of power. No wonder these characters are so popular: The idea that social isolation is actually a strength, putting you above the rabble and letting you see what’s really going on, is an attractive fantasy for the awkward of all ages. In fact, I’d argue it puts these characters farther away from the clownishness of Kramer, Urkel and the Fonz and closer to another type of outsider: The anti-hero.
To many fans, these three aren’t just Jerry Lewis; they’re also James Dean. They’re the cool social transgressors who get to act out in all the ways we can’t. When verbal gaffes and their subsequent apologies consume entire news cycles, here are characters that aren’t bound by social strictures or forced to navigate around other people’s feelings. (Abed and Sheldon make it clear they literally can’t.) They may lack the same sexual charisma or capacity for violence of other anti-heroes, but who needs those outdated, impolitic traits in this day and age? We live much of our lives online, where it doesn’t matter how hard you can punch or how much sex you’ve had. (You’re definitely lying anyway.) What we really care about is winning arguments or, more optimistically, the truth. In an age of excessive image consciousness, these three are Tyler Durden, laying waste to hypocrisy and condescension instead of financial centers. Abed isn’t going to keep quiet when Jeff and Britta start hooking up right next to him, and Sheldon is going to sit where he always does, etiquette be damned. These characters may be separated from society, but they’re also liberated from it.
It’s important not to forget that Abed, Sheldon and Moss aren’t just popular because they’re cool and empowered, they’re popular because they’re funny. They are sitcom characters, and even if the writers do it with respect and affection, their tics and tendencies are still being played for laughs. However, there is a similar character out there that isn’t the comic relief, but rather the star: The titular character of BBC’s Sherlock. The show’s modern-day Sherlock Holmes has the same unique perspective, endless knowledge, and distaste for social niceties as Abed, Moss, and Sheldon; he just uses them to stop crime. Here is the full realization of this new type of anti-hero, a character whose anti-social traits go beyond making him admirable; they practically make him a superhero.
Narrative fiction rarely shows us the downside of anti-hero fantasies: Hard drinkers never seem to have hangovers; perpetual womanizers never catch STDs. These shows successfully glorify being whip-smart and ignorant of social niceties, but, as they’re lighthearted comedies, they brush over the downsides of intense social isolation, much less having an actual Autism Spectrum Disorder. (Community comes the closest, showing, in a few episodes, honest distress on Abed’s face as he struggles to decipher his friend’s emotions.) However, it’s probably too much to ask a half-hour sitcom to dig so deep, and there’s certainly a balance to be struck between accurate psychological profiles and, you know, comedy. What’s impressive is that these shows have taken characters that could be nothing more than walking punch lines and made them socially relevant and, even more surprisingly, cool. We laugh at Sheldon, Moss and Abed because they’re distant, separate, and not like us; but part of us wants to be them for the very same reason.