As The Big Bang Theory, one of television’s most successful and longest lasting sitcoms ever, comes to a close AwardsWatch writer Catherine Springer details her thoughts of the run of the series, it’s cultural impact on the television landscape, how it made uncool cool and what the show means to her.
Television is not what it used to be. The rise of the phenomenon known as “prestige television” has altered the landscape of the medium once derisively known as the “boob tube.” HBO started it all with The Sopranos in 1999, then with The Wire in 2002, and Deadwood in 2004. Then came 2007, the year that broke it all wide open, with the premiere of Mad Men on AMC and the advent of movie stars crossing over as Holly Hunter starred in Saving Grace on TNT and Glenn Close premiered in Damages on FX. It officially became a new age. TV was now praise-worthy. It was no longer taboo for movie stars and “legit” actors to do TV. Soon the top flight directors followed, as Martin Scorsese brought us Boardwalk Empire (HBO) in 2010, David Fincher debuted House of Cards (Netflix) in 2013 and even the Coen Brothers signed off on Fargo (FX) in 2014. All of these shows featured top-line talent, including producers, directors, writers and actors. With big budgets, stars and top production teams, television’s critical profile was elevating to the level of movies.
But here’s the thing about prestige television: it’s all drama. And it’s all on cable or streaming. I remember a time when not only were there only three channels to choose from, but sitcoms ruled the airwaves. There has always been good drama on network television, but the sitcom is what babysat your kids, brought you together as a family, felt like part of the family. But ever since Friends went off the air in 2004, the network sitcom has become an endangered species.
Don’t tell Chuck Lorre that.
Lorre is responsible or partly-responsible for some of the most successful sitcoms in recent history, including Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Two and a Half Men and Young Sheldon. While each of those sitcoms were ratings juggernauts, the popularity of Lorre’s biggest hit, The Big Bang Theory, which premiered in 2007—the year cable television exploded—is perhaps the most remarkable story of all. To not only survive but thrive on TV despite the onslaught of cable prestige television and facing closer-to-home battles from reality and competition shows, this traditional network comedy proved that the more things change, the more we long for something familiar. In 2018, of the top 10 network series, drama or comedy, three were sitcoms created or co-created by Lorre: Roseanne (#1), The Big Bang Theory (#3) and Young Sheldon (#6). With Roseanne having ended already and The Big Bang Theory ending this season after 12 years, there will be room at the top for new shows, and, thanks to Lorre, some of them could be sitcoms.
Admittedly, I am one of those who abandoned network tv and watches all those fancy drama shows on cable and streaming. I used to love network shows, but now I can count on one hand the number of primetime network shows I still watch, and one of them is The Big Bang Theory. And, in its twelfth and last season, it still is as fresh and funny as it was when it started. How does that happen? How does a sitcom last 12 years in this competitive landscape, stay at the top, and continue to feel fresh and stay funny? I don’t know those answers, but I do know why I like it.
What makes The Big Bang Theory so consistently good is that it has continued to find ways to change while remaining exactly what it is. The only model it has adhered to is the Friends model: focus on a core group of adult single characters and build and expand the world around them. But there is also a key difference between Friends and The Big Bang Theory: one is about people we’d love to hang out with (and be) and the other isn’t—or is it?
The Big Bang Theory is a show about nerds, and it’s proud of that. It’s also proud of its nerds, and embraces the nerd culture wholeheartedly. It premiered a year before Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight hit movie theatres, which propelled superhero movies (and nerd culture) into the mainstream, critically and commercially. It’s no surprise that The Big Bang Theory’s popularity continued to grow throughout its run, as pop culture’s obsession with everything sci fi and superhero, from Star Wars to Marvel, hit a crescendo. The writers of The Big Bang Theory didn’t have to work too hard to incorporate the superhero zeitgeist into the show nor did they have to break any kind of sweat trying to make their characters appealing. Their heroes were now our heroes. As the fanboy culture grew along with the show’s popularity, it became trendy for famous real nerds to make cameos on the show featuring the most famous fictional nerds. Everyone from Leonard Nimoy, Mark Hamill, Stephen Hawking, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Katee Sackhoff, Bill Nye, Stan Lee, Steve Wozniak, George Takei, Elon Musk, Neil Gaiman, Bill Gates, Adam West and William Shatner guested on the show, lending an authenticity that you just don’t find on network TV.
So, yes, the show felt timely. But, for me, no matter how much I love Star Wars, I have never considered myself a nerd, nor do I embrace much of the nerd culture. The Big Bang Theory’s appeal, for me, had nothing to do with their superhero references or ComiCon relevance. No, what worked for me from the beginning and has continued to work for me all the way to the end is the charm of the characters and the brilliance of the writing. I keep coming back because I love to spend time with these offbeat, weird, non-threatening, somewhat clueless yet successful people. There is a total lack of arrogance in these characters and in this show that I really respond to. But what I like the most is they have found each other and that is the most defining element of this series: in our lives, we all find our tribe, the people who are like us in some way, who understand us, who speak our same language, who have experienced life and the world the same way. The world of The Big Bang Theory is very insular, and I think that’s why it works. The writers never insult the characters or make them feel out of place. There is only one cool kid in their midst, and they found a way to make her uncool. Uncool actually rules. They all find love and happiness, and none of them have to change who or what they are to get it.
Another signature Chuck Lorre element is making shows for the underrepresented, the outsider, the outcast, the misunderstood. As I saw first-hand at the taping of the final episode of the show, The Big Bang Theory is so much more than a television show. There were fans there who had traveled from all over the country to attend, and many had slept on the sidewalk for 14 hours to be there to say goodbye to these beloved characters. When, during a break in the scenes, fans were prompted to share what the show meant to them, the stories were moving and heartfelt. A teacher who works with autistic children said she uses the show to teach her students that it’s ok to be different. Another woman from China said it inspired her to go into science. Many mentioned bullying and the strength the show gives them to overcome it. With every story, hundreds of other heads nodded and many wiped tears from their eyes. It was clear how much this show means to its fans—and that’s perhaps its greatest legacy.
My favorite character in The Big Bang Theory is Amy Farrah Fowler, played by Mayim Bialik. She doesn’t appear until the end of season 3, but when she does, she kicks the show into another dimension. Bialik’s timing, character and perfect chemistry with Jim Parsons is television catnip. But what is even better about her performance is the fact that, in Amy, we see an awkward, socially clueless and seemingly forgettable human being whom none of us would give a second glance to, yet she infuses her with heart, charm, mischief, and unflinching determination. The fact that Bialik herself has a Ph.D. in neuroscience makes her character even more authentic. And in her pairing with Sheldon, we see the epitome of “there’s someone for everyone,” and no matter how cheesy that may be, it makes my heart sing.
And then there is Sheldon. At the center of The Big Bang Theory is Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper, the most annoying and obnoxious character on TV. And yet they built a show around him. Played by any other actor, Sheldon could have come across as pathetic and unwatchable, but how Parsons manages to make him endearing and breathtakingly funny is a gift from the sitcom gods. From Parsons’s delivery to his physicality, he has made Sheldon one of the most memorable characters in the history of television. The Television Academy agrees, as they nominated him for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series six straight years, from 2009 to 2014, winning four times. The show itself has only been nominated three times for Best Comedy Series, never winning, and the only other actor to win for the show is Bob Newhart, who won in 2013 for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (Newhart’s ONLY Emmy, if you can believe it). Only Galecki in 2011 and Bialik in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 have been nominated from the regular cast, but only Parsons has ever won. He is the center of the show, in both spirit and kudos.
But the entire core cast deserves credit for forming a tight and strong ensemble that meshes perfectly. I’m constantly bemused by Howard’s (Simon Helberg) pants, belt buckles and misplaced cockiness. Raj (Kunal Nayyar) is sweet and befuddled, the patient sufferer of Howard’s mean streak. And then there is the central relationship of the series, Penny and Leonard, played by Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki, two solid performers who seemed to have stood still while the rest of the show swirled around them. Even though the writers never really seemed to know what to do with Penny, Cuoco always made the most of it.
But this show soars when peripheral characters are allowed to shine. I was thrilled when Stewart, for example, became a regular on the show. His haplessness is utterly charming and Kevin Sussman inhabits him with an abandon that is so much fun to watch. I similarly love Bernadette, as Melissa Rauch turned what started as a one-note cartoon into a full-bodied character. Making Amy, Stewart and Bernadette regulars took the pressure off the core five and infused a new life into the series.
The supporting cast is excellent as well, from Wil Wheaton (played by Wil Wheaton) to Barry Kripke (John Ross Bowie) to Bert (Brian Posehn), they all have delivered memorable moments. But nobody delivered a guest spot quite like Bob Newhart, who was featured in 6 episodes as Sheldon’s childhood hero, Professor Proton. And lest we forget the mothers, Laurie Metcalf (Sheldon’s mother), Christine Baranski (Leonard’s mother) – both Emmy-nominated for their roles – plus Kathy Bates (Amy’s mother) and Carol Ann Susi (Howard’s mother) who stole the show each and every time they appeared (or were heard).
There was a cache to being a guest star on The Big Bang Theory, because it was top of the ratings for most of its run. It was always in the top ten, usually only beaten by Sunday Night Football. It did especially well in the coveted 18-49 demographic, which is why it went on for so long. It would keep going if it weren’t for Parsons, who decided it was time for him to move on from Sheldon and that season 12 would be his last. The creators were wise to realize that there isn’t a show without Sheldon, and it’s probably best to go out when you’ve still got gas in the tank anyway.
There are only 3 episodes left, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out. I will miss it when it’s gone. There is a sweetness to this show that is the perfect palette cleanser after a diet of The Handmaid’s Tale and Game of Thrones. No matter what Lorre may come up with next, it will be hard to ever match the chemistry, brains, timeliness, relevance and heart as The Big Bang Theory. But I’m looking forward to seeing him try.