|The cast of The Big Bang Theory|
Note: The following contains Spoilers
Two of the best American comedies on television, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, come from very different sitcom traditions. But they also cross over in interesting ways. The Big Bang Theory (CBS), which begins its sixth season on Thursday, Sept. 27, features an old fashioned laugh track, uses two cameras, and is a studio shot comedy in the vein of The Honeymooners, All in the Family and Frasier. Modern Family (ABC), which heads into its fourth season on Wednesday September 26, and which I’ll write about next week, eschews the laugh track, is filmed on real locations and is more in the naturalistic vein of M*A*S*H and Mad About You. Yet The Big Bang Theory still boasts the kind of sharp wit and subtle jokes that makes it quite contemporary in tone; and Modern Family has a decided penchant for slapstick, spit takes and pratfalls. Both shows are very funny and, in their own ways, unique comedies.
When The Big Bang Theory debuted in 2007, it did seem like a long shot for ratings success, even though it was the creation of Chuck Lorre, who had already scored big with Two and a Half Men (a crass comedy decidedly inferior to The Big Bang Theory in every way). After all, who but a bunch of science fiction obsessed nerds would want to watch a show about people like that? But Lorre was onto something. He realized that thirty years after Star Wars, SF, fantasy and gaming had so penetrated the popular culture that there would be quite a lot of interest in its goings-on from the outside world. Not to mention, the series offered one strong female character that functioned as the fulcrum for the guys and their shtick and provided a ‘normal’ counterpart to the male oriented geek brigade (There are now three women on the show.) Five years on, The Big Bang Theory is an enormous hit (some 16 million American viewers, up 23% from the year before) and a smooth running ensemble, with not a weak link among the cast.
The show’s premise is (deceptively) simple. Sexy waitress Penny (Kaley Cuoco), whose last name hasn't been revealed, moves in across the apartment of nerdy scientists Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki, late of Roseanne, another terrific sitcom). She quickly attracts Leonard’s interest, Sheldon’s disdain (the overeducated Sheldon pretty much considers everyone inferior to him but scorns Penny because she’s only gone as far as high school) and soon becomes part of their group which also includes engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and astrophysicist Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar). From that skein, Lorre and company (ten writers in all form his crew) spoof genre fandom (the guys live, breathe and eat science fiction and fantasy), male-female relations, societal expectations (the gang has to deal with parents, who are either disapproving (Leonard’s mom), overbearing (Howard’s mom), judgemental (Raj’s parents) or just plain clueless (Sheldon’s evangelical mother) and a generation that may be materially successful (except for Penny, an unsuccessful would-be actress) but who still can’t cope with the ordinary tribulations of life.
|Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki|
As Leonard, Galecki (who played Sara Gilbert’s boyfriend on Roseanne) matches Parsons beat for beat, working up to his slow burn. Whenever Sheldon annoys him, or whenever Leonard beats himself up for screwing up anything with Penny, he turns that slow burn into a work of comedic art. (As for Sara Gilbert, she pops up as fellow scientist Leslie Winkle, Leonard’s sometime friend with benefits early in the series.) I had problems with Howard’s character at first, seeing him as just another Jewish stereotype, a socially inept, nebbishy momma’s boy (literally it seems, as he still lives with her) but over the course of the show, he mellows and grows up partially because he’s found romance with Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch), a lovely Polish girl. Helberg, who you might also recognize as one of the hapless rabbis in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, gives a finely tuned performance as Bernadette tames the unruly Howard and forces him to tone down his horn dog antics. (Carol Ann Susi, a hoot as Howard’s loud, very loud, very Jewish mother, is an unseen character, putting her up there with Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda and in descriptions as vivid in the imagination as Nile’s wife Maris on Frasier.) And Raj, well he’s a seemingly sexually ambiguous Indian meterosexual – or at least that's what many of his acquaintances and family members think. He can't speak to women unless he’s consumed alcohol; that’s a comedy trope that should have run dry by now. But like Nile’s perpetually lusting after his father’s caregiver Daphne (Jane Leeves) in Frasier, it still continues to be highly amusing. Nayyar has one of those elastic faces that cannot but provoke laughter. And Cuoco's straightwoman, who still gives us good as she gets, is a marvel, limning the best of Judy Holliday's ditziness without being a dumb bunny as she could have been in the hands of a lesser actress. (In fact, the show's unaired pilot featured, not Cuoco, but a harder edged, less appealing female lead.)
|Kunal Nayyar and Simon Helberg|
|Wil Weaton and Jim Parsons|
For one thing, there actually is genuine character development here and it doesn't play out at a glacial pace as Entertainment Weekly says it does in its current cover story on the series. I wouldn’t have guessed that Howard and Bernadette would actually marry, as they did in last season’s finale before Howard sets out for a mission in space. The show hinted that they’d never make it to the altar, for various reasons and usually in comedies, moving a protagonist from single to married is never a guarantee. I'm not sure how the series will keep Howards’s mother in the loop – I can’t imagine he’ll convince Bernadette, who scarily is beginning to sound like her mother-in-law, to allow them to live at Howard’s mother’s home – but I’m sure they’ll figure out a way. And as we get to know Sheldon better, we see more shading in his emotional makeup. He’s also reluctantly acquired a ‘girlfriend,’ a neurotic counterpart named Amy Farah Fowler (Blossom’s Mayim Bialik) who’s determined to change his single status, much to Sheldon’s chagrin and horror. (Don’t expect anything physical to develop as sex doesn’t figure into Sheldon’s equation. Raj is still pretty screwed up but apparently will find love this coming season.) But it’s in the unpredictable relationship between Penny and Leonard, however, that the show really takes chances.
|Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki|
There are other reasons to warm to the show, from its bouncy theme song by Canadian group The Barenaked Ladies (what happened to TV theme songs anyway? This show is one of the few to still have one) to its running gags, such as the perpetually out of service elevator in Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment complex. There’s also the pleasing knowledge that all the scientific theorems and jargon displayed and uttered on the show is scrupulously accurate: physicist David Saltzberg vets each episode and keeps the show honest. Mostly though the show boasts likeable and appealing characters whom you want to see each week, with episodes which are equally laugh out funny on repeat viewings. And despite other comedies (Happy Endings, How I Met Your Mother) that can also make that claim, The Big Bang Theory along with Modern Family, remains at the top of TV’s comedic heap.
– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be doing a course on film censorship beginning Oct. 5. He will also be reprising his course on Sydney Lumet at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (Bloor and Spadina), beginning Monday October 15 from 7-9 p.m.