Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Comedy at Its Highest Peak: The Big Bang Theory

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
If any actor steals the show and he’s allowed to by being given the best lines (and plotlines), it’s Emmy Award winner Parsons. His Sheldon is more than just an obsessive compulsive – though he is that, too, eating a specific meal each day of the week and screaming and hollering when he has to deviate form his typical routine – he’s an irritating, superior, close-minded and frequently obnoxious sort but still strangely sweet in a very off kilter way. Leonard and his friends put up with him perhaps because he allows them to feel superior by mocking him – he doesn’t quite get the concept of irony – or maybe simply because deep down, very deep down, they realize he’s a needy soul who requires, if not love, then acceptance and camaraderie. Whatever their motives, Parsons delivers his lines better than perhaps any sitcom actor this side of  the Crane brothers, so flawlessly essayed by Kelsey Grammar and David Hyde Pierce on Frasier.

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
The show also stands on its guest stars, such as always funny Christine Baranski (Cybil, The Good Wife) as Leonard’s self absorbed mother who bonds with Sheldon over her own son and Laurie Metcalf, fondly remembered as Roseanne's sister on that series, as Sheldon’s religious, bigoted mother. She's the only one, however, who scares the bejesus out of him and can get him to do what he ought to. There’s also sad sack comic book store owner Stuart (Kevin Sussman, who’s set to join the cast as a regular this season). His business is referred to as The Comic Book Store by Sheldon but I’m not sure if that’s really its name or just what Sheldon likes to call it. Sheldon’s nemesis is Barry Kripke (John Ross Bowie), who lisps like Elmer Fudd and makes Howard look like a prim and proper gentleman. But my favourite villain is played by the one and only Wil Weaton, the actor best known for playing the sensitive Gordie in Rob Reiner's Stand By Me (1986) and the irritating dweeb Ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. In The Big Bang Theory, he plays himself (sort of), an arrogant, know it all who travels in the same circles as Leonard and the others but likes to get Sheldon’s goat in particular. Needless, to say, he’s a lot more fun on this show than he was on the Star Trek series. Other real life figures that’ve shown up on the show have included famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and actors Leonard (Mr. Spock) Nimoy, who was heard in one episode, George (Sulu) Takei, Brent (Data) Spiner and Summer Glau (Firefly, The Sarah Conner Chronicles). Interestingly, because the series is set in Pasadena, California and because the quartet follows their faves, scientists and movie/TV stars alike, when they do bump into them it’s usually in a believable context.

Wil Weaton and Jim Parsons
You might think that all these pop culture, SF references would keep non-genre fans out of the loop but you don’t have to get all the jokes to enjoy them. If you do know the shows and films referred to, you’ll marvel at how smart the jokes about them are and how much fun the show’s writers have with (affectionately) satirizing the oddball, compulsive nature of the fanboys. Whether it’s the quest to get in line to catch a new release version of Raiders of the Lost Ark (with a whopping 21 seconds of new footage) or a smart quip about Firefly being a must-see event for years to come (alas, it was cancelled after one season but no one saw that coming when it premiered), The Big Bang Theory has fun with the assumptions and obsessions rife in the genre world. (Realistically, the group never seem to actually read SF books but, regrettably, that’s the way it is with many fans of the genre. I’d also like to know why Sheldon hates Babylon 5, one of my favourite SF shows. It’s about the only thing he hates besides obvious turkeys like The Green Lantern.) But other jokes are more oblique, be it a routine about Schrödinger’s Cat (maybe a reference to its use in A Serious Man?) that plays out over several episodes, filtered through Penny’s non-scientific mind; or a throw away line about Polish anti-Semitism that only a few viewers would get. The show is savvy and original that way and never more so then in its character development which breaks several rules of TV comedy.

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
Their relationship has gone through numerous permutations, with the pair first bonding as friends, then becoming lovers and then exes. This past season saw them revert to a friends with benefits arrangement but one that was almost kiboshed when Leonard proposed marriage – during sex, no less. Penny later said no to the proposal but is still content for them to sleep together. In short, this is one of the most unpredictable relationships I’ve ever seen on TV, outside of The Good Wife, which also didn’t play out as expected with lead characters Will (Josh Charles) and Alicia (Julianna Margulies). I honestly don’t know what will happen with the duo and that’s exciting. For a comedic tradition which usually prefers to unveil the slow tease between protagonists who are attracted to each other (see Cheers and comedically inclined Moonlighting, for example) with a consummation that usually destroys the chemistry between them, The Big Bang Theory’s approach is pretty unconventional and exciting, since we really have no idea what will happen down the road with Leonard and Penny. We’ve also seen Leonard gain supreme self confidence after being involved with the very sexually experienced Penny, amusingly turning into, well almost, a womanizer. He even had a fling with Raj’s gorgeous sister Priya (Aarti Mann).

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.


  1. The Big Bang Theory is still a great show but ...

    The biggest problem I see in it is this: The show is losing its uniqueness and is turning into another relationship-based show indistinguishable from many others. Recently, there has been too much relationship, too much sex and not enough science and geekiness.

    Also the characters are not fully coherent - let´s take Sheldon for example: I can´t really believe that the germophobic Sheldon accepts sleeping in Howard´s bed! Or - although he states he never dances, he actually did it when his friends desperately wanted to meet any females and went to a dance group with them. He also accompanied Amy, Bernadette and Penny to a dance and even explained the classical Viennese dance etiquette to them.

    I don´t mind the female characters, especially when Amy and Bernadette are also scientists, but I think the relationship part should be substantially reduced and more science should take its place. I believe there is definitely some potential in the female characters too.

  2. Both Howard and Leonard aren't very compelling characters, Howard's relationship with Bernadette is as unlikely as it is awkward. Leonard really isn't a very compelling character, as his obsession and constant attempts to 'possess' Penny end up painting him really a base misogynist. Even his relationship with Priya in the later seasons isn't very convincing. Also, why is he always squinting if he's got glasses? This is a least a minor annoyance, probably fixable by Galecki, but if this is indeed an intentional acting decision, it is very obnoxious. Really, the most compelling relationship on the show is the relationship between Sheldon and Penny, which is often pushed to brink of tolerance and beyond. Amy has also been a compelling character, and the episodes focusing on the female relationships are usually very good. Raj's inability to speak around women has grown tired, stale, and down right unbelievable. Luckily, the writing is still solid and Parsons and Cuoco remain funny, interesting, and compelling figures on the show. Thanks for the review. I enjoyed it very much.