The one criticism of CBS’ high-rated, geek comedy The Big Bang Theory uttered most often is a pithy “I don’t get why it’s popular”—a very simple declaration of how baffling it is that a lot of people, maybe even loved ones or friends whose opinions are usually valued, actually want to use up precious minutes of their day watching a by-the-book sitcom with a distracting laugh track and an over-the-top lead character who has a grating personality disorder. Naturally, there’s a Family Guy quip that speaks to the WTF of it all: “I keep not laughing at The Big Bang Theory and I figure, it’s gotta be the television.”
To clear up the confusion that those who “don’t get it” might have, you’re right, there isn’t anything revolutionary about the series—this isn’t an Arrested Development, a Girls, or a Curb Your Enthusiasm—so anyone expecting to be immediately bowled over by the writing will likely end up disappointed but, what it lacks in edginess and subtlety, it makes up for in charm. In fact, in recent years the show has primarily been charm-driven (as opposed to being comedy-driven), which—now that I think about it—may be a little bit revolutionary.
Co-created by Two and a Half Men’s Chuck Lorre, Big Bang is built around the insular friendship of four socially inept scientists. The degree and style of that ineptitude is sharply differentiated, varying in a typical quirky, sitcom-y fashion: Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) is the libidinous one who still lives at home with his overbearing mother, Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) can’t speak to women, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is an asexual, egocentric super genius with an almost misanthropic aversion to meeting new people, and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) is a nerd in the classic sense—glasses, nasally voice—and less awkward than the rest. They watch Doctor Who, are intimately familiar with every Star Trek iteration, collect action figures (which are never removed from their original packaging, duh), and use big, science words.
As characters on a major network sitcom, the guys are the embodiment of the mainstreaming of geek culture and even though the way that they’re characterized has always come off as stereotypical and consciously nerdy (what’s with those weird sweater vests?), when the show debuted in 2007, Howard, Raj, Sheldon, and Leonard were kind of a mirror for people with values shaped by science-fiction and superhero comics—the show wasn’t merely appealing to members of this demographic, it was about them. As I said, the most common criticism has been “I don’t get it,” however, the most common explanation of the show’s pull—specifically while standing in a 2,000-person deep line before the Big Bang panel at Comic-Con—is “these guys remind me of my own group of friends.”
What a skeptic who only recently gave Big Bang a shot might not realize is that there was a time when it was consistently funny, albeit in a non-threatening, CBS kind of way. Setups showcasing the group’s amplified nerdiness (developing an algorithm for making friends; adding “lizard” and “Spock” to the rock-paper-scissors game) were solid hits. In the first two seasons, the standout was Parsons’ artfully strange Sheldon—his totally committed rigidity was the nucleus of the show’s humor.
As is the case with most sitcoms, though, the quality has dipped in the five years since its debut—something that, ironically, has a lot to do with the increased focus on the Sheldon character and the exaggeration of his formerly endearing idiosyncrasies. What sustains fans through the recent spottiness is an attachment to the characters that was developed and cemented in earlier seasons. This is basically how all shows work—we love the characters or love to hate the characters so we continue to watch—here, though, it’s become the primary draw.
Big Bang has one of the most likable ensembles on TV today and the dynamic between the characters is always very cute. Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the blonde neighbor girl with the average IQ who counters all the geekspeak with her normalcy, has been Leonard’s on-again-off-again love interest but Cuoco and Parsons share the greatest chemistry. It’s through Sheldon’s interactions with Penny (an uncharacteristic hug; singing the “Soft Kitty” lullaby to her) that his vulnerability and humanity come through. A Big Bang fan lives for these sorts of tender moments and right now, they’re the most gratifying element of the show. The fifth season finale finds the gang holding hands as they watch recently wed Howard, who’d been preparing for a trip to the International Space Station all year, take off. The scene would have been enough to give a faithful follower chills and obviously less moving to someone who wasn’t invested in these characters.
There are elements of the show as it stands right now that could probably be appreciated by anyone. For one, Mayim Bialik as Sheldon’s brainy, sort-of girlfriend Amy Farrah Fowler is an expertly achieved foil to both Sheldon and Penny, and Bialik’s Emmy-nominated performance last season managed to be both endearing and discomfiting. But just like offbeat, meta Community, Big Bang is a niche show. Its niche audience just happens to be 15 million strong.