THE STATE OF THE AMERICAN SITCOM (III): THE BIG BANG THEORY by David Lavery

Printable version Friday 14 December 2012 Last updated at 12:43

 


This is the third of five Telegenics that will examine the state of the American sitcom in the second decade of the 21st Century. Earlier entries were on Community and How I Met Your Mother. Subsequent Telegenics will look at 30 Rock and Modern Family.



The Big Bang Theory’s Title Card

Sheldon: Leonard is upstairs right now with my archenemy.
Penny: Your archenemy?
Sheldon: Yes: the Dr. Doom to my Mr. Fantastic, the Dr. Octopus to my Spider-Man, the Dr. Sivana to my Captain Marvel . . .
Penny: OK, I get it, I get it . . .
Sheldon: You know, it's amazing how many supervillains have advanced degrees. Graduate schools should do a better job of screening those people out.
“The Codpiece Topology,” The Big Bang Theory (2.2)

Image from Amazon.com

British Cult Comedy already has its own Rough Guide, but only recently have we begun to routinely speak and think of American sitcoms as cultic. The first two American sitcoms I have contemplated in this series of Telegenics, Community, How I Met Your Mother, both wildly, playfully innovative, both rich with popular culture reference and “narrative special effects” (Mittell 35) both invite cult classification. Both seem mainstream, however, compared to The Big Bang Theory (TBBT), Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady’s nerdapalooza, a cultish from the get-go friends sitcom which follows the hilariously pitiful lives of four Caltech scientists and comic book geeks.


Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady (images from Collider.com)

TBBT is not the most famous Lorre/Prady TV creation. Their Two and a Half Men, formerly starring the certifiable Charlie Sheen, was America’s top-rated comedy prior to Mr. Tiger Blood’s meltdown earlier this year (leading to his expulsion from the show and public feud with Lorre). Even before Sheen’s personal problems became the stuff of international infamy, TBBT was gaining fans and securing its place among American TV’s most-talked about sitcoms. Prior to its bold move into a highly competitive Thursday night slot, it acquired new viewers, cultish and mainstream alike, in each of its first three seasons. Here are the numbers (from Wikipedia).

Just take a look at our “heroes,” each embarrassingly dressed for a costume party as the same superhero (The Flash).


Screen capture from “The Big Bran Hypothesis” (1.2)

Here’s what they look like out of uniform.

 

Top: Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons); Front: Howard Wolowitz (Simon Hedberg); Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Naygar), Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki)

(Image from Wired.com)

All PhDs—in theoretical, experimental, and nuclear physics (except for the schlemiel Wolowitz, who holds an MA in engineering); all obsessed with superhero comic books, videogames, and science fiction; all inept, in varying degrees, with the opposite sex (Koothrappali, for example, is struck dumb in the presence of a woman—unless very drunk), they spend most of their off-campus time in Sheldon and Leonard’s characteristically sitcomish Pasadena, California apartment, engrossed in their often anal obsessions. In the pilot, however, a sexy neighbor (also a sitcom staple), Penny (Kaley Cuoco), an aspiring actress now waitressing at the Cheesecake Factory, moves in across the hall and disturbs the equilibrium.

Here’s a characteristic sample of TBBT’s unusual, cult-infused/science-rich clever but maddening dialogue:

Leonard: Penny, wait.
Penny: Yeah?
Leonard: Um, if you don’t have any other plans, do you want to join us for Thai food and a Superman movie marathon?
Penny: A marathon? Wow, how many Superman movies are there?
Sheldon: You’re kidding, right?
Penny: Yeah, I do like the one where Lois Lane falls from the helicopter and Superman swooshes down and catches her, which one was that?
Leonard, Sheldon and Howard together: One. (Raj raises one finger.)
Sheldon: You realize that scene was rife with scientific inaccuracy.
Penny: Yes, I know, men can’t fly.
Sheldon: Oh no, let’s assume that they can. Lois Lane is falling, accelerating at an initial rate of 32 feet per second per second. Superman swoops down to save her by reaching out two arms of steel. Miss Lane, who is now travelling at approximately 120 miles per hour, hits them, and is immediately sliced into three equal pieces.
Leonard: Unless, Superman matches her speed and decelerates.
Sheldon: In what space, sir, in what space? She’s two feet above the ground. Frankly, if he really loved her, he’d let her hit the pavement. It would be a more merciful death.
Leonard: Excuse me, your entire argument is predicated on the assumption that Superman’s flight is a feat of strength.
Sheldon: Are you listening to yourself, it is well established that Superman’s flight is a feat of strength, it is an extension of his ability to leap tall buildings, an ability he derives from Earth’s yellow Sun.
Howard: Yeah, and you don’t have a problem with that, how does he fly at night.
Sheldon: Uh, a combination of the moon’s solar reflection and the energy storage capacity of Kryptonian skin cells.
Penny: I’m just going to go wash up.
Leonard: I have 26 hundred comic books in there, I challenge you to find a single reference to Kryptonian skin cells.
Sheldon: Challenge accepted. (Tries door.) We’re locked out.
Raj: Also, the pretty girl left.

On Seinfeld  (“The Stock Tip,” 1.5), Jerry and George debate whether or not the Man of Steel has super humor, but has there ever been sitcom dialogue like this? We learn in the "making of" documentary on the Season One DVDs that TBBT has an actual particle physicist as an on-set consultant to make sure they get all the string theory jokes right. A conversation between neighbors is a given of the form, but this must be the first sitcom in which a character—Sheldon of course—announces "I need your opinion on a matter of semiotics" (“The Hamburger Postulate,” 1.5).

Aquaman, Lord of the Rings, Darth Vader, Batman, Green Lantern, Planet of the Apes, quantum gravity, dark matter, neurobiology, supercolliders, Halo, Jar Jar Binks, Babylon Five, Kirk and Spock, the Incredible Hulk, Schrödinger’s cat, the eponymous big bang theory—all play roles. Cult rockers Barenaked Ladies supply the theme song. Sheldon’s nemesis, the rival scientist Kripke, shares his name with the creator of the cult series Supernatural. Marvel Comics mastermind Stan Lee, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Will Wheaton, Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackoff, Firefly and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicle’s Summer Glau make cameo appearances.


Hedberg, Glau (screen capture from “The Terminator Decoupling,” 2.17).

TBBT’s titles are cultish as well. Here is a sample.

"The Luminous Fish Effect,” "The Middle-Earth Paradigm,” "The Cooper-Hofstadter Polarization,” "The Loobenfeld Decay,” "The Pancake Batter Anomaly,” "The Nerdvana Annihilation,” "The Pork Chop Indeterminacy,” "The Codpiece Topology,” "The Euclid Alternative,” "The Panty Piñata Polarization,” "The Lizard-Spock Expansion,” "The White Asparagus Triangulation,” "The Killer Robot Instability,” "The Terminator Decoupling,” "The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation,” "The Adhesive Duck Deficiency,” "The Einstein Approximation,” "The Large Hadron Collision,” "The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification,” "The Hot Troll Deviation,” "The Thespian Catalyst,” "The Prestidigitation Approximation,” "The Wildebeest Implementation,” and "The Roommate Transmogrification.”

Each faux-abstruse, quasi-scientific appellation makes sense in a way, but you have to be there.

Here's an hilarious moment from the Christmas 2008 episode ("The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis") that perfectly captures the show's cult DNA.1 The scene’s ending—in which the severely damaged soul Sheldon awkwardly hugs Penny—reportedly brought Cuoco to tears.

Though TBBT’s whole ensemble is consistently brilliant, Parsons’ Sheldon is the series’ greatest comic creation (Parsons won an Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy last year and a 2011 Golden Globe). Like Community’s Jeff Winger and How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson, he is a poster child for dickishness, obsessive-compulsive, arrogant, egomaniacal, almost sexless.2 Has there ever been a more infuriating television character that we loved to hate so much?

In “The Staircase Implementation” (3.22)—TBBT’s take on a now almost-obligatory sitcom staple, an origin story, flashing back to how its major characters first met—we are amused by the following dialogue:

Sheldon: [reading his standard roommate agreement to new roommate Leonard] "Roommates agree that Friday nights shall be reserved for watching Joss Whedon's brilliant new series Firefly."
Leonard: Does that really need to be in the agreement?
Sheldon: We might as well settle it now; it's gonna be on for years.

Sheldon’s complete certitude about everything is one of his most annoying, exasperating traits, but, of course, he is completely wrong. Firefly would be cancelled after only eleven episodes. If instead he had been similarly certain about the show which has given him existence, why then he would have every reason to be confident.

 

 

1 For those who cannot view the video, here is the essence of the dialogue:

Sheldon: Oh good, Penny, you're here to exchange gifts. You'll be pleased to know that I'm prepared for whatever you have to offer.
Penny: [handing Sheldon his present] Ok, here.
Sheldon: Hmmm. [starts to open his present] I should note, I'm having some digestive distress, [Leonard shakes his head no] so if I excuse myself abruptly, don't be alarmed. [completes opening his present] Oh! A napkin.
Penny: Turn it over!
Sheldon: [becomes weak at the knees and has to sit down as he reads] "To Sheldon. Live long and prosper. Leonard Nimoy."
Penny: He came into the restaurant. Sorry the napkin's dirty, he wiped his mouth with it.
Sheldon: [gasps] I possess the DNA of Leonard Nimoy?!
Penny: Well…yeah, I guess. But look, he signed it!
Sheldon: [visibly shaking] Do you realize what this means?!?! All I need is a healthy ovum and I can grow my own Leonard Nimoy!
Penny: Okay, all I'm giving you is the napkin, Sheldon.

“The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (2.11)

2 In the following exchange we get a sense of how his colleagues feel about the egomaniacal Dr. Cooper:

Howard: Over the years we've formulated a number of theories about how he might reproduce. I'm an advocate of mitosis.
Penny: I'm sorry?
Howard: I believe one day Sheldon will eat an enormous amount of Thai food and split into two Sheldons.
Leonard: On the other hand, I think Sheldon might be the larval form of his species and someday he'll spin a cocoon and emerge two months later with moth wings and an exoskeleton.
Penny: Okay, well, thanks for the nightmares.

“The Cooper-Nowitzki Theorem” (2.06)

Comments:

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  1. Rosie White

    2013-07-16 11:24:17

    Just re-read this piece; it reminded me of all the aspects of the show that make it so good - yet I'm troubled by how the subsequent seasons (particularly Season 6) have worked to close down the friends' nerdapalooza qualities - primarily by ushering them into heterosexual pairings. No more jokes about Wolowitz and Raj as a married couple then...


  2. Nicole

    2011-08-03 23:58:50

    Great overview! A friend insisted that I borrow his season 1 box set and now I’m hooked! Sheldon is definitely a character I love to hate and then love again within 5 minutes. Trying to find season 2 thru 4 has been treacherous but I’m eager to watch them all before season 5 begins. I’m looking forward to the new season although I’ll be too busy with school to catch the new episodes sitting at home.


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