On October 4, 2007, I wrote in my column: “There’s a new CBS sitcom that has one of the funniest pilots I’ve ever seen. The Big Bang Theory features two Star Trek/computer nerd roommates who clash when a young woman who works at The Cheesecake Factory moves in across the hall. They argue over string theory, drop the names of Oppenheimer and Huygens, and have the Periodic Table on their shower curtain. It’s very funny, but it probably has no chance.”
Rarely have I been so happy to have been wrong. The show is now in its sixth season and is often the No. 1-rated show in all of TV. It regularly drubs the once-powerful American Idol in the Thursday night time slot and is actually growing in strength, thanks (in no small part) to the fact that it’s on in syndication just about everywhere, all the time.
When the show first started, I was in rapturous love with it. Physics jokes, countless sci-fi references, and a core of geeks who were, by age, adults, but, by temperament, stuck in that place where they were getting wedgies from their respective high-school bullies. And it was consistently very, very funny. At the center of the show are the two roommates—Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki). Their names are a loving homage to TV pioneer Sheldon Leonard, who was responsible for such early sitcoms as The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room For Daddy); The Andy Griffith Show; The Dick Van Dyke Show; and the groundbreaking, multi-racial I Spy.
Both Sheldon and Leonard have Ph.D’s—Sheldon having earned his as a teenager—and both work at Cal Tech, along with their buddies (Dr.) Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) and Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg). Howard has a Master’s in Engineering from M.I.T., which makes him the runt of the intellectual litter in that peer group. The “You only have a Master’s degree” jokes are still going strong after six years and show that there is a pecking order in every social group.
When the show started, Penny (Kaley Cuoco) had just moved in across the hall and Leonard immediately had the warm, trembling thighs for her. The two guys had just returned from an aborted attempt to earn money for increased bandwidth by making deposits at a sperm bank. When Penny asks what they do for fun, Sheldon deadpans, “Well, earlier today, we tried masturbating for money.”
Against all odds, Leonard wins Penny’s affection, but then loses it for a couple seasons after he blurts out that he loves her, sending her running for cover. He later has a relationship with Raj’s lawyer sister, Priya. (This guy gets waaaay more sex than the nerds I’ve known over the years.) he’s back with Penny now, but it’s shaky.
Raj, who is unable to talk to women unless he has alcohol in his system, was actually the first in the group to have sex (in the hilarious first-season Halloween episode, in which Sheldon went to a costume party dressed as the Doppler Effect). But Raj is generally cast as a lonely metrosexual who is just a bit too metro, even for his own liking.
Wolowitz is now married to the diminutive and abrasive Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski, a microbiologist who earns much more money than Howard and never lets him forget it.
But by far the most appealing relationship is that of the completely asexual Sheldon and his “girlfriend” (by written agreement), Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik). They met when Raj and Howard uploaded Sheldon’s info onto an online dating site and it spit out Amy. After Sheldon and Amy hit it off in an incredibly nerdy way, Howard, who was standing nearby, turned to Raj and said, “Dear God, what have we done?”
In the beginning, Amy was as uninterested in sex as Sheldon, but she has evolved to the point where she loves Sheldon and also has a crush on penny. Amy recently faked an illness so that Sheldon would have to rub Vicks on her chest every day, as stipulated in the Boyfriend/Girlfriend Agreement. They’re obviously heading in the nookie direction, but I wonder what it will do to Sheldon. Will it give him the ultimate insight into the universe or will it have the same effect as Samson getting a haircut?
The show overcame multiple obstacles. Its first season was cut short after only eight episodes because of the Writers Guild strike. It attracted only 8.4 million viewers its first season, but grew steadily from there. It dipped slightly when CBS moved it from Monday to Thursday, but it is now roaring. Many sitcoms have a seven-year run, enough for solid syndication but not so much as to get stale and repetitive. If anything, Bang may not have peaked yet. It looks like it could easily go 10 years.
It caught on a long time ago in geekdom and has spread in to the real world. Sheldon, who neither recognizes nor understands sarcasm, tries to play lame practical jokes on his friends, after which he shouts, “Bazinga!” A recently discovered species of bee in Brazil was named Euglossa bazinga and the character also has an asteroid named for him, 247247 Sheldoncooper.
It’s not the greatest sitcom of all time. It’s not avant-garde like Seinfeld or as technically excellent as The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Frasier. It’s probably not even the best sitcom on the air today (that would be Modern Family). But it’s in my all-time Top 10 and it’s going strong.
Perhaps, as Leonard likes to think, nerds will rule the world someday.
This week’s episode of Girls wasn’t completely awful, for a few reasons. We didn’t have to listen to Jessa whine about why her life sucks. Star/writer/producer Lena Dunham kept her clothes on. And Judy Collins sang “Someday Soon” at a nightclub.
We did learn that Hannah’s (Dunham’s character) OCD has come roaring back, probably triggered by the stress of having to write the e-book. She does everything in groups of eight (including masturbating eight times before going to sleep; that’s nice to know). It was probably just a coincidence that it was the eighth episode of the season. Right?
To Dunham’s eternal credit, she cast as her father the wildly underappreciated Peter Scolari, who started off his career as Tom Hanks’ roommate in Bosom Buddies and then had a brilliant run as the self-absorbed TV producer Michael Harris on Newhart. It’s good to see him, even if it’s on the unfunniest comedy in the history of television.
Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals continues through Sunday, Jan. 26. Visitors may examine unframed photographs chosen around… More