I Love ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ And You Should, Too.
By Rob Hoerburger, The New York Times Sunday Magazine - May 26, 2013
There is probably no more grievous transgression in the current culture wars than being a late adopter, missing the boat, signing on to something that the rest of the plugged-in world absorbed, analyzed, digitized and deleted last year, last month, five minutes ago. Even though the avalanche of movies, TV shows, music, e-books, apps, social media, gadgets, etc., has made it impossible for anyone to be a prescient expert on everything — even everything good.
Such a surplus of options can lead to a kind of cultural snobbery, the denigration of an artist or art form simply because you missed it the first time around. More than one prominent music critic, for instance, didn’t anticipate the fireball that was Adele in 2011 and then, several platinum certifications later, wrote begrudging mea culpas that basically said, “I guess she’s O.K.”
I was guilty of this kind of critical elitism. Until a year and a half ago, I had never seen an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” Yes, that “Big Bang Theory.”
The show, which seemed to be a fairly traditional sitcom about four scientists at a Pasadena university and their quest to navigate the world from a book-smart yet socially addled perspective, with the help of their street-smart waitress-actress neighbor, had been on the air for four years, and my avoidance of it was textbook snob. It was a prime-time network show, and I hadn’t been beholden to anything prime-time and network since “Seinfeld” ended its run in 1998. And “The Big Bang Theory” was on CBS, long seen as “the old-people network.” Moreover, one of its creators was Chuck Lorre, who was partly responsible for another CBS sitcom, “Two and a Half Men,” that seemed one-jokey and never really held my attention for more than two and a half minutes. When “The Big Bang Theory” appeared in 2007 alongside “Two and a Half Men,” I figured it would be a cheap grab at ratings from the undiscerning set.
Even when Jim Parsons, who plays the Nobel-craving, coitus-avoiding, Purell-packing, sarcasm-challenged, boy-man genius Sheldon Cooper, won an Emmy after the third season, the show still wasn’t generating much buzz in any of the oh-so-hip Web forums I visited or at my weekly happy hour, where more than half the discussion is usually about TV. In the back of my mind I was thinking, Eh, it’s O.K., even though I still had not seen a single episode.
Then Parsons won a second Emmy. The ratings steadily ticked up to the Top 20 from No. 68 in the first season. The show was moved to Thursday night, where it proved stiff competition for “American Idol.” Somebody, or rather, lots of somebodies, knew something was going on. In the fall of 2011, with the show now in inescapable syndication, I decided to actually watch an episode.
It took roughly a week of nightly viewing before I realized how impoverished my life had been for the four years that I was oblivious to “The Big Bang Theory.”
The touchstone, the lodestar, the flypaper for me at first was, predictably, Parsons. In his dervishy nerdiness, he seemed to evoke any number of classic TV neurotics or fussbudgets: Paul Lynde, Tony Randall, Pee-wee Herman. Watching Parsons’s every twitch, wiggle, full-body smirk or social paroxysm — his O.C.D. knocking on friends’ doors (three knocks/name, three knocks/name, three knocks/name), his recurring line about “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested,” his litany of his “61 mortal enemies,” his continued rebuffing of the advances of his girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) — is alone worth any half-hour spent on the show.
But as the weeks went by, the show’s many other virtues unfurled (by the end of 2011, I had seen almost all the older episodes more than once and started collecting the DVDs; some nights I would wake up after midnight just to watch the most recent episode as soon as it became available on demand). Here was a popular prime-time sitcom in which five of the seven main characters were Ph.D.’s and another had “only” a master’s from M.I.T., a hit show that regularly referenced bosons and derivatives and string theory, a show in which there were running gags about Madame Curie and Schrödinger’s cat.
The real behind-the-scenes heroes, though, are not the science advisers but the geek experts. The accuracy of the nerd oeuvre — the obsession with superheroes, “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” (before their umpteenth viewing of the movie, Howard, the M.I.T. engineer, says to Sheldon, “If we don’t start soon, George Lucas is going to change it again”), comic books and video games — is sometimes so eerie that I feel as if I’m watching a high- (or low-) light reel of my own life. In one episode, Sheldon goes to a computer store and is soon being asked for advice from tech-illiterate customers, to the point where he hacks into the store’s mainframe to check on the availability of an item. (“O.K., we don’t have that in stock,” he says to a customer, “but I can special-order it for you.”) He stops only when a real salesclerk reminds him that he doesn’t actually work there. Change the date to 1971, the computer store to a record store and the item in question to Judy Collins’s version of “Amazing Grace,” and that could have been me.
Beyond any navel-gazing thrill for me or other current or former nerds, the masterminds of the show — Lorre, Bill Prady, the showrunner Steven Molaro and others — have dared to produce a TV program that plays not a whit to the aspirations of its audience. You might laugh at the characters, pity them or love them, but you don’t want to be them (especially because you might already be them). There are a good amount of pre- and postcoital scenes, but they’re not especially sexy. These are not especially pretty people. A friend of mine who’s also a recent convert to the show says that she has a problem with Howard (Simon Helberg), the gnomish, dickie-sporting mama’s boy. “I can’t look at him,” she says. Even Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the bombshell across the hall, often appears rumpled or with a bottle of cheap wine hanging from her like an extra limb.
By the end of the sixth season, which wrapped last week, the characters had started to mature, while remaining true to their essence. Howard has been somewhat redeemed by living the ultimate nerd fantasy — becoming an astronaut — but even more by the love of a good woman, Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), whose oft-remarked-upon “ample bosom” is overshadowed by the fact that she’s smarter than he is and makes more money. Raj (Kunal Nayyar) finally seemed on the verge of a real relationship with a new character named Lucy (until she dumped him in the season finale last week), even as his sublimated love for Howard continues to surface in spontaneous belches. (In Raj and Amy, “The Big Bang Theory” could very well have two bona fide bisexuals among its characters.) Sheldon appears headed for some kind of revelation — either a Nobel-worthy discovery, his first real sexual experience or a nervous breakdown. The on-again-off-again (currently on) romance between Penny and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) may reach some resolution, but it almost certainly won’t have the fairy-tale ending of Ross and Rachel on “Friends” or Carrie and Big on “Sex and the City.” If they ever do marry, Leonard will most likely have one hand on his asthma inhaler at the ceremony and Penny will have one hand on a bottle of chardonnay. (Or a basic physics text; one roadblock to their relationship has been her concern that she’s not smart enough for him.)
The main direction that all of these characters continue to head in, though, is toward one another. With their social “shields” down (as one character puts it), they have direct access to their own and one another’s feelings — and buttons, especially when formulating the perfect insult. The intimacy that they achieve, and the chemistry among the actors, is certainly on a par with that of long-running sitcoms like “Cheers” or “Will and Grace” and is approaching the territory of maybe the greatest TV ensemble cast of all time, from the show about the Minneapolis TV-news producer and her coterie of kooky, lovable friends and co-workers, people whom you didn’t necessarily want to be but whom you always wanted to be around.
Unlike “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (29 Emmys in its seven years on the air), “The Big Bang Theory” is a bit underdecorated. Parsons has his two Emmys, but he should have easily won a third for his work in the fifth season, if for nothing else than playing the bongos and singing about the subjunctive mood. Galecki and Bialik have received single Emmy nominations, but the show has never won for best comedy series, and its writing and directing have never even been nominated, having most recently run up against the awards juggernaut of “Modern Family,” an altogether hipper, sexier (if not necessarily funnier or smarter) show.
And while my own proselytizing about “The Big Bang Theory” has earned it a few new fans, many of my would-be converts remain unconvinced. When at one happy hour I lauded the guest appearances of Christine Baranski as Leonard’s mother, one of my buddies sneered, “She’s too good for that show.” When I praised the show in passing in a previous column, one of my editors strongly urged me to reconsider (“Replace it with anything else,” he said). And this from my haircutter: “But isn’t it about . . . nerds?” (She eventually came around.) So even though the show has lately been earning its highest ratings (20 million viewers for one episode in January) and has been regularly finishing at No. 1 on the Nielsen list, it has remained something of a guilty pleasure, an affection that you don’t broadcast too loudly. It’s still a little lonely at the top.
For me, though, true validation came last summer when I was on vacation, walking up a darkened hill in the kind of resort town where the smart TV talk veers toward shows like “Girls” and “Mad Men.” I was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “bazinga,” Sheldon’s self-satisfied exclamation whenever he thinks he’s got the better of one of his pals. A car crept toward me, a window rolled down and my shields went up: Uh-oh, I thought, here comes some snarky comment. Instead the driver just said the word, Sheldon-like, quietly but rascally: “ba-ZING-a,” and then moved on. It was an acknowledgment of a shared secret, a coded utterance of the sentence that some people wait a lifetime to hear: How cool are we!
Twenty million nerds can’t be wrong.