Here’s an argument defending why that show currently holds a one out of three thumbs up on my TiVo.
The Big Bang Theory can be a touchy topic to talk about. On the one hand, it’s the highest rated sitcom on TV. On the other, it’s been called incredibly lazy (and even offensive) television. I’d like to point out some word choice there because it’s crucial for my argument.
This show is a “sitcom.” Not a “comedy.” That’s an incredibly important distinction. The two can oftentimes be one and the same, but sometimes a show will draw a line in the sand and decidedly state what they intend to be. Sitcoms are rarely, if ever, truly great television. Cheers and Seinfeld, yeah, these were sitcoms that redefined their genre. But not every comedy is a sitcom. I’m not saying that BBT is comparable to Archer, Louie, Parks and Recreation, or even Workaholics. A sitcom is a decisive format. There is an X, Y, and Z to every script. There’s even three set locations that most of the major scenes will always take place because they have to be built, on a sound stage, and filmed sometimes still in front of an audience. It’s popcorn TV. It’s something to throw on after dinner. In a landscape of Last Man Standing, Modern Family, The Middle, and Men at Work (TBS is really trying to produce sitcoms these days) my argument is simply that it does deserve to fall on the higher end of things.
Objection 1: The easy joke
Let’s call this one out right away: the most common criticism I hear is that show isn’t funny because it falls back on that stereotypical nerd joke over and over again. That guys who read comics can’t talk to girls and have no social skills and can speak Klingon. It’s the same joke that’s been done on everything, including The Simpsons (hell, that show created the mold many of the characters on BBT are based on). If you can’t get past this fact, stop reading. You won’t be able to access the better part of the show. If you can muster it up to roll your eyes at the softballs there’s something better there.
This is largely character based. Reactions to jokes are just as enjoyable as the comedy itself. The actors can deliver physical comedy and read lines the right way to make it more amusing when on paper it’s probably pretty brutal. You can forgive a comic or even a friend for making saying something stupid in jest if they’re likable. It’s what makes easy jokes OK. A lot of times, something isn’t funny because of the words used – it’s funny because that specific character said it. The more time spent with the cast, the more you appreciate that. More on this shortly.
Objection 2: Interest
Regardless of a show’s writing staff’s ability to write jokes, it’s far worse if they can’t write anything interesting. I would argue that a sitcom with lame jokes but an interesting setting is far more acceptable than a sitcom that’s just boring. A sitcom with puns and fart jokes that can hold your attention is better than anything ABC churns out where you can’t even remember any of the characters’ names by the end. BBT offers something to the television landscape to at least define itself as something with the possibility for stories that haven’t been done to death.
Set at a university and having a majority of the characters academic successes allows the writers to explore cliches in different settings. It’s a sitcom – it’s nearly impossible to think “this hasn’t been done before” but the new benchmark in the genre is “this hasn’t been done THIS WAY before.”
Objection 3: The characters
This is actually the biggest strength the show has going for it. People see the Sheldon character (Jim Parsons’ role that won him Emmys over Steve Carell on The Office year after year) and are immediately turned off. I’ll give ground on this. A lot of the focused on his eccentricities which you can compare to Seinfeld’s Kramer (at best) and Family Matters‘ Steve Urkel (at worst). It’s jarring and off putting – but it isn’t all that’s there. You have to get past this point.
The show wisely realized it couldn’t carry the same joke over and over again for multiple seasons and actually had characters grow and develop to the point where the joke couldn’t be made anymore. Hell, jokes made at the expense of others but all of the main characters are hugely successful over the course of the series run thus far. BBT doesn’t treat its characters as punching bags (well, not all the time) when it comes to real issues – just in the moment of the easy joke. As the characters develop, bits and pieces of lame easy jokes fall to the wayside for the better character driven humor. And better defined characters were added to the current cast.
I’m specifically referring to the women added to the show, this is another. As much as the early seasons relied on Sheldon being… well, weird, to attract viewers the staff added more female characters to the show. Non stereotypical ones that blended naturally with the developing cast. They’re a highlight on the show now and are actually written well. It isn’t the usual Chuck Lorre Two and a Half Men treatment. Sure, there are still stereotypes (it is CBS after all), but now there’s a fully fleshed out cast.
I doubt this will change any minds as to whether someone will ever watch this show, but I offer this up as an explanation for the millions of people who do. This isn’t ground breaking television. Hell, it feels silly analyzing it this in depth (even though the AV Club does it weekly). But as far as sitcoms go, it’s on the higher end. It’s something to throw on if you have a bad day and just need some popcorn TV to relax. Get past the things people who don’t watch the show already know about it and you’ll find the reasons people do.