The Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory. Mondays on CBS, 8:00pm ET/PT

As a genre, the sitcom has seen better days. For the past four years, since both Frasier and Friends went off the air in 2004, the only sitcom I’ve watched with any regularity is The Office. I’ve seen a few here and there that seem to be pretty good (30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother) but just not quite catchy enough to pull me in every week. And, of course, numerically speaking, there just aren’t that many on the air anymore. During the ’90s, my friends and I used to gather every Thursday night for 4 sitcoms back-to-back, followed by an episode of ER. No more.

A few months ago, my friend and colleague Donnie Page expressed amazement that I was not watching The Big Bang Theory . He said that not only was it flat out hysterical, but that the characters were so up my ally he felt that I should have had something to do with the show. So, during the summer, Frank and I purchased a few episodes on iTunes and gave them a spin.

After the first two episodes, we ended up buying the entire season. And watching each episode two and three times. And waiting and waiting and waiting for the new season to start to give us new episodes.

The Big Bang Theory reminds me, thematically, of Frasier, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. Many of the same elements are there: characters who are much more intelligent than average, an unrequited love affair that promises to add humor as the show continues, a surrounding cast of interesting friends and family, and a workplace environment with unlimited possibilities for future plots and characters.

If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t even heard of it, The Big Bang Theory centers around two roommates, Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki of Rosanne fame) and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons). Both are theoretical physicists working at a university in Pasadena. Sheldon, the brainer of the two, is so socially maladjusted that he borders on being autistic. Leonard, almost but not quite as smart as Sheldon, is pretty much a classic geek – but otherwise normal. In addition to the two roommates, their best friends Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar ) and Howard Wolowitz (Simon Hedberg) add to the nerdy mix.

Across the hall from the two physicists lives Penny (Kaley Cuoco), a typical blond actress / model who works at a local restaurant while waiting for her big break. From the day she moves in (the first episode, “Pilot“), Leonard is completely smitten with her. Many of the episodes deal with Leonard trying to look good in front of Penny, in hopes of establishing a romantic bond.

So, that’s the situation in this situation comedy. What makes it so funny, however, is how well this is all written. The writers go to great lengths to ensure that all of the dialog is scientifically accurate, down to the scribbles on the blackboards. All four of the guys are major geeks, being fans of comic books, science fiction, computer and role playing games, and everything related. Various episodes have seen the gang attending a Renaissance Fair; trying to outdo each other in a Halloween costume; bidding on a prop from the movie The Time Machine ; and getting non-geek Penny hooked on online gaming.

Most of the spit-your-milk laughs come from Sheldon’s inability to understand human interactions that don’t directly involve him. In one episode, Sheldon cannot understand the point of giving someone a birthday present. He protests that it does not make any sense to spend money for someone on their birthday, and then have that person spend money to buy you a gift on your birthday. “Why doesn’t each person just keep the money and call it even?” he asks Penny. Howard whispers to Penny, “Just tell him it’s an obligatory social convention”. When Penny does this, Sheldon nods and says “Fair enough”, and goes off to buy the present – but first requires detailed instructions about exactly how to fulfill his “social obligation”, so as not to violate any of the rules.

In any properly developed sitcom, the characters need to be consistent and well-rounded. The Big Bang Theory takes care to do this. Last season, there was an off-hand remark that Howard rides a scooter (this in response to his claim that he “rides a hog to work every day”). Sure enough, this season, when showing Howard driving Sheldon to work one day, he’s on a red scooter. Raj’s parents in India have made several cameos by appearing on video during Instant Messaging sessions. Sheldon’s mother and sister from Texas has visited. The writers keep pretty good notes; we’ve only caught a few slip-ups in continuity, mainly regarding the descriptions and number of Leonard’s past girlfriends.

I’ll leave this by summarizing two of my favorite episodes from Season One (both available either on iTunes or on DVD):

In “The Cooper-Hofstadter Polarization” (episode #9 from Season 1), Leonard and Sheldon are invited to a physics conference to present a paper together. Sheldon, however, is reluctant to share credit in public for an idea he thinks is his alone, and also doesn’t see the point of having to present the work before other scientists: he thinks they should simply take his word for it. When Leonard decides to go by himself, the war is on. The episodes ends with the two getting into a geeky shoving and fighting match on stage at the conference – which, of course, Howard videotapes and uploads to YouTube as “Physicists Gone Wild!”

In “The Bat Jar Conjecture” (episode #13 from Season 1), the gang are preparing to compete in the Physics Bowl. Sheldon, not aware of the concept of team play or sportsmanship, cannot understand why he alone can’t answer all the questions. After an extemely annoying practice session, they boot Sheldon off the team and replace him with Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert), fellow physicist and occasional girlfriend of Leonard. As it turns out, Leslie considers Sheldon her “nemesis” and delights in destroying Sheldon’s ego during the competition.

This season has turned out to be just as funny and consistent, and a pleasure to watch each Monday night. We of course Tivo the show and watch each new episode a couple of times over several nights. Yes, it’s that funny.

And I haven’t even mentioned the fantastic title sequence, complete with a theme song by Barenaked Ladies:

Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait…
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
Math, science, history, unravelling the mysteries,
That all started with the big bang (Bang!)

So, if you’re not watching it yet, and you like a good laugh, change your channel to CBS on Mondays at 8pm. Or set your Tivo. Or buy the set of DVDs. Or log on to iTunes and click “Buy”. Or go to CBS’ web site and watch an episode online.

It’s the 21st century, you know, and now that we’re living in the future, we can laugh at any time of the day and in many different ways.

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