Common theories date the Big Bang, which sparked our universe into existence, to 13.7 billion years ago. For many of us, it feels like impossibly-popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory has been on the air for much, much longer. If you’re lucky, on a particularly unfortunate evening, you might be able to catch syndicated episodes of the show airing on RTÉ Two, E4 and Netflix simultaneously, such is Big Bang’s omnipresence in the modern TV landscape.
Initially, it’s safe to say we all saw its appeal. As a naive 13-year old I admittedly spent a summer binge-watching the early seasons, guffawing at the hilarious adventures of Sheldon, Leonard, Penny and their geeky friends. Soon, however, the truth became clear: that Big Bang only has one joke, repeated over and over in every 22-minute episode for the past twelve years: that nerds are inherently ridiculous.
A standard beat in an episode of Big Bang sees a character walk onto a set, mutter a reference to a broadly-recognised cultural property (typically Star Trek, Game of Thrones or Batman), demonstrate a misunderstanding of a social cue, and pause while the studio audience roars with laughter. For those of us acquainted with the formulaic nature of multi-camera sitcoms (of which Friends and How I Met Your Mother are less aggravating examples), it’s tiresome and predictable comedy writing. For millions of adults and children around the world, it’s the highlight of their TV-watching week. At its peak in 2016, Big Bang had an average of 20.36 million viewers on the CBS network, making it the most popular scripted show in America (beaten only by Sunday Night Football).
It would appear that the key to the show’s success is overwhelmingly the broadness of its style: creator Chuck Lorre was previously responsible for Two and a Half Men, a comedy with a similarly simplistic approach to telling jokes. Big Bang arrived at the start of a cultural period when ‘geek culture’ (comic-books, sci-fi, high fantasy) has become the dominant culture, enjoyed by mass audiences who would at one point have seen Game of Thrones etc. as nerdy and inaccessible. Big Bang’s frame of references is sufficiently familiar for the CBS viewers of middle America (and, by proxy, their Irish counterparts); if it were to stray too far into acknowledging the extremities of nerd culture, the punchlines wouldn’t hit the “I Get That Reference” pleasure button and the studio audience would remain painfully silent. This is why, twelve seasons in, Big Bang keeps going back to the same well again and again. For twenty minutes it’s a moderately amusing concept for a TV show; for twelve years it’s a living nightmare.
None of these criticisms are to disparage the innate likeability of the principle cast: Jim Parsons’ depiction of Sheldon Cooper may be infuriatingly repetitive, but he’s a talented performer who has done solid work elsewhere. Simon Helberg, who plays the Howard Wolowitz character, has been superb in films like The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. That Big Bang is finally coming to an end is great news for the future prospects of these stars, who can hopefully use their accumulated millions from the show to produce passion projects and smaller screen endeavours for years to come.
The spirit of the show will continue to live on in hit prequel Young Sheldon (which is, shockingly, far less annoying than Big Bang itself). Yet, in a few weeks’ time, when Sheldon has hung up his Flash t-shirt and autographed Wrath of Khan screenplay for good, this infantile nonsense shall never darken the doorstep of the zeitgeist ever again.
Lucien Waugh Daly
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