The success of The Big Bang Theory explained
Iconic comedy series usually last about 10 seasons – think of Seinfeld (9) or Friends (10); until the viewer abandons, the cast is crushed, or the inspiration is gone from the writers’ team. Does the 11th season of the unabatedly popular The Big Bang Theory – now on Netflix – mark the beginning of the end?
Every few years there is fierce speculation about a possible end of The Big Bang Theory. In spring the 11th and 12th season (
that would also be the last season) of the sitcom confirmed. That happened again after arguing about salaries: the big earners, including actors Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco, until recently reportedly earned a million dollars per episode and handed in a ton per episode to compensate their fellow actors Mellisa Rauch and Miyam Bialik. The latter duo were on the payroll for ‘only’ $175,000 per episode until last season.
Why the Big Bang theory is the best show?
Such salary problems are exemplary for The Big Bang Theory: with more than 17 million American viewers per episode alone, they are the undisputed showpiece of cable channel CBS. But everything beautiful eventually comes to an end, as main author Chuck Lorre also knows. With the introduction of spin-off Young Sheldon, about the youth of the renowned idiosyncratic character, he seems to be anticipating a life without his cash cow. Lorre’s latest creation was the best watched premiere of a comedy series on American television this fall. But before the younger versions of Leonard and Penny live on in cheaper television series with a younger, more unknown cast, a satisfying ending must first be thought up for the mother’s series.
In recent seasons, The Big Bang Theory has lived by the grace of flashing light relationships, which have brought with them the necessary drama between the subtle joke salvos. In the 10th season Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) married, and Howard (Simon Helberg) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) had a baby. After all, the eccentric tormentor Sheldon began a cohabitation experiment with Amy (Mayim Bialik), so that all the main characters, with the exception of Rajesh (Kunal Nayyar), moved into calmer waters from a relational point of view. The petty bourgeoisie has slowly worn in, although the characters – except for Penny – never really jumped out of the band anyway.
Thoughtful scientists like Sheldon act most of the time on the basis of their reasoning, as in the cliffhanger of the 10th season: the almost touching savant does not respond to the advances – an unexpected kiss – of colleague Ramona (Riki Lindhome), but after an aha-erlebnis flies resolutely to the other side of the country to ask his Amy, who is temporarily staying in university town Princeton, to marry him. In the first episode of the 11th season, we see whether the peculiar neurobiologist fully opts for the insufferable theoretical physicist. Should that be the case, a move from the apartment complex in Pasadena, with all those family expansions in the offing, seems insurmountable.
The fact that Leonard and Penny still live in Leonard’s old apartment, and that Sheldon and Amy live in Penny’s place, is not sheer laziness on the part of the scriptwriters. Key scenes are set over and over again on the well-known sofa, where Sheldon has carefully marked his seat, or in the doorway, which – as in Seinfeld and Friends – lends itself extremely well to slapstick. Above all – witness a glance at google – is living in Pasadena, where the employer of scientists – Caltech (California Institute of Technology) is located, about four times more expensive than in the rest of the United States.
The Big Bang Theory has hardly changed in all those years in terms of set and actually also in terms of the cast. So why do the experiences of the company remain as popular as ever? This is due to a combination of factors, including Jim Parson’s interpretation of Sheldon: the character who, through his T-shirts – with portraits of the golden section and a melted Rubik’s cube – expresses his love of science. His mouth is filled with witty inventions such as ‘Bazinga’, when he has fooled one of his fellow-sufferers with a scallop trick. Parsons described the success of the series and his character, for which he was awarded an Emmy Award three times, as ‘the perfect balance between cautious and witty in the writing process’.
Above all, the many jokes about particle accelerators and quantum mechanics indirectly concern the characters; about recognizable themes such as love, wonder, friendship and tragedy. Traditionally, dialogues first share an inimitable observation with the viewer. As when Amy states in conversation with Sheldon: ‘If we combine my experiment with your calculations, we can determine the exact moment in time when the wave function will collapse. Then follows the witty, and more understandable, context of Sheldon: ‘This could be the most inspiring combination since I mixed a red soda with a blue soda. Then I drank 2/7 of the rainbow.’ Such (pseudo)academic analyses are alternated with more human (and sometimes cynical) reflections by non-scientists such as Penny, so that the comic equilibrium remains in balance.
With 4.3 jokes per minute – a journalist from New York Magazine calculated in 2014 – The Big Bang Theory also has the perfect comic tempo: not too fast and not too slow. This approach, intended to attract a large audience, may be counterproductive in the near future. The Big Bang Theory probably ends up in the category of the last of the Mohicans: in the current streaming era, with far from as homogeneous an audience as in the 90s, it is almost impossible to attract so many viewers, with the increasingly divergent demands and wishes of the viewer. For the time being, The Big Bang Theory is the exception to the rule.
The above development is the result of globalisation, a universal core culture, the rise of the Internet and the popularity of VOD providers such as Netflix. These 21st century innovations, embraced by Leonard and Sheldon, are likely to result in the extinction of the iconic sitcom among traditional cable channels. But that remains a guess: after all, who would have thought 15 years ago that a comedy series about secular scientists – with cameo’s of greats like intellectual Stephen Hawking – would excel in religious America. With the core message that intelligence prevails over appearance and knowledge over the accumulation of wealth. The Big Bang Theory is thus proof that the old harsh American Dream is indeed subject to change.
The Big Bang Theory S01-11, now on Netflix. This article was originally published in June 2018.