Big Bang Theory Theory (you should have one)

6486b283fb6900b4f3bea3d15906069bThe Big Bang Theory represents one of  the big puzzles for the student of popular culture.  It brings in 23 million viewers at a time when most shows would be happy to have half that number.

Big puzzles are important.  They represent anomalies so large and powerful that everyone is forced to pay attention.  In this superbly fragmented intellectual moment, they give us a problem in common.  Everyone should have a The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) theory (TBBTT).  

TBBTT can serve as a sorting device.  Searching for a question to ask a grad school candidate?  This is perfect.  “Tell me  why The Big Bang Theory is a success.” Either you have a good, interesting, original, powerful and nuanced answer.  Or you don’t.

In a recent Entertainment Weekly, Amanda Dobbins canvassed a number of experts to construct an answer to the The Big Bang Theory puzzle.  She captures several explanations.

1.  Casting: great, veteran actors (Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper)
2.  Prized Time Slot: Thursday night
3.  CBS Factor:  Les Moonves is a genius
4.  Demographic reach of the show: loved by young and old
5.  Catchphrase: “Bazinga” allows TBBT to live outside the show
6.  Setting: the “French farce” advantages of the apartment house
7.  Setting: extraordinary efficacy of that couch as a comic platform
8.  Multi-camera format: and the intimacy it makes possible
9.  Pacing: Goldilocks’ perfection: not too brisk, not too slow
(this is a partial list)

I would have liked to have seen more on Chuck Lorre.  There can’t be any question that he’s a comic genius.  His gifts were on full display in Two and a Half Men but that show was loathed by some for the unapologetic low-brow, frat-boy, bro-ness of its humor.

And it’s almost as if Lorre was saying, “What, you think my humor depends on pandering to the lowest common denominator of male humor?  I can make anyone funny, even egg-head, anti-bros.  Just watch me.”  The Big Bang Theory may have been his “proof of genius” exercise.  Mission accomplished.

And I wanted more on the Sheldon Cooper character.  He is a deeply obnoxious human being.  And Dobbins notes how effective “monsters” can be for comedic purposes.  I wonder if the Parsons character doesn’t have Archie Bunker range.  We laugh at him.  We laugh with him.  We laugh at him and with him.

This would give the character his demographic breadth.   But it would also allow him to go to the heart of some of the issues, some of the contradictions, of our moment, and make them active, thinkable, graspable…not because Parson/Cooper resolves them as contradictions but because he lives them as contradictions…or we live them as viewers.  This is a moment when we have seen the cultural center of gravity move from heroic males to brainy ones, from creatures of mastery to creatures who are effective and influential in spite of (and some times because of) their social disabilities and eccentricities.  Sheldon Cooper may speak to some of the puzzles in our midst.

Finally, for me, and for all its virtues, the Dobbins’ treatment helps heighten the mystery.  All these factors seem right, but they don’t explain the success of this show.  Let’s be clear.  TBBT is a semiotic, political, cultural, entertainment miracle.  Mass media in the twilight of mass media.  A big show with extraordinary reach in an era where virtually every other show is smaller and more narrow in its appeal.  TBBT has bucked every trend, defied every tendency.  Explain this and other mysteries are perhaps revealed!

What is your TBBTT?


Find Dobbins’ essay here.

9 thoughts on “Big Bang Theory Theory (you should have one)

  1. Brittany Woodard


    I am glad you brought this up. I have spent many years racking my brain over why The Big Bang Theory is so successful, being an aspiring television writer, myself, it is important for me to figure out what certain shows are doing right. And getting an order for a record breaking THREE season renewal is definitely doing something right.

    What amazes me about this show is that it reaches non television lovers. My parents, who refuse to watch more than five minutes of scripted television per sitting, love this show.

    Yes, a lot of it has to do with the casting being perfect and the characters being absurd. But, at least for my family, I think a lot of their love also comes from the fact that they don’t have to try that hard to watch it. The Big Bang Theory has story arcs otherwise it wouldn’t be a show. However, the show takes note from sitcoms of day’s past. It evolves, but slowly. The story arcs are there but not completely necessary. If you miss a scene or even an episode it is not the end of the world.

    This is very different from many current sitcoms, like How I Met Your Mother, which requires its viewers to think back seasons to catch certain jokes. Or even Community, which pulls inside jokes from multiple pop culture origins that might leave some viewers feeling disoriented if they didn’t certain must-see television events.

    The Big Bang Theory makes it easy for its viewers to feel included. The jokes may be from episodes past but previous viewing isn’t required. And if the show does have jokes that require outside source material, it is usually explained.

    This is not to say that the show is simple. Clearly it is functioning on all cylinders. In theses days of binge watching, I think The Big Bang Theory understands that not everyone feels the need to know every minute detail about every character’s back story. Sometimes people just want to laugh, without having a show overtake their lives.

    1. Grant Post author

      Brittany, this is brilliant, as I somehow knew it would be, and it helps me see TBBT as an ecological adaptation takes advantage of yet another evolutionary development: the new complexity of TV. As you say, TBBT has a certain slow-pitch quality even as it dares go places where other shows have not (gone). That makes it a refuge for viewers who may feel too tested, even left behind, by the new TV even as it reaches out to audiences who are more than reading to field the weirder stuff. Fabulous. I hope you will drop by another time. Best, Grant

  2. John

    Must it have its own theory? Can it fit as one more exemplar of the theory of the sitcom, from Mary Tyler Moore to Doby Gillis to Seinfeld to Friends, itself a formalization of the Edwardian amateur dramatic society production in the church hall. A claustrophobically bounded stage space, Home but just a tad less tedious because uninvited entrances will occur at regular intervals. A small number, always an odd number never even, of Family, not symmetrical like ours but interestingly angled. A Life snappier than our own, but on no account nobler nor more degraded. We condescend to these people even as we invest them with charisma. They are perkier, cuter, brainier, dumber, more sharply drawn than we are but strategically flawed so while we draw on their vitality every seven days we don’t have to envy them. It’s Our Town, our times, they are our traveling players but unlike Hamlet’s they never trouble us with what’s really going on.

    1. Grant Post author

      John, thanks! But I can’t help feeling it is different. And my test for this sort of thing is to imagine whether the pitch for the show would have worked in the 60s or the 70s or even the 90s. “Look” says the would-be show-runner, “It’s going to be a show about people who are really pretty disagreeable…because they have no social skills to speak off and can be relied to offend just about everyone. Because they all have a neurological disorder. What? Yes, it’s a comedy!” Best, Grant

  3. Pat crane

    Several things I love about bbt:
    The characters all have significant vulnerabilities we can all relate to — and they all help each other through their vulnerabilities. Some are more self aware about their issues and of course Sheldon is completely unaware.
    I also think the casting of “secondary” characters is particularly brilliant– Mrs Wolowitz! Mrs Cooper, dr hofstader (christine baranski), bob Newhart, amy Farrah fowler, Bernadette, kripki, the comic store owner, kutrapali’s parents, and on and on!

  4. Indy

    OK – coming to this late – but I came to the show late too.

    I think there’s a lot in all the things posted already – some great writing by Lorre; quality performance by Jim Parsons and others; the ecological niche in a more complex world; the sheer power of the sitcom form…

    However, I think the centre of the show is in this comment by you, Grant:

    This is a moment when we have seen the cultural center of gravity move from heroic males to brainy ones, from creatures of mastery to creatures who are effective and influential in spite of (and some times because of) their social disabilities and eccentricities. Sheldon Cooper may speak to some of the puzzles in our midst.

    1) Cooper’s struggles with the “illogic” of the world mirror our own. Social certainties have broken down, so we’re more often Cooper than we were… but at the same time, we struggle with the “technology” world – and he struggles with the “normal” world – a distorted mirror.

    2) The ongoing rise of the “geek” – Cooper is our Zuckerberg proxy… that’s the world, as you note, we are grappling with. We’ve been talking it about signs of it before TBBT came along – and then here is TBBT.

    3) Atomisation and segregation – let’s compare it to friends for a minute. There are many more moments where people are alone – and the guys and the girls live in separate places. I think there’s more here than meets the eye. I think there’s a new reality settling out, a new awkwardness?

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