The Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory is a sitcom starting with four male scientists – the two male leads are physicists – and the pretty waitress who moves in across the hall. The cast is eventually joined by two female scientists in different fields of biology. During its twelve-year run, each episode running a little less than twenty minutes, the scientists go from being very socially awkward nerds to less socially awkward nerds.

Caveat: I am married to a theoretical physicist, so I am aware of many of the people and the theories discussed on the show. I’ve been to CERN frequently, enough times that I kept wondering why, if Sheldon was so interested in going, he didn’t just buy a ticket and go?

Before you continue, let me warn the following paragraphs contain a few spoilers. However, sitcoms are not really about plot twists but about making you laugh, so reading this review should not harm your enjoyment of the show.

Title musings. "The Big Bang Theory" refers to the theory about the Big Bang, which is the theory about how our universe began. "The Big Bang" can also be used metaphorically to refer to sex, mostly to the male orgasm, which, at the beginning of the series, is mostly theoretical for the four male scientists.

The Characters

The show managed to have reasonable arcs for all of the characters, who frequently feel like people I know. There were a few missteps along the way – inevitable for a series that spans a dozen years.

Leonard Leakey Hofstadter. I think he was supposed to be the heart of the show, and certainly at first he appeared to be the most mature. However, the writers dropped the ball a little with him as others – especially Sheldon and Howard – absorbed a lot of the attention. Leonard’s only real goal was to marry Penny and keep her happy. He works hard and gets excited about his projects, but he is too balanced.

Sheldon Lee Cooper. He’s superintelligent and superneurotic, but the writers needed a few episodes to nail down his neuroses. In the first episode he was prepared to masturbate for money, but that quickly morphed into his being practically asexual for several seasons. In the first few episodes he didn’t have his three-knock mania either. He quickly stole the show, as his personality provided so much of the conflict.

Penny. They never give her a last name; she only becomes Penny Hofstadter after she finally marries Leonard. She struggles as an actress but despite making a commercial never really makes it. At one point there’s an excellent conversation between her and Leonard, where he points out that what she is trying to do is really, really hard; the odds have always been against her. Penny also gives us the perspective of how daunting the super-intelligent can seem to those who are not academically gifted, but she also brings a warmth to the lives of these young men that they need.

Howard Joel Wolowitz. He starts out as a creepy guy, still living with his mother, but his arc is amazing. As he isn’t one of the main leads (unlike Penny and Leonard), the writers don't try to drag out a Friends Ross/Rachel style romance supposed to last the entire run of the series; instead the writers could follow the Friends Chandler/Monica approach. And because of that, Howard really matures. He is the first in the gang to marry, then to become a semi-celebrity by going out to the International Space Station, and then he and Bernadette have not one but two children.

Rajesh Ramayan Koothrapali. In my opinion the best-looking of the guys, he is hindered by selective mutism; in other words, he could not speak around attractive women. This means that in many scenes he has far less speaking time than the other characters, and that hinders his development. I was glad when he finally started narrating at the planetarium and they stopped hiding his good looks by making him dress badly all the time.

Bernadette Maryann Rostonkowski. She starts out as clueless (not catching jokes), with an overbearing mother (a bonding point for her and Howard) and very sweet. She ends up being bright; the mother never appears to be powerful; and Bernadette has a mean, duplicitous streak that is wonderful to watch. She and Howard really love each other. She has two kids on the show, one right after the other, which happened because the actress got pregnant, then miscarried, and got pregnant again.

Amy Farrah Fowler. At first Amy is only a female Sheldon, and then she goes nuts for Penny, and then the writers find a good arc for her. She is a convincing neurobiologist because the actress is a real neurobiologist. In the finale they finally dressed her better.

Stuart Bloom. He's the owner of the comic-book store where the four males hang out. In first few episodes he is much more confident, then the writers changed him and made him a broke hypochondriac and a skilled moocher.

Pluses

Celebration of scientists. Too often scientists are shown as crazy people, often with malevolent intentions. The Big Bang Theory shows them as human beings, although they generally approach life’s problems from a scientific perspective.

Celebration of facts. I love how irritated the scientists get when someone says you can have your own opinion about facts.

Celebration of intelligence. Intelligence is shown as a positive in this show, although frequently Sheldon is too obsessed with his own intelligence and put-downs of everyone else. Gradually they recognize there are other forms of intelligence as well, such as emotional intelligence and street smarts.

Celebration of creativity and passion for what they are doing. What is lovely to see is that the characters are almost always enthused in their activities, a level of engagement in whatever they are doing, whether it is work or play.

Celebration of friendship. The group at first feels like a set of rejected outsiders, but because their friendships are so deep and so real, they become the insiders. I relate to them far more than I ever did to any of the characters on Friends, but that may be due to my situation.

The Big Bang Theory is often really funny, in the way a sitcom is supposed to be.

Minuses

The laugh-track. I have read somewhere that it’s technically not a laugh-track, because it’s based on real people, but the continual laughter at the jokes was annoying for the entire twelve-year run, with the few exceptions when I had it entirely muted and was using the captions. I know people who refused to watch the show because of the laugh-track.

The theme song. I appreciated the lyrics, but it was just too irritating.

Too much bathroom humor. Too many references to the fatness of Mrs. Wolowitz. So many references to colonoscopies! And I have never heard any physicist – or anyone, for that matter – use the word “coitus.”

In the last season, the writers tried inserting some conflict between Penny and Leonard in that she decided that she never wanted kids. First, this was inconsistent with things she had said earlier in the series. I noticed complaints on message boards that she should have been a strong woman and stayed that way, and that a woman has the right to choose not to have kids. I agree with the latter, but I also think it’s something you should bring up before you get married. Given how often Penny was worried about getting pregnant before (but wasn’t), might have been more realistic – but less heartwarming – for her to be unable to have children. Anyway, that whole storyline was poorly executed.

The apartments are located on the fourth floor, but they kept going back and forth on whether or not that means three flights or four flights of stairs. If you’re located in the United States, it takes three flights to get to the fourth floor. Leonard settled that in one episode but the writers kept making mistakes.

Changes made for the fact that this is a sitcom

The writers took many liberties with respect to how universities actually function, from what they were doing to how tenure works and so on.

Usually theoretical physicists have to wait decades for their theories to be proved – which has to happen before a Nobel prize can be awarded. They sort of excused this by having it be proved by accident, but still, its happening was really, really fast.

Bits and pieces and stray remarks

The theory division at CERN usually holds a Christmas party that includes a ridiculous skit. At one of these skits, a sign was made displaying the face of Sheldon Cooper on it.

Because I’m a physics groupie, I attended, as a spouse, a conference in Paris celebrating the 50th anniversary of the laser. I remember asking one of the Nobel prize winners what the best thing was about having won the Nobel prize. He said it was the reserved parking spots on his campus for Nobel prize winners. So one of the episodes, in which Howard and Sheldon are fighting over a parking spot, struck me as extra-funny.

My theory about why the elevator was fixed in the finale: the owners of the building realized that two Nobel prize winners were being forced to walk up and down the stairs.

Why on earth was Sarah Michelle Geller/Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the Nobel ceremony? It was a fun rando cameo, though.

Overall Rating

This show is entertaining, a sitcom that might be a little old-fashioned for some viewers now, but one that celebrates creativity, science, and friendship. It's my comfort show, the one I turn to when I'm tired or a little under the weather. Three and a half out of four stars.

Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

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