I approached The Big Bang Theory (TBBT from now on), the show created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady only four years ago, when the series was in its last few seasons (twelve in total, from 2007 to 2019). Not only that: before seeing even a single episode I had already developed a certain antipathy towards the series and its fans. The reason? It bothered me that people who had never seen Star Trek or read any comic whatsoever would laugh at jokes that assumed prior knowledge of at least one of those things.
Let me give you an example: Wil Wheaton was a recurring guest star on the series due to his role in the first seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. His presence on the show and most of his gags are centered on that. The sole Sheldon screaming “WHEATON!!!” for revenge, a clear reference to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), isn’t funny if you haven’t seen the movie! And I had the (right) impression that most TBBT fans automatically laughed at something simply because it was perceived as nerd, and therefore cool (we are in the historical period in which the Marvel, DC and Star Wars films are the indisputable box office champions). Since I was nerd when it wasn’t cool, I didn’t like that at all.
Then I started watching TBBT and I changed my mind. Not on his fans, no, I was right on them. But I changed my mind on the series itself! I found it well written, at least in its first seasons, with nice characters, and with funny and well-constructed jokes. In short, now I’ve seen all of the episodes in chronological order (I have a mixed collection of DVDs and Blurays of the twelve seasons) and I felt like writing a post dedicated to the series.
Let me lay out some plot, if we can talk about an actual plot. It’s more of a scenario made to accommodate a wide range of stories, in full Friends style (and of countless other sitcoms). Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) are two physicists who work at the California Institute of Technology and share an apartment and aspiring blonde actress Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in in front of them. For Leonard it’s love at first sight, although Penny seems unattainable for a nerd like him. Moreover, two friends of Leonard and Sheldon immediately prove to be fundamental for the dynamics of the series: the astrophysicist Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) and the only one without a PhD (he only has a MSc), the engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) .
Sheldon is undoubtedly the engine of the series, the character who sets off all the comedy thanks to his absurdity and his way of relating to others. Not only is he a comic book and Star Trek nerd (the other three are too), but he’s also a genius and an obsessive compulsive maniac! Everything in his life is calculated down to the most infinitesimal detail, from its seat on the sofa to the cereals he eats in the morning, and even his bathroom schedule (and Leonard’s) and the dinners of each day of the week. The other characters are strange too, but in a more conventional way: Leonard ‘s a clumsy nerd madly in love with Penny, Howard is obsessed with girls, and Rajesh is too shy to even talk to any of them (at least initially).
To keep up twelve years of the show, however, it was inevitable to add characters, and so here come little Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), female Sheldon Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik, the only one with a PhD in the real world), and the owner of the comic shop, and later also Howard and Bernadette’s trusted babysitter, Stuart (Kevin Sussman). To be honest, in the last few seasons there are so many characters to follow that the stories get too fragmented, but I’ll get there!
As in all long-lasting sitcoms, it’s possible to find macro-stories that develop over the many seasons and are mostly related to the couples that form throughout the series and to the work-related adventures of our heroes (which include orbiting Earth with NASA, getting the Nobel Prize in Physics, going from being an aspiring actress to a successful business woman…), but these are only excuses to let the viewers care about the characters. In my opinion, TBBT has other strengths, and to be brief I will list the three main ones below.
- The writing of the episodes is absolutely brilliant, especially at the beginning. Clearly, some of the screenwriters are real nerds, and they even cared about the scientific parts thanks to a special adviser (David Saltzberg) who managed to make even the technobabble dialogues entertaining. In general, TBBT is a sit-com which requires some attention: it’s full of dialogues and if you don’t pay attention for a minute or two you may miss out on a lot of what each episode has to offer.
- The cast has been chosen well, there’s chemistry among the characters, and it’s easy to become attached to the strange group of people. Sheldon is without a doubt a superstar, but Leonard is also funny with his dynamics with Penny, although I have the feeling that these last two characters have been a bit sidelined in the last two or three seasons.
- TBBT over the years has had a disproportionate number of exceptional guests, sometimes with simple cameos, and sometimes in more structural roles even if limited in time. And here I cannot refrain from making a list, or rather two. The former includes all the guest stars who have appeared on the show as themselves, and the latter playing fictional characters instead.
The impressive list of guests who played TBBT versions of themselves, includes the following: Charlie Sheen (Season 2), Summer Glau (Season 2), Katee Sackhoff (Seasons 3 and 4), Stan Lee (Season 3), Steve Wozniak (Season 4), Bill Gates (Season 11), Buzz Aldrin (Season 6), Stephen Hawking (Season 3), Adam West (Season 9), Ellen DeGeneres (Season 10), Neil Gaiman (Season 11), Kevin Smith (Season 12), and Sarah Michelle Geller (Season 12 ). Then, from Star Wars: James Earl Jones – Carrie Fisher (Season 7) – Mark Hammill (Season 11), and from Star Trek: George Takei – Brent Spiner – LeVar Burton – Leonard Nimoy (voice only) – William Shatner – and the aforementioned Wil Wheaton who appeared in every season.
Not bad, eh? An equally impressive list includes guests who have played fictional characters, albeit in minor roles. Bob Newhart plays Professor Proton, Sheldon and Leonard’s childhood idol, and then appears as an Obi-Wan Kenobi -type figure for the former of the two. And then Christopher Lloyd appears as a bum in Season 10, Laurie Metcalf is Sheldon’s mom and Kathy Bates is Amy’s mom. And then I saw Stephen Yeun from The Walking Dead, Keith Carradine as Penny’s father, Billy Bob Thornton, Jerry O’Connell, Dean Norris, Sean Astin… The list is huge, and I certainly failed to recognize a number of guests which are popular in the US but not in Europe!
To conclude, these three elements (the quality of the writing and both the regular and the guest actors and actresses) in my opinion are more than enough to justify watching the series. The directing style is good, as it doesn’t overdo it but shows what it has to show in a classical / professional way. It’s inevitable for some seasons to be worse than others, especially those which concentrate too much on the love stories which, let’s face it, are not exactly the main reason to watch TBBT, but even those seasons at the end always contain at least a couple of funny episodes. Ciao!