Monday, September 24, 2012

Box Set Blues: The Big Bang Theory

Here is a list of 10 episodes of endangered cult show Community I could probably write full length reviews of: 

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Modern Warfare, Remedial Chaos Theory, Paradigms of Human Memory, Critical Film Studies, Contemporary American Poultry, Debate 109, Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design, Epidemiology and what the hell, Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps. And I still haven't seen more than half the third series. 

Here is a list of 10 episodes of seemingly unstoppable smash hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory I could write a full length review of: 

...

Right then...

The point here is that reading around the internet, I recall a time when The Big Bang Theory was the cool kid on the block, but these days its less so, partly, I think, because it's hugely successful now and partly, I think, because Community is better in almost every way and yet teeters on the verge on cancellation. And the shows are not without their similarities - geek friendly writing, pop culture awareness, a principle character with some sort of mental health disorder which is never made explicit but lurks in the background when it's not being played for laughs. But TBBT is broad and safe where Community is unpredictable and spiky, and in some ways it is easy to see why the former is more successful than the latter. 

The Big Bang Theory reminds me of nothing so much as Friends. For all the dressing about a group of really smart guys who work at a university and talk about science! and comics! plus their hot-but-down-to-earth neighbour, TBBT is really a show about a group of broadly recognisable character types sitting around having minor adventures about largely inconsequential stuff. You have a shy one, an rude one, a "normal" one and a weird one. They may have an episode about where to old their Halo Night rather than how to score tickets to Hootie and the Blowfish, but really the situations and episode beats are the same. Different instruments playing a familiar rhythm. 

This all sounds very much like damning with faint praise but to be honest the secret of most sitcoms that last, and remain funny, is that you enjoy time spent with the characters, and decent gags keep coming. TBBT has both these qualities, and over the course of three seasons we've seen so far, it holds up pretty well. The familiarity with the characters starts to drive the comedy, so whilst any given episode tends to have a "invent situation, add characters, stir" feel to it, it remains funny and on the right side of laughing with, not laughing at the show. 

The big problem I have with TBBT isn't that it uses geek culture for laughs, then, but that it remains pretty shallow. A major arc involving two characters dating, then splitting up again is all very well, but with no emotional weight behind it, its just a setup for more gags along the way. No-one seems to get really hurt, there's no sense of anything at stake, it's just a few zippy one-liners and move on. And whilst I've called it a big problem in another sense it isn't - as Z described it, it's like popcorn; you eat it, you enjoy it, you want more, but it's never going to fill you. 

So why is The Big Bang Theory successful? Well because structurally and spiritually its in a long line of successful sitcoms that are lightweight, broad and unchallenging as well as actually funny and likeable. The Physics and the comics gags are stage dressings, not the heart of the show, Sheldons semi-aspergers behaviour isn't saying anything about that condition, it's really just a variant on the "weird and wacky room-mate" tradition going back to, well, forever. Its definitely become a show I look forward to watch, but not a show I think I would often re-watch, and certainly not a show I think I could love in the same way I love Community