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A look back at the Big Bang Theory

It’s been a while since I’ve been excited about CBS’ odd, geeky sitcom. Twelve seasons on, the time feels right to say goodbye to Sheldon and the gang.

This week is a benchmark in television history.

One of the longest running live-action sitcoms ever is finally bowing out. Thirteen years since it first aired, The Big Bang Theory will be airing its final episode in the coming days after which the lights will be permanently switched off.

With everything neatly wrapping up, I thought it fitting to take a retrospective glance at a show that’s garnered as much derision as it has awards.

Despite its huge success, this nerdy show deserves many of the criticisms that surround its formulaic writing, treatment of its characters, and attitudes toward both relationships and racial diversity. In many ways, CBS’ cash cow represents the worst of archaic sitcom writing. Yet, it remains wildly popular, drawing in huge ratings, and continuing to be a staple of dinner-time TV.

So where have these criticisms come from? Should we be welcoming the end of Chuck Lorre’s biggest on-screen triumph, or are we taking it all too seriously?

Prepare for way too much writing about a show that was probably never intended to be dissected so heavily.

From humble beginnings to big success

It’s easy to forget now, but the show didn’t take off immediately. Two pilots were made just to get the project off the ground and after a relatively luke-warm reception, it seemed cancellation was probable.

CBS kept to its guns, though, and the show steadily grew as the seasons went on. Others have noted that The Big Bang Theory came into its own during the rise of mainstream geek culture, accidentally riding a wave of superhero films and comic book resurgence that drew in new viewers.

Suddenly, Doctor Who fanatics and box set bingers were far more commonplace, setting up an ideal context for The Big Bang Theory to thrive. For a time, it was almost universally loved and was often considered this decade’s answer to Friends.

This move from standard cable network show to cultural touchstone has lead to a loyal and consistent viewership, one that’s remained large throughout the years. On average 18 million Americans tune in every week to watch, making it one of the highest rated prime time shows.

That’s despite glaring problems with script quality and political correctness that have become more and more outdated with time. Many have called into question multiple aspects of the show, from its jokes concerning Raj to its mistreatment of geek culture.

Are you taking notes yet, people?

Problems with masculinity and geek representation

The show’s central cast are at the mercy of conventional masculinity, frequently humiliating one another for their failure to live up to stereotypical ideals of manhood.

As Pop Culture Detective on YouTube explains, the four friends participate in the societal expectations of manliness that have alienated them from their peers their entire lives. Raj is consistently mocked by his friends for having more stereotypically feminine tastes, his enthusiasm for party planning and weight watching almost always the source of so-called comedy.

Check out the video below for a full break down of how the show mishandles its male characters.

It’s not just masculinity that’s been a problem – geek culture has also taken a hit.

Commentators frequently point out that The Big Bang Theory uses nerd culture and niche references for its own benefit, always making them the butt of the joke. We’re routinely encouraged to laugh at the cast, never really with them. Mentions of sci-fi and fantasy are done so for the sake of it and are rarely explored in authentic ways.

WIRED have also explored this topic, describing the show as having ‘fundamentally uninteresting characters’. It’s a critique that’s worth being aware of, especially when you notice how many jokes in the show rely on an overflow of references rather than simple, solid writing. You can watch the full video below.

But what does this all really mean for its legacy?

It certainly hasn’t dampened viewer stats, profitability, or slowed down the seasons that have been churned out consistently for years. It may be coming to an end, but you’ll still be seeing it on rotation for a long time. Whatever criticisms the show endures, they clearly have minimal effects on its popularity.

Perhaps a more relevant question is…

Will The Big Bang Theory genuinely be missed?

With time, the show changed, in part to cater to a wider audience and, if I’d hazard a guess, to make longevity possible.

The four boffin cohorts, Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj respectively, were the original core of The Big Bang Theory. Their inability to fully grasp social situations was a distinctive dynamic in an otherwise fairly standard sitcom structure.

The humour of the show was initially aimed inward. Nerdy references and awkwardness were the sole punchline most of the time.

As the show went on, this became less so, with Penny’s character becoming more than just a love interest and additional characters such as Bernadette and Amy adding some much-needed variation. The focus steadily moved from nerd-bashing and pure geeky references to relationship troubles, the original uniqueness falling away.

The Big Bang Theory was never really much different to the run-of-the-mill sitcom and the longer it continued, the more obvious that became.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. But as things finally finish up, it doesn’t really leave a lasting impression or seem to have the same cultural gravitas as we’ve seen from other sitcom finales.

Despite its huge audience figures, and continued airing, it feels as though The Big Bang Theory is quietly fading away without much of a final roar. There’s no real fanfare, or hyped anticipation, and I think a large reason for that is because the show never dared to really push boundaries, progress, or experiment with its character arcs outside of shifting toward more relationship focused writing.

It was a thoroughly predictable ride from beginning to end. Comfortable, easy to watch, but rigidly unambitious. I can’t say I’ll really miss it, and I think that’s true for many people.

Sorry, Sheldon.

The bright side

All of this probably seems like harsh bashing of a mainstream show. It’s cool to hate something that’s popular, right? Am I a hipster now?

Despite all the grating I’ve just thrown at you, there are of course some positives. It’s cast was well chosen, with superb comedic skill demonstrated by everyone. Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki’s dysfunctional roommate performances were always immensely watchable and the chemistry remains, even over a decade since the show started.

For all of its problems, The Big Bang Theory at least offered characters that slightly deviated from the norm, even if they did succumb to stale sitcom tropes in the end. I was even a fan for a short while when I was younger. That say’s something, at least.

But it does seem right for the show to end and I’m glad the lights are finally being turned off.

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