The Big Bang Theory’s character and cast progression earns its viewers

The Big Bang Theory’s character and cast progression earns its viewers

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

About a decade ago, there was a theory that Everybody Loves Raymond would be the last multi-camera sitcom to be a top 10 hit that could be profitably rerun in syndication for years. CBS’s The Big Bang Theory has proven that there was room for at least one more.

Raymond and BBT are both Emmy-winning shows that are highly respected in the industry, but are held in contempt by a lot of TV watchers who don’t seem to like live-audience sitcoms anyway. They prefer single-camera sitcoms that are perpetually on the brink of cancellation—such as NBC’s Community, which has aired opposite BBT and has been thrashed in the Nielsen ratings.

But The Big Bang Theory’s success shouldn’t be surprising. Like Raymond, it’s about how people are rather than how people would like to be. Like almost every successful sitcom shot with a live studio audience, it makes its main characters seem foolish and vulnerable. And that formula beats comedies about smug and confident characters every time.

CBS premiered The Big Bang Theory in 2007, pairing it with the hipper—or more insufferable, depending on who’s asked—How I Met Your Mother. Chuck Lorre, who co-created the show with Bill Prady (formerly a writer for Jim Henson’s Muppets), had written for Roseanne and then created four consecutive successful sitcoms: Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Dharma & Greg, and Two And A Half Men. None were at the top of critics’ lists, but they made it easy for him to sell another sitcom about clashing personality types, this time pitting socially awkward smart guys against a younger, intimidatingly attractive woman (not that far off from the squares vs. hippies on Dharma & Greg).

In the first pilot, the female character lived in the same apartment as Sheldon and Leonard (first names taken from legendary TV producer Sheldon Leonard). The retool moved her across the hall, creating the most familiar pair of apartment doors in sitcom history. BBT ended up with five main characters, four of them research scientists at Caltech in Pasadena, California. Experimental physicist Leonard Hofstadter (Roseanne’s Johnny Galecki, eternally patient in playing opposite broader performances) lives with theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons, a Texan like his character). Their friends include aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg), who wears loud clothing, is always horny, and does things like getting his penis caught in a pair of robotic hands; and Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), an Indian immigrant who’s always overdressed for Southern California. (Sheldon is the only one of the four who regularly bares his forearms.) Up until the sixth season’s finale, Raj could only speak to women when drunk—though the show frequently drops hints that he’s bisexual.

In the official pilot, the guys meet the new neighbor across the hall: Penny (Kaley Cuoco), an aspiring actress and waitress at The Cheesecake Factory who tries to be friendly but is baffled by the boys’ scientific and sci-fi references. Leonard is immediately smitten with her, and their on-and-off sexual relationship is, well, a continuing occurrence on the show.

BBT premiered to so-so ratings and reviews that were lukewarm or worse. On this very site, Scott Tobias gave the pilot a D+ and called it a “canned fart,” accompanying the review with a screen shot from the contrived scene that had poor Parsons show off a pair of bulging tighty-whiteys.

Fortunately, CBS and/or the show’s producers sensed that a barrage of cruel jokes at the expense of four main characters, broken up by occasions to leer at the cleavage of the remaining cast member, wouldn’t foster long-term success. Two changes vaulted the show’s status.

The first was Parsons’ breakout performance as Sheldon, for which he has deservedly received five Emmy nominations and three wins. In the pilot, the character is a sour sidekick to the more romantic Leonard. But Parsons quickly makes Sheldon more sympathetic by making him a captive of his neuroses, someone only dimly aware of how much he’s missing by pushing people away. (Parsons addresses the idea that Sheldon has Asperger’s syndrome in this interview.) Sheldon’s traits, in turn, make the other characters more likable for doing all the work of maintaining friendships with him.

Parsons’ gift for physical humor—such as when gives himself a neck massage or acts out emoticons—and his ability to deliver complicated speeches to maximum comic effect—such as when he explains the rules of Rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock, popularized by not invented by BBT—makes Sheldon a foolproof character for getting laughs even when the scripts falter in other ways.

The second jump came with the addition of two female characters as regulars in the fourth season. Howard starts dating, and eventually marries, microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch), who is nerdy but more assertive than the guys; thankfully, this puts an end to the stories about Howard’s pathetic attempts to pick up women. Then Sheldon befriends neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik, finally bringing a female genius who isn’t an ice queen to the sitcom genre); she’s as sheltered and emotionally stunted as Sheldon, but with a much stronger desire to break out of her shell. The more gender-balanced cast widened BBT’s focus beyond the “smart guys are arrested adolescents” theme and, not coincidentally, boosted the show’s ratings to its highest levels.

Aside from its improved quality, The Big Bang Theory benefited from the rise in Comic-Con culture and the virtual takeover of Hollywood by comic-book franchises. Even if some people can’t identify with sci-fi geekery, there are similar obsessive societies all over America—fantasy sports leagues, gun owners, foodies. (Leonard and Sheldon arguing over the merits of superhero movies isn’t so different than Frasier and his brother jousting over wine vintages.)

At its best, The Big Bang Theory is about creating a comfort zone for oneself without letting it become a prison. Anyone who tries to make life simpler through a set of rules can identify with the characters—and hope that they’re more flexible than Sheldon who, in one episode, looks appreciatively at the French toast Penny’s made for him and says, “That does smell good,” before throwing it in the garbage because it’s Oatmeal Day, not French Toast Day. In another episode, the more self-aware Leonard explains the appeal of geekdom and role-playing games to Penny: “If a person doesn’t have a sense of achievement in their real life, it’s easy to lose themselves in a virtual world where they can get a false sense of accomplishment.”

A couple of decades ago, BBT might not be so remarkable, but today it stands out against single-camera sitcoms about high-functioning near-psychopaths, like New Girl and the recently canceled Happy Endings—shows about good-looking, uninhibited people who behave inappropriately pretty much all the time and are incapable of suffering real embarrassment. Even more humanistic single-camera sitcoms, like Parks And Recreation, give their characters a dignity that’s not afforded multi-cam characters, who must stay frozen with figurative or literal egg on their faces until the audience finishes laughing.

Consider the similarities between Sheldon Cooper and Parks And Recreation’s Ron Swanson: Both are misanthropic, change-averse men with a habit of making end-of-discussion pronouncements about the way people should behave. It’s Sheldon who complains to the Registry Of Motor Vehicles about the wording of the driver’s test, pointing out that a “car length” is not a standardized form of measurement, but it’s easy to imagine Ron making the same argument. Yet, television sophisticates honor Ron’s idiosyncrasies with a sleek Pyramid Of Greatness while Sheldon has to make do with fan pages on Tumblr.

BBT puts its characters though a lot of humiliation, but their triumphs feel earned as a result. When Howard overcomes his fears and embarks on a mission to the Russian space station, it’s more surprising and emotionally satisfying than if, say, Tracy Jordan had actually made it to the moon on the anything-can-happen 30 Rock.

The slow, but significant emotional growth of the characters is likely to keep viewers’ interest as The Big Bang Theory enters a seventh season this fall, and the possibility of Raj finally being able to talk to women is a hopeful sign. Even better would be the kicking away of other crutches, such as Howard’s screeching, never-seen mother; the speech-impediment shtick of Barry Kripke; and the masochistic wardrobe choices of Leonard, Howard, and Raj. The strong cast, not the running gags, is what’s attracting viewers now.

Here are 10 episodes to get newcomers up to speed. Mark Cendrowski directs all of them, except for “The Love Spell Potential,” which was helmed by Anthony Joseph Rich. Lorre and Prady share credit with multiple writers on almost all episodes.

“The Luminous Fish Effect” (season one, episode four): This is the real pilot episode, or the first one in which Sheldon is portrayed as oblivious to social convention rather than simply a jerk. He can’t help himself from insulting a new department head and gets fired as a result. The episode introduces the most reliable comic pairing of the series when Penny takes Sheldon grocery shopping and tries to cheer him up. (Penny: “I always say, ‘When one door closes, another one opens.’” Sheldon, perplexed by the idea: “No, it doesn’t. Not unless the two doors are connected by relays, or there are motion sensors involved.”) There’s also the first appearance by Roseanne alumna Laurie Metcalf as Sheldon’s fundamentalist mother, who talks about his building “death rays” in the garage as a child. The episode also highlights the show’s unfortunate fondness for jokes about menstrual cycles, which still isn’t as bad as the many references to Leonard’s flatulence yet to come.

“The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (season two, episode 11): The concept of reciprocity is Sheldon’s fixation in this episode set during the Christmas season—or “the ancient pagan festival of Saturnalia,” as he calls it. Distressed by the news that Penny has a present for him, he tries to get her something of equal value (solving for the unknown x). The revelation of her simple gift to him, and his ecstatic reaction, go a long way toward humanizing his character. Just think of this episode’s last scene whenever he crosses the line of being completely unbearable.

“The Staircase Implementation” (season three, episode 22): This is the inevitable origin story of how Leonard and Sheldon became roommates, and how the apartment building’s elevator was permanently put out of commission. Parsons gets to play flashback Sheldon as more deranged than ever, putting Leonard through a series of tests (“Kirk or Picard?”) and drawing up their infamous roommate agreement. The viewers also learn why Leonard is in Sheldon’s email spam folder: “I put you there after you forwarded me a picture of a cat playing the piano, entitled ‘This Is Funny.’” The bookend scenes of Leonard and Penny giving each other pedicures show that, while they’ve never been the most sexually charged couple on television, they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

“The 21-Second Excitation” (season four, episode eight): The guys wait in line for a midnight showing of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with a “previously unseen 21 seconds of footage,” and run into Sheldon’s nemesis—Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Wil Wheaton, whose first appearance, in the third season, gave BBT some real cred in the sci-fi community and helped it land increasingly prominent guest stars. Meanwhile, the girls have a slumber party, at which Amy takes her turn at Truth Or Dare to ask, “What is the circumference of your areolas?” There’s also Sheldon telling what he thinks is a great knock-knock joke: “Who’s there?” “Hugh” “Hugh who?” “Hugh people need to listen to me!”

“The Herb Garden Germination” (season four, episode 20): Amy and Sheldon spread the news that they’ve had sex—a falsehood as part of an experiment on how fast gossip can travel. (“Did they know that’s what they were doing when they were doing it?” asks an incredulous Raj.) Howard steps up his relationship with Bernadette, and Leonard explains baseball: “Get chosen last, get hit by the ball, cry, go home.”

“The Roommate Transmogrification” (season four, episode 24): Raj is driven from his own apartment when he overhears his sister engaging in Star Trek role-playing sex with Leonard. The solution is to swap apartments with Leonard—an arrangement that Sheldon finds surprisingly pleasurable, thanks to Raj’s ingratiating nature and Martha Stewart-sensibility. Consider this an experiment in how the show might handle things if Leonard and Penny finally move in together (or Galecki decides to move on).

“The Shiny Trinket Maneuver” (season five, episode 12): Sheldon has to make amends after dismissing Amy’s achievement of making the cover of Neuron magazine (“biology is all about yucky, squishy things”), sending him on another shopping spree. In an echo of “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis,” Amy is unexpectedly taken with her gift. Plus, Howard does his magic act, and Bernadette reveals that she hates children—and the feeling is mutual.

“The Date Night Variable” (season six, episode one): Just-married Howard can’t get away from his mother’s nagging even in outer space, a tired trope redeemed by the always-welcome appearance of an angry Bernadette. Back on the home planet, Sheldon “outsources” his duties as a boyfriend by inviting Raj to tag along on his dinner date with Amy. (Raj: “Isn’t this romantic?” Sheldon: “I hope that’s a rhetorical question, because I have no clue.”) Leonard and Penny try to get past his ill-timed marriage proposal, and the beginning of a possible alternative timeline is presented, in which Raj dates comic-book-store owner Stuart (Kevin Sussman).

“The Extract Obliteration” (season six, episode six): This Seinfeld-ian take on a current fad finds Sheldon playing Words With Friends with Stephen Hawking (“He’s a genius and he talks like a robot. Everything I’ve ever wanted in a friend!”), who turns out to be a terrible loser. Though Howard is fond of imitating Hawking, the physicist is indeed credited as a guest voice. The episode also has one of the series’ best scenes between Leonard and Sheldon, involving a chess clock, with an installment that puts Penny, Bernadette, and Amy together—a combination that always gets extra points.

“The Love Spell Potential” (season six, episode 23): In a standout episode for Mayim Bialik, almost all of the characters play Dungeons & Dragons in an outing that gently pushes Sheldon and Amy to a new level of intimacy, albeit without actual physical contact. (Sheldon: “I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons with girls before.” Penny: “Don’t worry, sweetie, no one has.”) Howard serves as dungeon master, giving Helberg the chance to do celebrity impressions, to Sheldon’s infectious delight. Meanwhile, Raj is in the rare position of being the more socially adjusted while out with girlfriend Lucy (Kate Micucci). 

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “The Loobenfeld Decay” (season one, episode 10); “The Nerdvana Annihilation” (season one, episode 14); “The Euclid Alternative” (season two, episode five); “The Hofstadter Isotope” (season two, episode 20); “The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation” (season three, episode one); “The Adhesive Duck Deficiency” (season three, episode eight); “The Agreement Dissection” (season four, episode 21); “The Flaming Spittoon Acquisition” (season five, episode 10); “The Countdown Reflection” (season five, episode 24); “The Proton Resurgence” (season six, episode 22).

Availability: The first six seasons are available on DVD and for purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes. Reruns of the series currently air on TBS and through syndication.

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