The best traditional sitcoms are based around predictability and inevitability. Since all humor contains an element of the unpredictable to it, this sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. When you’re doing a continuing comedy series with continuing characters, most of the humor stems from the characters and how they interact with each other. Therefore, predictability – formula, in fact – becomes incredibly important. With a good enough set of character dynamics and a good enough formula, you can get away with season after season where you just slightly tweak said formula to find the laughs in the premise. If you set up Ted Baxter as the world’s biggest blowhard, someone everybody at WJM can’t stand, then you can get a lot of mileage by creating a situation where he’s going to meet Walter Cronkite at one of Mary’s dinner parties. If you set up Sam Malone as the world’s biggest lothario, then you can get a lot of mileage in throwing him into a relationship with a woman who doesn’t so much see that as something to recommend.
The Big Bang Theory, which is a very good show and not quite yet a great show, finds most of its predictability and inevitability inside of the legitimately great performance from Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper. The show is almost entirely built around the idea of how its other characters interact with the prickly, oft-annoying Sheldon, which is completely different from how it started out. At the series’ beginning, it seemed like it would be a show about how a hot girl has to put up with a bunch of nerds, and the humor was far less accommodating toward the nerd characters than it should have been. Fortunately, creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady saw they had something terrific in Parsons’ performance (particularly in the way he interacts with Kaley Cuoco’s Penny) and headed over to whatever show Parsons was starring on, which has gotten us to the fine little show we have today (and a show that seems like it could turn into something great). But the series seems compelled at times to revisit portions of its original premise – most notably Leonard’s crush on Penny – and that can be problematic.
The biggest issue with Sheldon is that he’s hands down the show’s best character, but he’s also a character it’s occasionally hard to buy the characters remaining close friends with, much less roommates like Leonard is. The show gets around this by giving Sheldon enough of a mushy center that his persnickety nature and sharp edges don’t seem to be his only character traits. So we get the sense that these characters may find Sheldon hard to deal with from time to time, but they ultimately enjoy his company enough that they’re willing to put up with who he is. And from some of the other characters we’ve met who inhabit the characters’ circles, there are far worse folks they could be hanging out with than Sheldon.
Tonight’s premiere, then, was based around the idea that the guys’ time with Sheldon at the North Pole was so annoying that they faked experiment results for Sheldon, which apparently validated string theory (something I did not know you could do with an electric can opener). Sheldon, of course, wrote an e-mail to the entirety of the staff announcing his discovery and believed himself to be on the verge of a Nobel Prize. But the other guys, knowing the truth, had to tell him that, well, what he thought was the case was not actually the case. When Sheldon found out, his angst led to him resigning from his position in shame and moving back to Texas to live with his mom (the wonderful Laurie Metcalf).
Because Sheldon is easily the show’s most interesting character, he’s also the audience’s favorite character, so that creates a situation where it’s often easy to overlook just how irritating being around him might be. To that end, everything the other guys did to Sheldon in this storyline could feel occasionally too cruel, as when Leonard didn’t seem to care that Sheldon had returned to Texas because he was so amped up to sleep with Penny finally and at long last. Because we never got to see just how bad Sheldon was at the North Pole, the other guys’ treatment of him seemed to come in a vacuum, which led to something of a needlessly cruel scene in the middle of the episode when Sheldon had a disastrous lunch at work, the guys unable to understand just how deeply in pain he was. Because Sheldon is the most interesting character and the story was one where he was inherently sympathetic, I think maybe the show needed to give us a better sense of just how irritating it would be to be trapped in a small, enclosed space with him for three months, rather than letting us fill in the “just Sheldon being Sheldon” blanks on our own. (On the other hand, the scene where Penny tried to comfort Sheldon was a nicely done little bit of writing, calling back on prior knowledge about the show and deepening the show’s best relationship.)
But despite all of that, the storyline ended winningly, with Leonard finally being talked into heading down to Texas with Howard and Raj to retrieve Sheldon from his fundamentalist mother. Seeing Sheldon in his natural element, where the other kids made fun of him and his mother fairly berates him for believing in evolution, was a nicely telling little scene, suggesting so much about what makes Sheldon who he is and also showing how, despite their differences, he and his mother remain loving toward each other. It was also a nice moment for Sheldon to flaunt his lack of religion (though CBS would never let him come out and call himself an atheist), something you don’t see a lot of on comedic TV. And bringing the guys in to rescue him and again be his best friends was a nice payoff after an episode where they could seem a little callous.
Focusing much of the premiere on Sheldon was probably the right decision because the stuff with Leonard and Penny remains the one element from that old show from the early episodes of the first season and, thus, a little tired. Both Johnny Galecki and Cuoco are fine comic actors, but their chemistry leaves a little something to be desired, and the story of the nerd who lands the girl but then just isn’t quite a good enough lover is an old one that it doesn’t look as though it’s going to get any new twists here. Still, the show seems intent on bringing it back fairly often, so I’ll hope for the best.
In the end, it was a mostly fine premiere of a very funny show. It’s hard to see the show taking the quantum leap forward in quality from season two to season three that it did from season one to season two, but at least the show feels like it’s starting to take its characters and overarching storylines slightly more seriously. Though I reserve the right to complain if Sheldon is just suddenly re-employed by his old employer in the next episode with no explanation whatsoever.
- I just want to say that I really like the theme song for this show. It’s enjoyably geeky.
- "No, I'm not sassing you in Eskimo talk."
- "When I get around to writing my memoirs, you can expect a very effusive footnote and perhaps a signed copy."
- "In the world of emoticons, I was colon-capital D."
- "Did you just have the Nobel prize in waitressing stolen from you?"
- "While I do not have a scathing retort, you check your e-mail periodically for a doozy."
- "That's why I added the '-tator.'"