And, so after twelve years, The Big Bang Theory bows out and the primetime schedules take a fundamental shift…
Some have blamed Jim Parsons for the show coming to a close and it’s true that it was his choice to call it a day, rather than a collective cast decision, that firmed up concrete plans for this being the last season. But it would be a mistake to chastise him too harshly – Parsons isn’t the persnickety, self-obsessed Sheldon Cooper he plays and after twelve years there’s a perfectly reasonable, solid argument for wanting to explore other avenues (he’s received praise for his stage-work) and for the show to have run it’s natural course.
The universe may have started with a big bang, but there were many thoughts on how the series would depart – the ‘smart’ money being on a shot of a fixed elevator’s closing doors. (SPOILERS coming…) In the (near) end, that was a pay-off that came earlier in the evening. Instead the ‘drama’ came from whether Sheldon and Amy would win the Nobel Prize (spoiler: yes!!!!), how and when Leonard and Penny would break their own news (spoiler: pregnancy!!!) and whether Sheldon could stop being Sheldon for a little while (spoiler: for a final speech, yes!!!). There was a special appearance by Sarah Michelle Gellar, as Raj’s non-date for the award ceremony, but which seemed a left-field choice as – horrors – Buffy went off the air sixteen years ago.
There were those that disliked the show for some of its stereotypes and it’s true that the idea of comic-book stores being the bastion of sad, lonely males showed how little the production probably visited them in recent times (For the last decade, stores and conventions have noticeably had almost as many female attendees as male, a natural side-effect of the comics-culture moving into the mainstream and the ‘nerds’ of yesterday becoming the cultural movers and shakers in ‘cool’ Hollywood). But if the pop-culture cameos and comments were many, the humour and character-interaction were what made The Big Bang Theory sustainable and entertaining. When the show was at its best it was hilarious, heartfelt and a master of ensemble-wide good delivery.
It’s in watching older episodes that you can see the show’s real strengths building. Far too many comedies-of-the-moment don’t age that well, relying on topicality rather than wit… and their hit-rate slowing when out of context. However, quality wins out when the humour is relationship-based and when those cultural go-tos are worked in with care…. That the series was always a little nostalgic for simpler times and interests, undoubtedly helped. Say what you want about their legacies – and the internet certainly does – but the likes of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Star Trek and Game of Thrones will remain touchstones for more than one generation and so jokes built around them will endure.
But perhaps it’s also true that the show, while still a ratings-magnet, wasn’t quite as sharp as it had been, able and willing to sometimes rest on its well-established laurels and character-quirks for the sake of a one-liner. While it was still easily ahead of a lot of comedies out there, the episodes you’d catch from previous years in the multitude of reruns always felt just a little bit more funny than the latest. With confirmation that this would be the last year of the show, there was also a checklist of things to get to, with various supporting players having their obligatory appearances and some of the storylines (the Nobel Prize, Leonard’s issues with his mother, Raj’s love-life, the elevator finally repaired etc) felt more addressed for completion’s sake than others. The finale itself went for the heartstrings (Sheldon, uncharacteristically acknowledging he’s difficult but that he truly loves his friends). It had a few misses but largely played to the hits. That being said, after all the story-strands, Raj remains resolutely single and it was probably a wise decision not to have the characters all go their separate ways with new lives… there was a feeling that this was the end of a certain chapter, but not the life-stories… that after the final scene faded, the friends would still be around each other, regularly meeting on the same couch for pizza…we just won’t be following them.
The show was significant in several ways beyond the jokes. Its success and anchored the CBS schedule and it’s final episode was watched by 18 million viewers, no mean achievement in an age with so much choice. Equally, we are less and less in a television age that allows shows to build their audiences the way The Big Bang Theory did. The show was not a ratings-winner at the start, nor a critical hit from the outset. Networks in particular want those instant hits and with so much competition from each other, new platforms and just alternative forms of entertainment, they are less willing to invest time and money in a slow-burn hit. So it’s likely that while many may try and emulate the basic genetic ingredients, they may not emulate the investment or capture the full potential and it could be a while before we see its like again.