September 17, 2007

Fall 2007 TV Roundup: The Big Bang Theory

Posted in Television at 11:34 pm by Calico Jack

CBS’s new show The Big Bang Theory (airing Mondays at 8:30) is a three-camera sitcom with a one-joke premise. Two socially awkward geeks meet their new apartment neighbor, a tantalizingly pretty girl who seems to exist solely to let said geeks make tepid jokes about wanting to mate with her. Does that sound interesting?

The Big Bang Theory is a victim of this fall’s TV trend. Every year, a new show will break out, spawning a host of imitators over the following seasons as networks scramble to find that elusive magic formula for a show’s success. Last autumn focused on Lost clones, or at least shows with large casts and season-long plot arcs. Out of that crop of new programs the only one to gain some measure of success was NBC’s Heroes, a pulpy story about superheroes that lacked the complexity or depth of Lost but was entertaining enough on its own merits. (One could also make an argument for the successful resurrection of CBS’s Jericho, yet it remains to be seen if its shortened second season will fare any better than its first.) But I digress.

This year, geeks are TV’s hot new property. The popularity of shows like The Office and the huge devotion to Heroes’ character Hiro Nakamura have persuaded networks that American audiences are perfectly willing to watch shows about technology-oriented people with maladroit social skills. Now NBC is premiering their new dramedy Chuck, about an electronics store salesman turned superspy; and has a midseason replacement sitcom called The IT Crowd, yet another remake of a vastly superior British series. Not wanting to be left out of the game, CBS commissioned The Big Bang Theory for at least six episodes. With any luck, it won’t last longer than its original run.

For a show like The Big Bang Theory to work, it has to ground its situations in something that at least resembles real life. But this sitcom is so over-the-top in its character portrayals and so utterly lacking in subtlety that it’s likely to leave the audience exhausted rather than amused. Johnny Galecki (Leonard) and Jim Parsons (Sheldon) are stereotypical nerds: they have a really hard time talking to girls, their apartment is littered with conveniently placed gadgets to ensure the audience knows this is a Nerd Room, and their conversations consist of arguments about Stephen Hawking theories and musings on the opposite gender (of which they know absolutely nothing). Leonard and Sheldon’s dialogue is supposed to give this sitcom most of its laughs, but the supposed humor is trite and predictable — and the extremely obnoxious laugh track will suck any remaining good cheer one might have for this show. I’ve always despised those sitcoms that rely on a laugh track to let their audiences know where the jokes are supposed to be. It’s a crutch for the humor-impaired, and I respect a show much more if it feels comfortable enough with its writing to let it hit or miss on its own. But one of the ingredients of a traditional sitcom is a laugh track…only The Big Bang Theory sounds like it has two. And even ignoring that part, I wonder how long a sitcom like this can last with having its range of jokes so limited. The writers can’t put in really geeky jokes that might get big laughs from a few, because most people won’t get the references. Instead they’re left with painting a broad comedic vista — not a good recipe for future success.

I would be remiss as a critic if I didn’t mention the other part of The Big Bang Theory: the girl to which Sheldon and Leonard (even their names are geeky!) are so awkwardly attracted. Penny (Kaley Cuoco) is a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory, recently broken up with her meathead boyfriend. She’s pretty, perky, good-natured, and utterly vapid. Even more than the “Hey, look at us! We’re geeks!” stereotype, I hate blond bimbos. And Penny fits that label better than nearly every other character on network TV. She doesn’t understand a sentence of Sheldon and Leonard’s, even though their discussions are rather mainstream (by way of writer necessity). It’s easy to see why the two geeks are physically attracted to her, but there is something slightly creepy in the way which they obsess over the fact that there is a Real! Live! Girl! sitting in their apartment. Penny, on the other hand, is still completely vacant to her new neighbors’ intentions, cheerfully ignoring their social awkwardness and adopting a perpetually puzzled frown when they go off on a wormhole tangent. To call their exchanges “discourse” elevates the conversation far beyond what generosity dictates, even for a new show still finding its legs.

Final verdict: The Big Bang Theory is a mess of a new sitcom, eschewing authentic observations on geeky life for tired humor and mediocrity. There might be hope for it if the writing gets sharper, the characters let go of some of their more stereotypical traits, and Penny has a wee bit of a brain enhancement. But I won’t be holding my breath.

Season pass on TiVo? Absolutely not.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Fall 2007 TV Roundup: The Big Bang Theory […]

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