THE POPULARITY HYPOTHESIS
The Big Bang Theory’s 200th Episode: Is It One of the Greatest Comedies Ever?
With its 200th episode, The Big Bang Theory joins the ranks of some of the best sitcoms ever. But since so many people HATE this show, what does this milestone mean?
The list of comedy series to have reached the dizzying milestone of airing more than 200 episodes, which The Big Bang Theory hit Thursday night, is a staggering collection of groundbreaking, game-changing, hilarious brilliance.
From most episodes to least, the exclusive club is made up of: The Simpsons (498), The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (435), Cheers (271), Frasier (264), Married With Children (259), The Jeffersons (253), M*A*S*H (251), Happy Days (250), The Andy Griffith Show (249), Friends (236), Roseanne (222), and All in the Family (208). And now Big Bang.
Of course, longevity doesn’t necessarily translate directly to quality, nor is it the be-all benchmark of greatness. Notice that Seinfeld, Arrested Development, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I Love Lucy are not on that list. But it certainly says something about a TV comedy and the culture it’s airing in front of when a sitcom, especially in today’s day and age, hits that monumental threshold.
Now that The Big Bang Theory has turned the big 200, does that mean that, like Cheers, All in the Family, or Frasier before it, the show should be considered one of TV’s greatest sitcoms? Or is its success pop culture’s biggest “Bazinga!” yet?
You see, there are a lot of people who hate The Big Bang Theory.
And it doesn’t take the world’s leading string theorists to figure out why.
Nine seasons of “look how nerdy we are!” jokes wear thin on the easily jaded, as does the show’s driving conceit: They’re smart, but they’re so socially awkward. Get it!? (Yes, roughly 23 million people get it each week.)
That fed-up sentiment is pretty well summed-up here:
The series is also a bit of relic, a multi-cam laugh-track sitcom with broad jokes and hammy punchlines in an age almost allergic to such fare. We’re more conditioned to fawn over the next moody rumination on what it means to be alive—through a darkly comedic voice, of course—from the minds of Lena Dunham, Louis C.K., or Aziz Ansari. In contrast, Big Bang is from the same creative mind that brought you Two and a Half Men.
Even the resurgence of critical love for broadcast family comedies is typically reserved for single-cam shows like black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat. If you’re a TV fan whose taste draws you to binges of Veep, Parks and Recreation, or something like The Mindy Project, the bright, loud, throwback bigness of The Big Bang Theory can, admittedly, be a shock to the system.
The show throws up monster ratings numbers week after week—an unbelievable feat this far into a series’ run, especially a comedy’s—a win for mass-appealing entertainment but a bummer for those who wish some of those eyeballs would siphon off to more interesting, edgier, or experimental fare.
But that’s the beauty of mass-appealing entertainment. And that’s the beauty of Big Bang.
Despite the fact that multi-cam sitcoms once ruled the world—reigning over pop culture with the distinction of “Must-See TV”—it has now become a niche genre. Appreciating in the confines of that genre, no sitcom in the last decade has done the multi-cam as well as this show.
Yes, The Big Bang Theory is not Louie. But it’s not supposed to be, either.
Thursday night’s 200th episode was a blaring example of all the things fans love and critics hate.
Called “The Celebration Experimentation”—these faux jargon-y episode titles are enough to make the haters cringe—the milestone outing has the cast convincing Jim Parson’s Sheldon to allow them, after years of friendship, to throw him a birthday party.
His annual recoil from festivities isn’t a cutesy curio like insisting on sitting on the same sofa seat, or even manifested paranoia about aging. (“Please, look at this porcelain skin. I’m like a human sink,” he quips.) It stems from growing up with his twin sister and having joint parties together. None of the friends he invited would show up; her friends would torture him, teasing him with promises like Batman coming, then revel in his disappointment when no superhero arrives.
The gang eventually convinces Sheldon to let them throw him a party, assuring him that nothing traumatic will happen. Leonard even enlists Adam West, the original Batman, to show up. The ensuing 20-odd minutes are the inevitable hodgepodge of “hahas” and “awws” that make any Big Bang Theory episode instantly identifiable.
Of course, the prime arc of this series has been Sheldon’s emotional journey, from obtuse socially awkward recluse to a fully realized human capable of friendship, love, sex, and even birthday celebrations. It’s touching when, after walking into his party, he gets overwhelmed and retreats to the bathroom.
Penny follows him in there. “I hate that your sister and her friends used to torture you. What I hate even more is that if I was there I would’ve tortured you, too,” she says. “My point is there was a time I would never have been friends with someone like you. Now you are one of my favorite people. So if what you need is to spend your birthday in the bathroom, then I’ll do it with you.”
It’s not just Sheldon who’s becoming more of a fully realized human. They all are.
Koothrappali can now talk to women without being drunk. Wolowitz morphed from misogynist to husband and, soon, father. Sheldon has the capacity now to be truly touched, and Penny has learned not to judge.
In recounting all of this, I can feel your eyes rolling. For people who herald their hate for The Big Bang Theory, “The Celebration Experimentation” reads like a harrowing nightmare.
But calling The Big Bang Theory “bad” or “god, the worst show!” or any variety of the chorus of scoffs that my millennial New York media colleagues offered in between liking Vice articles on Twitter and crafting their next “feeling the Bern” jokes is as lazy as some argue the show has become.
It’s interesting to think about The Big Bang Theory in the context of last weekend’s big NBC tribute to James Burrows. You know, that thing endlessly promoted as the “Friends reunion.”
All of the pomp and circumstance surrounded Friends, of course. But the segment spotlighting the cast of The Big Bang Theory was nearly as long and celebrated. More, here was the cast of the show that so many have come to revile sitting in a room alongside Burrows’s other major projects: Taxi, Frasier, Cheers, and Will & Grace. Swallow a pill everyone, because they belonged there.
The Big Bang Theory is, above all, a descendant of those shows. Watch Reverend Jim struggle to find out what the yellow light means in Taxi and then watch an exemplar of Big Bang (might we suggest “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis,” “The Einstein Approximation,” or even this season’s “The Opening Night Excitation,” featuring Sheldon and Amy’s own big bang).
They are kindred programs. It’s astounding, sure, how timeless the comedy in a show like Taxi is, but you recognize the same broad swings with specific comic execution that typifies The Big Bang Theory four decades later.
There’s an intelligence to the dumbness of it all, which is something that shouldn’t make sense but is really the only way to describe why these shows work. And, more, the humor is less concerned with machine-gun jokefire than it is with complementing laughs with obvious, even aggressive heart.
When anything becomes popular, there is backlash. Friends was the most beloved show on TV, then the most hated and overrated, then cherished again as it was released on Netflix, and then once again reviled with distaste over the exhausting hype for the not-reunion reunion.
So many people watch The Big Bang Theory. It follows, then, that so many people hate it, too.
Popularity breeds fickleness. It might be hard to remember, but this was once a struggling show. Around Season 2 of the series it was hipster and cool to tell you friends, “Hey, there’s this CBS show The Big Bang Theory that I just discovered. It’s actually really funny for a CBS sitcom!”
But The Big Bang Theory is unique in comparison to the company it now keeps with its 200th episode. Its popularity comes in an age where popularity, really, doesn’t exist.
More than 400 scripted TV series are currently being produced. We’re supposed to follow our own specific likes and tastes and celebrate the handful of shows that appeal to that with the small group of people who feel the same. We’re not supposed to all be watching—let alone liking—the same thing anymore, the way that so many people watch and still like The Big Bang Theory.
That is an achievement in its own right.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that The Big Bang Theory will, decades from now, rank with Frasier or Cheers or All in the Family as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Despite what I’ve written justifying its appeal, I wouldn’t even rank it as one of the greatest comedies airing today—just like I wouldn’t necessarily have ranked some seasons of Friends or Roseanne among the best when they aired.
What will be its legacy? Thanks to the inevitability of Big Bang reruns airing on every channel in perpetuity, we’ll have lots of time to fully decide.