I can’t believe The Big Bang Theory is over. Like, actually over. It was such a constant that a part of me assumed I’d begrudgingly watch it till I was on my deathbed.
The comedy has been a staple for 12 long years on CBS, cementing itself in television history with a massive viewership, 46 Emmy nominations (and 10 wins — four for lead actor Jim Parsons), global acclaim, and guest stars like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fischer, and Stephen Hawking.
Even when the show’s quality plummeted in the second half of its life span, the audience didn’t give up. It’s the longest-running and one of the most-watched comedies of the last decade. The one-hour series finale was watched by 18 million viewers live.
And it went on for way, way longer than it should have.
It started running out of steam when the world caught up to its premise. The show premiered in 2007, when Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj openly debating about science, superheroes, video games still seemed quirky.
The show’s existence predates the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Game of Thrones — once “geeky” obsessions that have gone mainstream. They’re no longer unique to TBBT‘s nerds, who started out feeling like overgrown high school students befriended by the sweet but ditzy new girl Penny. (Later seasons saw the addition of two female scientists, Bernadette and Amy.)
All of these characters were laden with stereotypes. Don’t get me wrong — the first few seasons often drew laugh-out-loud humor from these same superficial characterizations. But if you look just beneath the surface, it’s not hard to distinguish the wisecracks from the mockery.
TBBT can be credited for bringing geekdom to the forefront but this representation often masked the sexist, misogynistic humor it thrived on.
The mockery is evident also in the character of Raj, a caricature of racist humor. There are hundreds of comments to weed through for reference, but the one that has haunted me the most is from Season 5’s “The Skank Reflex Analysis.” In it, Amy consoles Penny, who thought she slept with Raj, by comparing their association with that of 18th century leader Catherine the Great’s apparent “hanky-panky interspecies intercourse” with a horse.
Despite being the only person of color, Raj remained something of an afterthought until the very end. Although the last couple of seasons tried to give him a personality beyond his desperation to find love, he couldn’t even talk to women without alcohol in his system until the end of Season 6, and at one point, he thought Siri was his “girlfriend.”
In the end, his storyline did not receive closure in the way others did. Sheldon and Amy won a Nobel Prize, Leonard and Penny are expecting a baby, and we see Howard and Bernadette’s two kids in the flesh for the first time, marking the stability of a happy home life. Raj… sat next to Sarah Michelle Gellar at the Nobel ceremony.
Such issues became glaringly obvious over the past few years as we witnessed the rise of Peak TV. TBBT felt stuck in time, with its limited storylines that were already stretched to the maximum. (This problem also applies to Modern Family, which felt new and inclusive when it premiered but has become stale in its unnecessarily long run.)
Comedy underwent a regeneration with shows like Fleabag, Atlanta, Better Things, Insecure, Veep, and Broad City that more accurately reflected the world we live in. Even network TV produced refreshing stuff with The Good Place, Blackish, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fresh off the Boat, and Superstore.
TBBT couldn’t keep up because it chose to stick with the tropes that worked for it in the first few critically successful years when our scope for comedy was still more restrictive. It didn’t evolve well. The jokes just became repetitive and redundant.
The show never addressed Sheldon’s neurotic tendencies or Amy’s initial social ineptitude beyond how they contributed to the humor. Their individual personalities went for a toss when they began dating.
Leonard and Penny’s romantic storyline did not pay off once they were married, because they never stopped seeming like they were together for the sake of narrative convenience. This felt especially true when Season 12 did a rare serious episode when they discussed having kids. Penny didn’t want children, a decision that disappointed her husband who eventually came around to the idea. But in the finale, she’s pregnant and apparently okay with it.
It’s a sharp turn for her strong-minded character, who really grew on me as the seasons went by. She went fro a waitress and struggling actress to a confident, successful pharmaceutical rep. Did she really have to be a mother to find a happy ending even after the show went out of its way to list the reasons she didn’t want a child in earlier episodes?
The Big Bang Theory might not hold up, but what it accomplished over the years is no easy feat.
TBBT was able to maintain a large fandom for so long in large part because of the solid foundation it created for itself from Seasons 2-6. It established long-running gags like “bazinga” or “Soft Kitty, Warm Kitty” or Howard’s unseen overbearing mother. It set a roster of famous recurring guests like Christine Baranski, Bob Newhart, and Laurie Metcalf. The romantic entanglements were unique in nature, especially Sheldon and Amy.
The later seasons didn’t know what to do with any of these, but audiences, including yours truly, kept showing up because the cards were already dealt. I would roll up my sleeves like a trouper and tune in every week. But the stories dragged on for so long that I’m not entirely sure which plot point took place in what season anymore.
The series finale was sweet, tying up everything with a formulaic sitcom-style ending. But it speaks volumes that my biggest gasp came when the elevator — another running gag — finally began working, as opposed to the reveal of Penny’s pregnancy or Amy’s makeover or Sheldon’s speech. Even the Nobel Prize victory itself was super predictable because the entire season buil.
The Big Bang Theory might not hold up but what it accomplished over the years is no easy feat. I don’t want to take away from its early comedic highlights. The downfalls after not withstanding, it gave viewers some genuinely great moments throughout its run, including Penny and Sheldon’s unlikely friendship or Bernadette and Howard’s rooftop wedding. During rare moments, like Amy’s own Nobel speech, it let shine the importance of women in science.
Even so, it’s slipping off silently into the night as the series finale aired just 3 nights before Game of Thrones’ big goodbye. It won’t get as many thinkpieces reflecting upon its legacy, which continues on through the prequel spin-off Young Sheldon, but you know it will be celebrated for years to come by a dedicated fanbase before inevitable talks of a reunion. Maybe then the writers will catch up to the modern times? Until then, enjoy the reruns I guess.