Leonard Hofstadter (Galecki) and Sheldon Cooper (Parsons) are two geeky, genius-level physicists who work at Cal-Tech and share an apartment together. Along with their equally-nerdy co-workers Howard Wolowitz (Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Nayyar), the guys spend all their time playing video games, watching science fiction, reading comic books and discussing all of these in depth. However, their self-contained foursome is shaken up when attractive party girl Penny (Cuoco) moves in next door, and Leonard, the most socially-capable of the gang, attempts to win her affections…
Nowadays, many of us tend to write off the majority of studio-based sitcoms on TV, understandably viewing the accompanying audience laughter as an old-fashioned, distinctly-Americanised trait that was phased out in Britain years ago. The argument being, of course, that any form of inserted laughter has long since become an overused tool used to ‘tell’ us what is funny and when to laugh. But yet, while CBS’ Big Bang Theory is one such show, it’s smarter, funnier and more likeable than you’d probably imagine. Admittedly, the comedic wheel isn’t being re-invented, the format is formulaic and the comedy often broad, but there’s a level of intelligence to the geek-friendly writing that sets it apart from lesser contemporaries (like, say, How I Met Your Mother).
Whilst you don’t have to be an uber-nerd to watch and enjoy, there’s unquestionably an extra layer of enjoyment for those who know their Star Wars from their Star Trek. Discussions about the Terminator universe’s time-logic, references to Battlestar Galactica, an argument into the physics behind Superman’s ability to catch Lois Lane when she falls from a building, the episodes are typically littered with material that fanboys will appreciate. Regardless, it’s always clear what the joke is (even if you’ve no idea who Luke Skywalker is), but there’s more here for those who own their own lightsaber, lapped up BSG or questioned the story-logic of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Alternatively, given that the characters are clichéd geek exaggerations (frequenting the comic store, dressing up as superheroes, able to speak Klingon, socially awkward, unsuccessful with the ladies), some viewers feel that the show mocks geeks, and that it isn’t written by those who understand them – but those who merely think they do. Masterminded by sitcom super-producer Chuck Lorre (whose CV stretches back to Roseanne and currently includes Two And A Half Men), this view is understandable since it’s occasionally evident that The Big Bang Theory is the product of his successful-comedy formula. With too many gags crammed in and dialogue that is nearly always focused on setting up jokes, at times you can feel how manufactured it is.
But importantly, co-creator Bill Prady is a self-confessed fanboy and Trekkie, and subsequently his genuine love for geekdom bleeds through in small ways that only real fans will appreciate. For example, when Sheldon is asked to name a man that women find attractive he names William Shatner, and when asked for another he goes straight to Patrick Stewart. Adding further credibility, physics and astronomy professor David Saltzberg is on hand to provide real equations and diagrams, while also checking the scripts. Interestingly, as anyone who boasts a genius-level intellect will already have noticed, the guys’ white board in their apartment has an actual scientific problem on it which Sheldon works his way through as the season progresses…
Aside from geek references and stereotypes, much of the humour derives from the culture clash between the guys and Penny (who is, in many ways, their new universe-creating big bang). Undoubtedly, it’s a simple premise which varies little between episodes (underachieving hottie introduces social outcasts to new experiences, and vice versa) while Kaley Cuoco’s blond waitress is both an archetypal cliché (blond, tiny shorts, not too smart, no interests) and too-good-to-be-true fantasy (attractive, friendly, unfeasibly tolerating of the gang’s nerdvana) rolled into one. But while the Beauty And The Geeks concept is nothing new, it makes for addictive viewing and the cast are genuinely endearing.
As the ‘lead’ and straight man, Johnny Galecki’s Leonard is the one most will relate to. He loves sci-fi, comics and science, but sometimes wishes he didn’t (the episode where Leonard decides to get rid of all his memorabilia will speak to many nerds) and, crucially, is socially able. The rest aren’t so capable though, typified by Simon Hellberg’s brilliantly-deluded Wolowitz, whose persistence with the ladies far outstretches his success, and Kunal Nayyar’s selectively mute Raj, who can’t speak to women unless he’s drunk.
Easily the stand out though is Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper, a man whose towering IQ is only matched by his boundless, unquenchable ego. Fascinating and infuriating in equal measure, he’s a scene-stealing cross-breed of Niles Crane, Mr Spock, Gregory House and Isaac Newton (although, as Sheldon states, gravity would’ve been apparent to him without the apple). Elsewhere, TV trainspotters will notice that Galecki is joined by former Roseanne co-stars Sara Gilbert, in a recurring role as a similarly-nerdy girl, and Laurie Metcalf, as Sheldon’s religious mother.
Despite being a formulaic, studio-based sitcom, The Big Bang Theory is endearing, addictive and more intelligently-written than you’d expect. You don’t have to be a fanboy to enjoy it, but with the biggest infusion of geekdom you’re likely to find on a mainstream, network-friendly hit, geeks will get that extra level of enjoyment.