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The Big Bang Theory’s long reign, explained

TV fans loved — and loved to hate — the incredibly huge CBS sitcom.

The Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory gang will gather one last time Thursday night.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One of the biggest TV shows in recent history is about to end, after a long, hugely successful run.

Viewers are sharply divided. Some have argued that the show is a massively enjoyable example of the power of the monoculture, complete with great character work and compelling storytelling.

But others believe its point of view is regressive and backward, playing off stereotypes and tropes that can be actively harmful if they aren’t handled with care — and which the show has often mishandled.

But look beyond its massive viewership and you’ll find a series that has won many Emmy Awards as well as several other honors. You’ll find a show that, at its height, was embraced enthusiastically by TV critics. You’ll find a show that made lots of people laugh and cry and maybe even feel better about life.

I’m speaking, of course, about The Big Bang Theory, which ends its 12-season run Thursday night on CBS. (Okay, also Game of Thrones, but set that aside for a bit.)

And if you’ll excuse my hacky “you thought I was talking about one thing, but I was really talking about another thing” setup, the strange lack of buzz around the end of what is still the top-rated comedy on television feels unusual. Normally, the end of a series like this would lead to exhaustive oral histories and one last media blitz. The Big Bang Theory is getting some of that, but it’s mostly fizzling out, compared even to the end of HBO’s much-less-watched Veep (which ended its seven-season run a few days ago).

But look again at Game of Thrones and you’ll start to see why The Big Bang Theory is going out with a relative whimper. Like the HBO drama, Big Bang rode the rise of geek culture into the mainstream to become one of the biggest hits of the 2010s, a decade-long staple of the Nielsen ratings’ top 10 shows list. But its treatment of geek culture ended up spawning just as much hatred as joy. Unfairly, I’d say, but let’s look at how it all began.

The Big Bang Theory very likely could have been canceled after its first season

When The Big Bang Theory debuted in the fall of 2007, there were few reasons to expect it would ever grow to be an award-winning hit. The series was actually on its second pilot. The first, which CBS had passed on for the fall of 2006, featured Amanda Walsh in the role that would ultimately be played by Kaley Cuoco, and it boasted a wildly different supporting cast. (You can see a little of it on YouTube.)

But what the show’s original pilot did have was a central duo who clearly had the makings of a great comedy team. As Leonard and Sheldon, Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons brought an odd-couple energy to their scenes as roommates.

It’s easy to forget now, but The Big Bang Theory’s original premise was much more about Leonard and Sheldon being hornt up for their new neighbor Penny (the role that would ultimately go to Cuoco) than what the show eventually settled on, which was closer to a hangout sitcom. And central to its hangout vibe was how good Galecki and Parsons were together, and how entertaining they were whenever Cuoco entered a scene and started pressing their buttons.

(It took longer for The Big Bang Theory to figure out its two supporting guy characters, the hopelessly lovelorn nerds Howard, played by Simon Helberg, and Raj, played by Kunal Nayyar. Indeed, it struggled with what to do with Raj, who couldn’t talk to women unless he was drunk for far too long, until midway through the series.)

Still, The Big Bang Theory’s first full season — which ran from the fall of 2007 through the spring of 2008 and was interrupted by the writers’ strike of that same period — wasn’t a culture-dominating force. Reviews were decidedly mixed, with many critics taking issue with the show’s portrayal of Penny (who was much more of a dim bulb in the early going) as a sexy complication rather than a character in her own right.

And while the show’s viewership was okay, its first season ranked an unimpressive 68th against all the other shows on TV. Had CBS opted to cancel it, the decision wouldn’t have come as a huge shock.

The Big Bang Theory
Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons, became the show’s breakout character.

But The Big Bang Theory hung on. In season two, during which viewership grew by just over 20 percent, the show started focusing more energy on the growing friendship between Sheldon and Penny — a fairly classic “book smarts meets street smarts” dynamic, but with a frisson of sexual tension and a wholly unique character in Sheldon. It was still predominantly about how goofy and horny nerds are, but there was something human at its core, something it kept chasing.

The Big Bang Theory would keep growing, but it wouldn’t enter the season’s-end Nielsen top 10 list until its fifth season — which debuted in the fall of 2011. By that point, the show had added two more women to its supporting cast, in Howard’s love interest Bernadette (the always undersung Melissa Rauch) and Sheldon’s love interest Amy (Mayim Bialik).

Indeed, the show’s crossover from “hit” to “megahit” so neatly aligns with the addition of these two women to the cast, and the subsequent foregrounding of romantic plotting, that it seems likely that a portion of its audience was drawn to them. (I should also note here that the addition of Bernadette and Amy spurred much of the critical warmth toward the show in those years, including two awards for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy from the Television Critics Association.)

What’s remarkable about this is how old-fashioned this development is. This show started as a low-rated oddball, then slowly but steadily built up its audience over time. Along the way, it was granted the freedom to experiment and add and subtract new characters (that Sara Gilbert was briefly a regular in the show’s second season is something I always forget). And CBS was incredibly patient with it.

So what was it that encouraged the network’s patience, its apparent belief that The Big Bang Theory could be a massive hit? Well, believe it or not, it was doing something very different from other TV shows at the time.

The Big Bang Theory is older than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was perfectly positioned to grab hold of geek culture and ride it to the top.

Check out this viral tweet from 2016, which pulled a Big Bang Theory joke out of context to explain why the person writing the tweet thought the show was so terrible.

“So it’s settled,” Howard proclaims. “The fate of Doctor Who’s TARDIS will be decided by a Game of Thrones-inspired death match on the battlefield of ThunderCats versus Transformers.” Yes, that’s a word salad of geek culture references. Yes, if you’re at all familiar with geek culture, it sounds like complete gibberish.

But if you look at the gag in context, you’ll notice something else. The actual joke is the line that follows Howard’s ridiculous mashup of nerd-friendly properties, the one the tweeter shouts over. It’s not the world’s greatest joke — it’s a callback to an earlier one about a bra that Howard used to have his toys fight over — but it’s at least a standard sitcom gag.

And in the divide between that convoluted setup and the understated punchline lies the secret of The Big Bang Theory’s popularity: It was never about nerd culture so much as it used nerd culture for what felt like a novel setting when it debuted. The jokes themselves were always about sex or interpersonal relationships or the characters’ foibles. The geek references were simply window dressing.

This half-measure approach is what caused much of the backlash against the show (which we’ll deal with in a second), but it clearly worked for some portion of the viewing public. At a time when network TV audiences were eroding due to the explosion of options in how to watch television, The Big Bang Theory was the only show regularly pulling in more than 15 million viewers per week.

In seasons six through 11, its average viewership surpassed 18 million people per episode once some time-shifted viewership was accounted for — an astonishing feat for the 2010s. (The final season has fallen off from that level quite a bit, but the show still routinely pulls in more than 12 million viewers for the initial broadcast of each episode.)

The Big Bang Theory
Everybody looks a little glum in this still from the finale.

The accidentally great timing of The Big Bang Theory’s debut is key here. The show might not have been about geek culture in any real way, but because it applied a veneer of geek culture to pretty traditional sitcom stories about friendship and romance, it managed to appeal to both actual geeks and people who knew those geeks and didn’t quite understand them.

The idea that the show was genuinely popular with geek audiences for a while seems bizarre in an era when it’s synonymous in many circles with all that is stale and hacky about TV.

But it really was popular with a certain subset of geeks. The Big Bang Theory wasn’t for Comic-Con die-hards, but it was for people who thought going to Comic-Con once or twice might be fun — and the standing-room-only audiences it drew at Comic-Con at the height of its popularity more than proved as much.

Plus, the series predates everything from The Dark Knight to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to, yes, Game of Thrones. Geek culture was big when the show debuted, but it wasn’t yet all-consuming. So the longer The Big Bang Theory ran, the more certain it could be that when Howard mentioned the TARDIS, at least some portion of its viewership would be aware that he was referencing Doctor Who.

At the same time, the show was careful never to let geek culture references become its primary mode of joke-telling. In a real way, the geek stuff is a MacGuffin — a plot device that drives the story. You don’t need to know what a TARDIS is to appreciate what’s going on in the clip above. You just need to know it’s big and weird and won’t fit very well in Howard and Bernadette’s house, so they’re fighting about it. It could be a tacky armchair or a dog.

The Big Bang Theory’s specific portrayal of its geek characters also endeared it to some of its audience. Sheldon, in particular, was incredibly annoying, but in the show’s best seasons (roughly seasons two through six), it displayed real compassion for him and his rigid way of thinking about the world. It never once said the character was on the autism spectrum, but it hinted as much, and Jim Parsons’s performance, even in weaker episodes, was frequently tremendous. There’s a reason he’s won multiple Emmys for the role, even if he probably has too many of them.

Finally, on a pure craft level, the series didn’t strain to cram full stories into 21-minute running times, an unusual occurrence in this era. Once an episode reached the point where viewers could realistically conclude, “Okay, Sheldon and Leonard probably patch things up,” it would cut to a point after they already had. This gave The Big Bang Theory room to breathe, allowing for more scenes with the characters just hanging out, rather than satisfying the demands of the plot.

Still, even though I can give you several reasons why The Big Bang Theory became so big, it’s a lot harder to answer one other question: Why do so many people hate this show so much?

The Big Bang Theory already felt like a throwback when it debuted. Imagine how it feels now.

The Big Bang Theory
Look, even if it’s a show I no longer watch, I’ll always check out a sitcom finale!

The Big Bang Theory is a “multi-camera sitcom,” meaning that it’s filmed on a soundstage, in the fashion of a stage play, with multiple cameras recording each take. The format is particularly efficient, as it allows for longer scenes that are captured from several angles.

The show is also filmed in front of a live studio audience, whose laughter is miked up in a way where every single chortle serves to create a massive cacophony of sound. It’s a common practice in multi-camera sitcom production, but it nonetheless accounts for the frequent assumptions that The Big Bang Theory uses a “laugh track.” That’s not quite accurate, but the fact that even its hackier jokes are greeted by extreme audience approval makes a disconnect between the show and its audience all but inevitable.

Even in 2007, The Big Bang Theory felt like a throwback. At that time, TV comedy was tilting toward more cinematic “single-camera” comedies, which didn’t contain any audience laughter. Both The Office and 30 Rock were at their peaks, and hour-long dramedies like Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives were seen as innovators.

Those trends have only gained momentum, and while multi-camera sitcoms have enjoyed a mini-comeback in the past few years, it’s mostly been for shows like One Day at a Time and The Conners, which deal frankly with social and political issues of the moment — making them the exact opposite of The Big Bang Theory, which does its level best to feel just a little bit out of time.

So The Big Bang Theory feels incredibly traditionalist in a world where acclaimed TV comedy skews more and more toward shows like Atlanta or Barry, though neither of those lauded but extremely niche shows could even dream of earning ratings as massive as Big Bang’s.

The Big Bang Theory’s ratings prowess — undeserved in the eyes of viewers who consider their comedy tastes more rarefied — has long been enough to mark the show as something to scoff at. But the sheer hatred the show inspires comes from a handful of unlikely other sources.

One is that in 2010, when the show was just beginning its ascension to megahit status, CBS moved it from Mondays to Thursdays. So its fourth season aired at 8 pm on Thursdays, directly opposite the second (and best) season of the beloved geek-friendly sitcom Community, which took as a point of pride its ability to actually make accurate pop culture jokes. On Community, jokes about the show’s characters were often told via their incredibly specific tastes, not the most generic version of geek culture the show’s writers could dream up.

Community’s fervent fan base helped keep it on the air for six seasons, despite it never becoming a huge hit. But its continued survival didn’t matter: Having the very traditional Big Bang Theory air opposite the much cleverer Community drew the lines for battles to come. The Big Bang Theory was fake geek culture. Never mind that it was written by math and science nerds, and never mind how many geeks really did see themselves in it. It was always, on some level, going to go for the broadest possible audience rather than the narrowest one, and that was the opposite of being a geek.

This all led to one of the more unfortunate strains of Big Bang Theory dislike — calling the show “nerd blackface,” meaning that it was built around big, trope-y portrayals of geeks that were meant to draw derisive, jeering laughter. Equating the show’s clumsy portrayal of geeks and geek culture to a decades-long history of systemically portraying black people as bumbling fools is, I hope I don’t have to tell you, pretty dang offensive. Yet the idea of describing the show in such a fashion keeps cropping up, because many self-proclaimed geeks feel like the show takes a hectoring or even bullying tone toward them.

That feeling stems, I believe, from the simple fact that multi-camera sitcoms, even at their best, are typically built around very broad stereotypes. Think of the early seasons of Will & Grace, a show that genuinely seems to have moved the American conversation about LGBTQ issues forward a couple of steps but that also featured a very stereotypical, flamboyant portrayal of a gay man in its supporting cast. Viewers were invited to laugh at this character because he was so stereotypical and ridiculous, but the more time you spent with him, the more you saw he was a human being too.

The Big Bang Theory debuted in an era when network television increasingly (though not always) tried its damnedest to avoid these sorts of stereotypes. Remember how the initial backlash to the show stemmed mostly from how ditzy Penny was? That sort of response likely wouldn’t have happened to the same degree if the show had premiered even 10 years earlier.

But The Big Bang Theory mostly sidestepped network TV’s growing aversion to stereotypes by centering itself on a group of people who were still largely acceptable to stereotype. Geekdom was a community built by choice, not by genetics. The show’s broad portrayals are the whole point. The stereotype is meant to make you laugh. And then, just as in Will & Grace, you hopefully become attached to the characters and realize they’re human too.

You can even see this reflected in the show’s scripts. The characters of Howard and Raj have long since left behind their horny nerd starting points; Howard has two kids, for god’s sake. But they are still referred to in The Big Bang Theory’s scripts as “Wolowitz” and “Koothrappali,” their last names and what they were called on the show early on, when they were defined less as characters and more as walking exemplars of geeky ineptitude.

I understand why so many geeks find the show so repugnant. There are plenty of engineers out there in highly successful relationships, who know how to talk to women, who are women themselves. Liking geeky things doesn’t mean you’re socially maladjusted by default. (I’m at least somewhat convinced by the arguments that The Big Bang Theory’s refusal to talk about whether Sheldon is neuroatypical created patronizing stereotypes of people with autism, an argument made wonderfully by Yohana Desta at Mashable in 2014.)

And like all TV shows that have run this long, The Big Bang Theory’s best days are behind it. There was a time when I did genuinely enjoy the show — though I never would have called it one of my absolute favorites — but I have fallen away from it as the characters have gotten married and had kids and settled into relatively peaceful, static lives. That’s the appeal of many a show like this, but I always found The Big Bang Theory’s early years, when the show’s characters were just trying to figure out how to live together, far more compelling.

I also don’t think The Big Bang Theory has ever truly argued that to be a nerd is to be forever alone, unless a sitcom-hot woman moves in across the hall. After all, the show’s characters have all found long-term partners, and it has more or less made a rousing case for domesticity. Like other sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory used broad stereotypes to try to humanize a group of people who were often the butt of the joke on other shows. And because it was doing so right alongside the rise of geek culture in the mainstream, it became massively popular.

Did the show always succeed at letting its characters be the butt of the joke and the person telling it, in the style of something like Will & Grace? Opinions, of course, will vary. But to write off The Big Bang Theory is to write off a show that shined a spotlight on geek culture in a way that has helped it take over the world.

Do we have the MCU because of The Big Bang Theory? Nah. But having the most popular sitcom in the country cracking wise about Iron Man and the TARDIS and Arya Stark, well — it certainly didn’t hurt.

Correction: The man who plays Howard is Simon Helberg, not Simon Kinberg. The article has been corrected.

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