The Big Bang Theory redefines TV, as its star redefines comedy
There are certain characters that come to define a television show. Occasionally, these characters leave an impression of such magnitude that they can carry a product much farther than it should have gone. Jaleel White’s Steve Urkel is a perfect example. His constant search for cheese balls and a date with Laura on Family Matters kept that show off of life support. Sticking with TGIF (I hope it’s where you’re at today), Sasha Mitchell as Cody Lambert brought Step By Step a few steps farther than it would have without him. (Whoa!) Lambert’s character made an art out of acting the way Keanu Reeves does on a daily basis.
Other characters transcend the shows which showcase them. These characters become bigger than their shows. They become a piece of pop culture. Would Happy Days have had as many happy days without The Fonz? Henry Winkler taught Wisconsin, and the rest of the nation, how to be cool. That was until he jumped the shark, which literally created a dubious reference that now means staying past your prime.
Carroll O’Conner’s cigar-chomping, vitriol-spewing, race-baiting Archie Bunker on All In The Family came to define a generation of Americans caught between a past where homosexuals stayed in the closet, women stayed in the kitchen and African-Americans stayed away from the white people – and a future where dirty commie hippies run a society of LSD, free-love, and generally rape and pillage decent hard-working Americans. O’Conner played Bunker in such a brilliant way that we could despise his ignorance and yet fall in love with him. It’s like he’s our “Uncle Archie” and that’s just the way he is.
Alex P. Keaton stormed into the 80’s wearing a bow-tie and carrying a briefcase, and he took them to high school. If I tried that I would have surely been beaten up. But Michael J. Fox made it work. Keaton, from Family Ties, scored a whole lot more than I did as a young man. He dated Courtney Cox after she danced with Bruce Springsteen. If that doesn’t make him awesome, I don’t know what does. Keaton was probably what Sean Hannity was like as a young man, only much cooler and less annoying. Fox’s Keaton was the face of a generation still beginning to understand its existence. Remember “Greed is good”? Wall Street came out in 1987, five years after the Family Ties premiere. Keaton read the Wall Street Journal, worshiped Ronald Reagan and made his head-scratching liberal parents smile with loving disdain. The role was bigger than Fox and Keaton. It was the ultimate boyhood rebellion, but Keaton made money instead of hiding dope in his sock drawer.
Let’s flash forward to this century. Neil Patrick Harris has helped write a new code – “The Bro Code.” His Barney Stinson has re-defined the man-whore. You can go to your local bookstore now, if you still have one, and find a how-to guide to be a bro. Harris made being a man cool again – even if you still have Storm Troopers in your apartment and play laser-tag. We can all freely high-five now, thanks to Stinson. Stinson is the difference in How I Met Your Mother. When Ted’s endless quest to find his soul-mate leaves you tired, or Marshall and Lilly’s cuteness makes your stomach turn, or Robin doesn’t sparkle, there is always good old Barney at the ready accepting challenges, guzzling Scotch and getting slapped by beautiful women. I credit Stinson for the reason I see fake mustaches everywhere I go.
I may be breaking the bro code here, but I don’t believe Stinson is the funniest character on TV right now. That distinction belongs to Dr. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. Yes,the Big Bang Theory is the funniest show currently on TV (with a slight nod of awesomeness to How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family). Jim Parsons’ Cooper is the reason why. Parsons is probably the only person in the world who could play Dr. Sheldon Cooper. It might be difficult, but we could find someone else to slip into the role of Barney Stinson (that’s not to slight Harris’ performance which has been stellar). Parsons is Cooper. It’s not just the way Parsons is able to spew out the endless jargon required of the part, or the way he so condescendingly berates his co-stars with such ease and humor. It’s that Parsons has melted into the role. There’s no way a person like Cooper could exist, and yet we believe he does. That’s because Parsons makes us believe. His mannerisms, facial tics and his clockwork timing have given us a character that is one of the best in television history. In real life we would avoid Dr. Sheldon Cooper with sincerity. We wouldn’t even want to sit next to him at The Cheesecake Factory. Yet in the Big Bang Theory we want to have a cup of tea with Cooper and we might even enjoy sitting through an episode of Firefly with him. We of course need to be mindful of where we sit
Parsons has come to own the Big Bang Theory. I don’t believe that was the show’s intention. The Big Bang Theory began with a simple premise: a really hot blonde moves in next door to two extremely dorky scientists with two clingy friends. She just happens to be the sweetest and most trusting woman in America (aren’t all girls from Nebraska like that?). The story was meant to center around Kaley Cuoco’s Penny, and Johnny Galecki’s Dr. Leonard Hofstader’s humorous attempts to woe her. Cuoco is a veteran and talented actress. She worked as John Ritter’s oldest daughter in the sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. She actually was cast late, and appeared in the second pilot (the one that aired on CBS). The first pilot apparently was so bad it still makes creator Chuck Lorre cringe. (It’s supposed to be on the internet, but I was unsuccessful in finding it after a quick search.) Galecki has spent a lifetime in the trenches of Hollywood, working various roles in film and television before landing the lead in the show that would make his career. Cuoco and Galecki are a solid duo to build a story around. Throw in Galecki’s fatherly tolerance of his eccentric roommate and two unique friends with a vaguely gay relationship and now you have yourselves a sitcom.
One of the great things about sitcoms, as opposed to dramas, is that because episodes are self-containing the writers have more flexibility. They can pay less attention to the story, and more towards the talents of the performers. Lorre and Co. have done this admirably. When the show began, Simon Helberg’s Howard Wolowitz was an unsuccessful ladies man who threw out crude lines to pick up women. One can only take this so far. Wolowitz took it as far as he could, and he gave us some gut-busting laughs along the way. Now the slightly un-kosher Wolowitz has morphed from an unsuccessful bachelor with a painfully hysterical relationship with his roommate mother to a young man balancing the pitfalls of marriage. But he is apparently sticking with the turtlenecks – under v-neck shirts, skin tight pants and hideous belt buckle ensembles.
Kunal Nayyar plays Raj Koothrappali, which is two names you will never hear uttered during a Sprint customer service call. Koothrappali has a Freudian-sized fear of talking to women, a drinking problem, and a tendency to utter extremely awkward statements about American and Indian life as well as his relationship with his best friend (Wolowitz). This was one of Lorre & Co. most deft moves. It would have been easy to make the gorgeous blonde down the hall the ditzy diva. Penny has about as much diva in her as Nebraska has ocean. Raj is the diva and the Big Bang Theory is all the more humorous for it.
Kaley Cuoco has created an amazing character in Penny. She is understanding, sarcastic and firm when she needs to be. Plus she steals internet. She is our escort through a world that is unfamiliar to most of us (unless you have attended Comic-Con in the last few years.) With a lift of an eyebrow, she can help us decipher a world that most of us have never entered. Cuoco also does an incredible job in creating a person we believe would hang out with the boys next door (and that’s a tall mountain to climb, sorry to those of you who have attended Comic-Con in the last few years.)
Comedies tend to stick with the cast it starts with. Some of the most successful comedies in history have held tight to this mold. Could you imagine a seventh friend sitting on the couch at The Central Perk or Kramer making room so a fifth person could ease into the booth at Monk’s Cafe? How about six clinking glasses at MacLaren’s Pub? It’s easy for a comedy to stick with the cast put in front of it, especially buddy comedies. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Yet the Big Bang Theory destroyed that mold like Hofstader did an elevator. The second half of the show has been working to transition in two new members to the cast and it has worked superbly.
In Season 3, the show introduced us to Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler played by Mayim Bialik of Blossom fame. A practical joke by Raj and Wolowitz led her to Cooper. She was introduced to us as Cooper’s female equivalent. She was smart but stiff and void of emotion. She was unable to match Parsons, and the writers must have seen that. Bialik is of course a gifted actress and she also holds a Ph.D in neuroscience, which makes her the only real doctor on the show. To keep her on the show a change had to be made. It was and it was brilliant. The writers let Bialik open up Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler. She is now a person, not Cooper’s female cyborg. She yearns for Cooper and is relentless in her sexual advances in spite of his complete loathing of physical contact. Her jokes about self-contact are refreshingly funny and something rare on TV, at least from a female perspective. She worships Penny and her beauty and treats her “besty” like a young girl with a new puppy. She approaches her relationships with the women on the show like they’re all at a high school slumber party. That’s fitting because Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler has never had friends, and now she does. It was a dazzling switch. Bialik has an incredibly engaging smile and I am grateful that she is able to use it on the Big Bang Theory. She would never be able to as a Cooper lady-mirror. It will be interesting to see how far the writers take Amy and Sheldon’s relationship. At some point Amy will no longer wish to pursue a man who has no interest in her physically. We may, for the first time, see Sheldon Cooper suffer real human emotional pain. We will soon get to see how much Dr. Cooper has learned about humanity and his role as a member of it.
Another impressive casting choice was Melissa Rauch. Rauch is beautiful. She is blonde and petite, but she possesses a certain quality of geek that might be appealing to one Mr. Howard Wolowitz. So in Season 3 we were also given Bernadette Rostenkowski, the new girlfriend of Wolowitz, and left to contemplate why any right-minded female would chose to date him. (By the way, the Big Bang Bang Theory has character names that made my Word spell-check implode.) Rostenkowski would seem to be the opposite of Wolowitz’s controlling and seemingly obese mother. (We have never seen Wolowitz’s mother but we have heard stories of her weight and been privy to her angry, masculine voice.) Rostenkowski is tiny, speaks in a mousy voice and she despises children. This is where Lorre & Co. begin to look like the men in the show they created: geniuses. Indeed Rostenkowski is tiny and she speaks in a mousy voice, but when necessary she can match Wolowitz’s mother word-for-word and if necessary shout-for-shout. Wolowitz prides himself on his machismo. But in reality he is controlled by his mother, and then eventually his wife. In the words of Wolowitz, “kudos.”
Parsons is a Texas native. He’s also 40 years old, which is amazing because he looks better than I do and I’m a decade younger. He was born three years before Broncos starting quarterback Peyton Manning. He studied acting at the University of San Diego. He’d done minor television and film roles before landing the role of Sheldon Cooper. He’s openly gay. In the end that means nothing to me, but I would guess it means a whole lot to him. That’s Parsons, as far as a quick Internet search goes. I wonder why it took Parsons so long to find success. Maybe it’s because he was meant to play this role. The universe created a big bang. Maybe it also worked to bring Jim Parsons to Dr. Sheldon Cooper. What do I know? I have a bachelor’s in journalism not a doctorate in philosophy.
Parsons will likely never move past Cooper. It’s one of the hazards of playing such an iconic character. Don’t believe me, ask Cooper’s idol Leonard Nimoy. Only time will tell this. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy the moments I get to share with Cooper and the rest of the cast of the Big Bang Theory.
Comedies are rarely about the star, but the entire cast. That’s what makes them so engrossing. Sometimes an unexpected star can rise. Sure it was Jerry Seinfeld’s show, but we didn’t tune in to Seinfeld to hear stand-up comedy. We wanted to hear about Kramer and George’s latest exploits. Ted will eventually find the mother of his children, but that’s not why we watch How I Met Your Mother. We want to watch Barney because he is….wait for it…..awesome. It wasn’t the Cunninghams that brought us back to Happy Days, it was a motorcycle-riding, James Dean-wannabe who was probably the only person in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a Brooklyn accent. We followed the Winslows in Family Matters, but we most waited for an un-athletic entrance by Steve Urkel. Sheldon Cooper’s pop culture influence will be defined only in time. But one thing’s for sure. You’ve signed Sheldon’s roommate agreement. It’s Sheldon’s apartment. Look around because you might be sitting in his spot. You’re definitely watching his show. There is no weak link in the Big Bang Theory, that’s one of the reason’s it’s so great. But at least on-screen Sheldon Cooper is its strongest. The man behind Cooper, Jim Parsons, is a big part of the reason why.