Health wise, 2019 hasn’t been a very good year for me so far. I had a couple of days off work for illness at the start of the year, while wrestling with alcohol issues, and last week I was hit with a severe gum infection. Whilst laid up in bed not being able to sleep I’ve been doing what seems to be everyone’s leisure pursuit of choice – watching crap on Netflix. Having exhausted the Line of Duty back catalogue (impeccable, writing perfection), I’ve been indulging in a comedy I used to love but now look upon with indifference. The Big Bang Theory.
The first three seasons of The Big Bang Theory are really quite brilliant. Like all great comedies, the premise is very simple. A bunch of scientific guys, obsessed with video games, comic books and film, and their attempts to understand and relate to girls. Endless comic potential there. The cute girl next door, Penny, and her relationship with Leonard is what the show hangs on. It’s a familiar comedic theme, the ‘will-they-won’t they’ story arc. Friends, Frasier, Cheers all run on it, and there are many more. And it’s brilliant and sweet and funny to watch as Leonard and Penny grow closer. Whilst the guys make fools of themselves, they have a sweetness at heart (even rentagob Howard, in my opinion) and the writers never try to make fun of them or their lifestyle choices. They like what they like and are happy being so.
But after about season 4 I began to lose interest. This is because the show ran into a problem which has afflicted many others. How to keep the show entertaining once the characters got together. OK, so Leonard and Penny get together. Then what? Can they still be as funny as a couple? Hmm… maybe split them up then. But the audience knows and wants them to be together. So have them make up… and so on and so forth, in ever decreasing circles. It was even worse for Howard and Sheldon. Howard gets a girlfriend and his identity disappears. Sure, he was crude and annoying, but at least he had some edge. Sheldon’s fate was worse – he got paired off with the female version of himself. This worked OK for a while and raised a few laughs, but then like the other relationships, it descended into boring sitcom stuff about marriage and kids and the show lost its way.
From a writing perspective, it feels like the writers were in an impossible bind. Moving the characters lives on meant losing what made them funny in the first place, and reduced the show to a tedious character driven comedy rather than the loose situation show of the early seasons. But, they would argue, the characters have to move somewhere, or the show stagnates. True. But what they should have done is nip the show in the bud before it got lost in a relationship morass rather than letting the self-indulgence spread to twelve seasons. Give the people what they want and get out. Sheldon getting married seems to me the antithesis of what the character was about, even allowing for the inevitable character development from being in a long-term relationship. Just comes across as terrifically dull.
I guess The Big Bang Theory is a victim of its own success. The ratings were so large they were never going to kill it off. Once the guys had success with women the show’s central premise began to break down, and what laughs remained came from standard relationship mishap fare then has been mined hundreds of times before. That’s where writing fiction has an advantage – you can kill your darlings whenever you want, and always ensure you never outstay your welcome.
I watch the opening seasons with huge fondness, and it still has me in stitches. It has a beautiful heart behind it, an innocence that is impossible to fake, and really lovely interplay. Penny is a star in those seasons, Leonard has courage and bravery and Sheldon is brilliant, bemused and crotchety. It works so well it makes me a little sad to see where the show ended up. The downside of success, I guess.