100 Greatest Television Series

96: The Big Bang Theory

Posted in 2000s,Greatest TV Series,Sitcoms by Kirsten on July 28, 2009
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This is another show in which the pitch meeting might have been interesting. A sitcom about two Caltech physicists and their neighbor? You know if anyone but Chuck Lorre was behind it, this show would have never gotten the pilot off the ground, let alone restructure and shoot a second pilot when the first one flopped.

Also, the pilot that did air feels weak, especially when compared with where the show has gone since. Even I, who watches pretty much everything at one point,  felt it wasn’t worth much investment.  Then something astonishing happened. Chuck Lorre and co-exec Bill Prady took all cliches, conventions,  and stereotypes perpetuated by sitcoms over history and turned them on their metaphoric heads.

Yes, we have a core of four clearly geeky, socially awkward scientists as our protagonists. Johnny Galecki’s Leonard is the most “normal” of these four, as in he’s clearly out of his element, he’s aware of his limitations, he isn’t so abnormal as to be off putting. He’s the most human of the four guys, even if he appears sometimes to be a whiny brat who clearly has mommy issues. I’ve dated many guys like that. None of them had IQs of 173. Simon Helberg’s Howard is the most obvious cliche of the bunch- horny, clueless, and the most obvious real world style geek with his array of comic book  themed belt buckles.  But he’s also been shown to be highly sensitive, afraid of real life, and somewhat impatient with the status quo. Kunal Nayyar’s Raj may come off as a neurotic East Indian stereotypical brainiac with selective mutism- okay, selective mutism is a device I cannot recall being used ever in a sitcom. His character on the surface would appear to be stereotypical simply if you look at it from a racial/cultural standpoint. Truth is, he’s very “American”, and his selective mutism is simply a tic, as he can let it go with just one sip of alcohol ( or with the belief he’s had one sip of alcohol). Then he turns into a boorish ass.  Alcohol really does bring out ones true colors.

This basic rundown brings us to the two breakout characters of TBBT. First, Penny, who was actually played as the typical dumb blonde in the pilot. I am not blaming Kaley Cuoco, who has always been winsome and delightful as Penny, I blame the writers. Thank God they had the brains to remedy that. Penny is the “normal” one, an emotional, impulsive, nice girl who is in awe of the brilliant guys she knows and also is their link to what the outside world is really like. She is far kinder to them than most people ever will be, and she genuinely likes them. She is not without flaws, as she has anger management issues, and really enjoys needling on Sheldon’s many OCD neuroses. She also admits at times to being somewhat shallow, and she’s a shopaholic ( and the show actually tries to touch on the fact she shops to bolster her self esteem instead of making easy jokes about it).

Then there is the singularly brilliant Sheldon Cooper, who is played by Jim Parsons with such control and insight it actually freaks me out a bit.  He is brilliant, a child prodigy who was thrust into the adult world at a young age but somehow remains in a state of arrested development. He throws tantrums like a child when his world is shaken up, and everyone around him does tend to bend to his will as it seems to be easier than putting up a fight and then losing. Kudos to the writers again, though, for allowing the other characters attempt at times to shake things up, as it allows for some of Sheldon’s finest moments ( the hug, being locked out of his apartment and being forced to stay at Penny’s, his decision to try to make a new friend). But despite Sheldon’s eccentricities, he is actually a very loyal and generous  friend when he chooses to be, and Parsons himself is so sweet and likable and FUNNY that even when Sheldon is at his most annoying, you still like him.

Then there is the structure of the show itself. Yes, it is a typical multicam sitcom. It had a live studio audience. The laughter can be annoying. Whatever, it was good enough for Lucy and Gleason, it is certainly good enough for our nerdy friends. And yes, typical sitcom themes are introduced. But I admire greatly Lorre and Prady’s decision to use standard sitcom style without the standard sitcom play. Penny borrows money from Sheldon. Sheldon never really mentions it to Penny, but Penny drives herself crazy, convinced everything Sheldon says is a hidden dig at her. I was surprised by this, because she should have known Sheldon never lets anything go by him if he cares about it. Any other sitcom would have ( and has had) the story play out with the lender asking the borrower until a big fight, then miraculously everything is fine in the act out. Yes, our boys have moms that are polar opposites of each other and their own sons, but it also helps with psychology of why Leonard puts up with Sheldon when you see Leonard’s mom is Sheldon in a dress.  Yes, The Big Bang Theory is a sitcom, but it’s actually much deeper than your typical one, and it actually loves the characters it brings to the world.

97: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show!

It seems to me that the definition of a cult classic is pretty vague. Low viewership seems to be a requirement. Usually this tag is applied to series in the sci-fi realm or whackadoodle comedies.

This show falls into the last category.

I vaguely remember watching it in real time back in the late 80s and laughing at the broken conventions used. There was no fourth wall for any of the characters. Garry essentially played himself, with monologues to bookend the show.  The show was anarchic in comedy style, with a star that would manipulate the storytelling to serve his ultimate interests ( Dukakis winning, anyone?)

Ultimately, the show, which aired on cable’s Showtime for four seasons and 72 episodes in the late 80s. It petered out and Garry went on to bigger and better things.  It languished on TV Critics ” DVDs we want” list, and we’re getting our wish in October.  Until then, we must satisfy ourselves with what footage we have on ragged VHS and various websites. But if you want to be a great series completest, buy it when it comes out. Now all we need is Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.