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.

100: Friends

Posted in 1990s,Greatest TV Series,Sitcoms by Kirsten on July 23, 2009
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Honestly, if I had been a NBC exec in the early 90s and heard the pitch for this show- six single friends living in New York City- I would have passed. Why? On the surface, it all seems kind of- blah. But then again, I would have passed on Seinfeld’s ” It’s about nothing” premise, so all this tells you is that I should never be a T.V. exec. But it’s also meant to illustrate that once upon a time, simple premises made for likable T.V. pilots that turned into really funny T.V. shows.

Would Friends succeed today? I actually believe it would. The show holds up well for multiple viewings, and while certain references may be dated, the core conceit of these six twenty-somethings living and loving in NYC is anything but old.  Jokes still come fast and furious, the cast still charms, and the writing is still sharp.

Friends is also one of the first sitcoms I can remember that came with what we now call a mythology, but is really more of an accidental series long question. Creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane admitted that the romance that fuelled the show was originally to be between Monica and Joey. It takes some smart, flexible TV show runners to throw original plans out the window upon seeing the chemistry between two secondary costars like David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston. The Ross and Rachel love story also did not play out like a TV cliche. Yes, there were moments of sitcom cuteness, and the will they/won’t they was drawn out to ridiculous extremes, but the point is it wasn’t easy. Real life is never easy, why should TV be so simplistic. The Ross and Rachel break up episode ( ” The One With the Morning After”) remains one of my personal favorite half hours of television in history- it was real. It wasn’t pat, it wasn’t irrationally over the top, it was the way two people would behave when trust is broken down in a relationship. Ross and Rachel were never the same again, even as they repaired their friendship, had accidental name slips at the altar, drunkenly wed in Vegas, have a baby, and go through numerous other relationships.

Then there was the surprise of Courteney Cox Arquette’s anal Monica and Matthew Perry’s clownish Chandler. I never saw it coming, but that relationship again seemed grounded in reality. They were both scared that the friendship would change, only to realize it did, but for the better. It’s the type of romance that can only come with growth and maturity, particularly for Chandler. Again, it was never easy, and even after the wedding, the realism of infertility hit them, and that and the adoption story were well done.

I guess my over riding point about Friends is this: there were six stock characters- dumb guy, funny guy, geeky guy, flaky girl, the princess, and the neurotic girl. This show could have flailed for six episodes and then been pulled. But the writers refusal to allow their stock characters to remain static and never fearing change, this sitcom about latte loving people remains fresh, funny, and real.