OK, so this isn’t a movie review. However, since I’m not taking up reviewing television shows as a habit, I’m listing this one under my “movie review” category here. Today, I have the sad news to tell that my favorite TV show, “The Big Bang Theory,” has officially jumped the shark. You know that hackneyed moniker that dates back to a “Happy Days” episode where the “Fonz” waterskied over a shark while visiting California. Well, “The Big Bang Theory” is set in California and it has now jumped that metaphorical shark. Sigh. Luckily, the good seasons will always be available in syndication; on soon-to-be archaic DVDs; and the cloud as we continue to speed into the future.
‘The Big Bang Theory’
(2007-today; starring Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco and Jim Parsons)
1 EPISODE DIDN’T SINK ‘BIG BANG,’ IT JUST FIZZLED OVER TIME
(NOTE: I wrote an update after Season 10 began in the fall of 2016 for “The Big Bang Theory” … click here to read it. Newest note: Click here to read my March 3, 2017, call to end the show completely …)
Usually when a television show “jumps the shark” there is a single event that defines the moment. It is the metaphorical finish line that marks the beginning of even the best show’s inevitable decline. Well, I can’t say that there is any one moment when “The Big Bang Theory,” today’s once-best and top-rated TV comedy, jumped that metaphorical shark, but it certainly has and the new season for 2015-16 is just grindingly dull and lifeless. It’s sad to see how such a creative group can today push such uninspired crap after the prime material in earlier seasons.
Of course “The Big Bang Theory” didn’t come out of the gate with the personality that makes it beloved by millions today. As all great shows do, the “The Big Bang Theory” cast and writers had to develop and help evolve each of the characters and how their lives formed the show. After the break-in period, “The Big Bang Theory” was pure gold week-in and week-out. The ideas were fresh and, although co-creator and uber-funny Chuck Lorre’s team did rehash some sitcom stereotypes, it was as well-executed as any comedy in TV could hope to accomplish.
From seasons three through seven, you could count on a hit every time it came to the plate. Then the inevitable appeared – episode plots became strained – and you started wondering why you were watching such second-rate effort. I know that in one way it’s because there is simply a finite number of interesting things characters can do and experience. In the other way, a whole thing can just begin to go stale.
Before I go any further with criticism, I want to say that Lorre’s unbridled talent is something to be admired. Few people create a single comedy monster (say those such as Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen or Ray Romano). So, to be the guiding force behind two shows that are monster hits, intelligent, resoundingly hilarious and examples of the absolute best ever in the genre doesn’t just happen to anyone who has an idea in Hollywood. What I’m trying to get at in a round-about way is that it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Lorre is simply terrific and I’m sure he’s not done yet.
Now, sadly back to the topic at hand.
It is most apparent in “The Big Bang Theory” syndication about the “shark” season: it is number eight, which has recently made its debut in syndication. Why? Well, when I see the episode titles on my cable grid, I go, “Jeeze, not THAT year. I’ll try to find an older show.”
Lorre isn’t a stranger to a great show going in the tank. Just look at his magnificent “Two and a Half Men.” Charlie Sheen’s final season is one where the actor’s off-camera lifestyle has obviously caught up with him (his youthful countenance changed to slightly ragged and obviously worn from the end of season seven to the beginning of season eight). And, just like “The Big Bang Theory” would follow, “Two and a Half Men” would jump its shark as an entire season and not as an individual episode.
Even legendary shows such as “All in the Family” ran aground and their offshoots were hardly great. That one, not surprisingly, did on the rocks of finite creativity – then, after all, did anyone really truly enjoy “Archie Bunker’s Place” after the demise of its parent? Of course not. You just can’t recapture magic, although “The Jeffersons” was a nice spinoff of “All in the Family” (but it spun off at a peak for the original).
Just ask Lorre and what happened to “Two and a Half Men” when he hired the talentless hack named Ashton Kutcher and injected that great series with terribly sleazy plots and second-rate writing. “Two and a Half Men” became a staggering joke and completely unwatchable for anyone with any intelligence.
But, back to “The Big Bang Theory,” from the start of season eight, when “Sheldon” is brought back home after an emotional meltdown and fleeing California, the episodes just get more strained (such as “The First Pitch Insufficiency” that manages to cheapen virtually every character in the cast that appeared) and truly not worth watching when weighed against what came before.
Moving beyond the shark metaphor, I’ll delve into straw and a camel’s back with the latest season.
Two words describe it: pure dreck.
Where once I couldn’t wait for a new episode, I wind up cringing and simply not paying attention at times to the new episode I’m watching. The latest one (“The Spock Resonance” as of the original posting of this blog entry) featured the son of the late Leonard Nimoy, who interviews “Sheldon” about his father’s character on “Star Trek” and how “Mr. Spock” affected him. Nimoy and his character on “Star Trek” are a long-running subplot for “Sheldon” and should have been an easy hit.
Of course, instead of being interesting and inspired, it stinks. It even has Lorre’s daughter in the director’s chair for her first directing credit (thanks for the nepotism, Chuck). It should be her last since the episode is just dreadful because of the lackadaisical acting – with the exception of a very good turn by Parsons – and its direction that appears to be in a vacuum. Since talent has never been a staple of promotion in Hollywood, I’m sure she’s on a rising career path on her father’s coattails.
I’m not going to give any kind of synopsis of the overall plot to “The Big Bang Theory” (it would turn out like describing “All in the Family” as the story of a lower middle-class bigot), but I will give some opinion about each of the main cast members. All have done a great job of developing his or her character in both plot and maturity of both the actor and the person they portray and deserve applause no matter how far down their material has traveled.
So, here goes with the main actors …
- Johnny Galecki is ostensibly the “main” character as “Leonard Hofstader,” but he does take an overall back seat to another. However, Galecki has grown the most into his character and made the transformation of “Leonard” from insecure nerd of the first episode to a married, much more mature man today. Like the others in the cast, I can’t see Galecki winning any Oscars anytime soon (even if a movie offer worthy of a nomination came calling). He’s solid and the foundation and that’s not easy to accomplish in weekly television, but he isn’t truly headliner material.
- Of course Jim Parsons as the iconic “Sheldon Cooper” is the star of the show. Parsons has simply been terrific with the character and played every foible, nuance and nitpicking way to perfection. Of all the cast members, only Parsons has managed to rise above the dreck he’s now being shoveled each week. He doesn’t hit homeruns any longer (no one on the show does outside Mayim Bialik), but he doesn’t strike out, either. Parsons will have trouble extending an acting career beyond “The Big Bang Theory,” somewhat in the vein of Ed O’Neil, who took years to overcome “Married with Children” (although he did do films such as “Dutch” – click here for my review). Just look at Parsons’ ads for Intel – he’s struggling to communicate an ad as a “Sheldon” type but fails miserably compared to the gold he mines in “The Big Bang Theory.” Thank you, Mr. Parsons, for work well-done and memorable.
- Kaley Cuoco (once Cuoco-Sweeting and now back to just Cuoco – they even changed her name in the ASPCA ads) is the third member of the original starring trio and she remains the least effective. I will give her a thumbs-up because she has managed to have fewer low points than others in the cast except for Parsons, but, unlike Parsons, hasn’t managed the talent to truly distinguish herself. Cuoco is there and that’s about all you can say about her in your most critical moment. The work she’s done is OK and often solid, but she doesn’t ever elevate “Penny” to the stratified air occupied by Parsons’s “Sheldon.” In the end, she gets a good grade because she works well with the other actors and doesn’t do any really terrible work.
- Simon Helberg has the most fun character in “Howard Wolowitz” and has consistently made the most of it. Helberg’s hyper-sexual “Howard” has toned down and matured as the show progressed and it shows his acting ability that he’s been able to convey that maturation with aplomb. Helberg can be bad (take any one of his screaming scenes), but in the end you remember the good work he does. When he’s not at his best, you remember that Helberg is truly good. He’s especially effective as the boy-turned-husband to “Bernadette” and has morphed his character from mama’s boy to being totally controlled by his wife. That’s not an easy progression to project and Helberg has done just about everything you could expect from him as “Howard.” Of course he’s had the best material to work with – outside of Parsons – but in the end every actor needs to deliver and Helberg doesn’t disappoint.
- Kunal Nyyar is the odd friend out with his “Rajesh Koothrapali” but he pretty much always gets a passing grade – sometimes it’s a “D,” but that’s passing. Nyyar is superb as the foil to Helberg and does a great job as a true supporting actor who doesn’t try to outshine the lead. The audience has been treated to just about the best dose of Nyyar possible (not too much and certainly not too little) and, of course, the creativity of his selective mutism when he could not talk to women unless he’s intoxicated is a wonderfully creative aspect of a television character’s personality.
- Along with Parsons, the actor with no weakness in “The Big Bang Theory” is Mayim Bialik as “Amy Farrah Fowler.” She was simply terrific from her first episode (and Bialk was even mentioned by real name in an earlier episode as a possible member of the boys’ Physics Bowl team). Bialik took the reigns of her character and made the rigid, simplistic and ready to be over-sexed scientist the equal of “Sheldon.” That wasn’t an easy task. Not impossible, but certainly a job that no other actor on the show could have even come near to accomplishing. Bialik brought more to the show than any single other character other than “Sheldon” – certainly more than “Leonard” and “Penny” and obviously more than “Raj.” She’s also head-and-shoulders above “Bernadette” (and just not in stature – she’s 5-foot-4 to “Bernadette’s” 4-foot-11), but I’ll take my shot at that actor next.
- Speaking of “Bernadette Rostenkowski,” tiny Melissa Rauch plays her and has fallen flat since very solid work in her first episodes. “Bernadette” is introduced as a blind date for “Howard” and started gaining speed almost immediately. Rauch used to do the character well and gave “Bernadette” her own flavor and intensity, but as the 121-episode grind from 2009 through today wore on, so did Rauch. Now, she comes off as annoying instead of intense and pretty much drags down the other actors in each of her scenes. You know the episode is going to either be slow-going or highly annoying now whenever she appears.
- Finally, the main cast lost a big voice when Carol Ann Susi succumbed to cancer in 2014. Susi voiced the loud, grating and sharp-tongued “Mrs. Wolowitz” (her character’s first name was ultimately revealed to be “Debbie”) and she watched over “Howard” until her death. The character is obviously the Jewish mother coming out from Lorre and, like “Berta” in “Two and a Half Men,” has only choice lines – no filler here. Susi’s death also made for several decent episodes since her passing as the character dies and the main characters deal with the death. Unlike Lorre’s “Berta,” you never see Susi in the show (although there were a couple of glimpses as she passed an open kitchen door in one episode). You’ll not pick her out, but Susi had a bit part in the Steve Martin-Rick Moranis comedy “My Blue Heaven” (click here for my review).
What I’ll also mention are a few of the peripheral characters that appear to have been attempts at long-term storylines, but that obviously didn’t pass the initial of test of being good enough for the long haul (unlike Bialik). Here we go:
- Aarti Mann played “Pryia” in two seasons of the show – 12 episodes stretched between seasons four and five. She was “Leonard’s” girlfriend and did a competent job (especially when considering Sara Rue’s ghastly “Dr. Stephanie Barnett”), but in the end just wound up a cast-off character that was headed for the scrap heap from her first appearance. In just about all her work, Mann’s character didn’t have much on which the audience could come to enjoy and it was a relief when you realized she wasn’t coming back.
- As I noted, Rue did a dreadful job with the material she was given as a woman first drawn to “Howard” and then becomes “Leonard’s” girlfriend. Rue certainly didn’t manage to elevate her character in any way in the three episodes she appeared in 2008. I’d like to believe another actor could have done a better job, but I’m not sure the character was introduced and developed properly by the writers but Rue doesn’t have enough (any?) acting chops to overcome the inherent weakness of “Stephanie.” “The Big Bang Theory” would have been wise to leave her out completely as the actor and character pretty much turned out to be valueless to the show.
- I’m not sure what possessed Lorre to choose Sara Gilbert, who plays scientist “Leslie Winkle” and who had some sexual encounters with both “Leonard” and “Howard.” Gilbert possesses absolutely no air of education or erudition and just comes off here as the trailer trash she was in the abominable “Roseanne” and thankfully disappeared completely by 2010 after eight episodes (seven more than we should have seen her). Gilbert, who is absolutely unconvincing as a scientist, doesn’t do anything with the character and her acting ranges from nil to nothing (yes, I know both are the same). I know Lorre was developing a foil to “Sheldon” and fortunately that slack was picked up by the character of “Barry Kripke.”
Of course there are a bunch of others – some with big parts (take Kevin Sussman who plays comic book store owner “Stuart Bloom”) and some with much smaller (take John Ross Bowie who plays “Kripke”), but I don’t have time to break them all down.
One of the running jokes in the show is the height of the characters. What a bunch of micro-men and women! The two tallest actors are Nyaar at 5-foot-7 and Parsons at 6-foot-1¼. Surprisingly, Galecki isn’t the runt of the male litter at his 5-foot-5, which is an inch shorter than Kaley Cuoco. The mico-est man is Helberg at 5-foot-4. For a long time, IMDb.com listed his height at 5-foot-7, but it has corrected itself (as I have updated this review). As I already noted, Bialik is an inch shorter than micro-man Galecki (thereby tying her with Helberg) and Rauch doesn’t even reach 60 inches with her 4-foot-11 frame. It is interesting how Lorre has a squeaky-voiced supporting character in both “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” (Kelly Stables was “Melissa,” who at Rauch’s height of 4-foot-11 was a bed partner to both main characters). All of the actors’ heights are courtesy of their biographies on IMDb.com.
A few cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Mann is Aarti’s stage name. Her real surname is Majmudar.
- Lorre’s real name is Charles Michael Levin, he’s 63 today and was born in Bethpage on New York’s Long Island.
- Bialik is the only cast member with a doctorate. She has one in nueral biology.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Raj’s inability to talk to women except when drunk is based on an old co-worker of executive producer Bill Prady when he worked at a computer company.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “On January 3, 2013, it was announced that a team of Brazilian Biologists named a newly discovered type of orchid bee that was eventually named Euglossa bazinga. This was to honor the show and specifically Sheldon’s catchphrase ‘bazinga.’ Executive producer Steven Molaro responded in a press release: ‘We are always extremely flattered when the science community embraces our show. Sheldon would be honored to know that Euglossa bazinga was inspired by him. In fact, after Mothra (1961) and griffins, bees are his third-favorite flying creature.’”
- Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page for “The Big Bang Theory.”
© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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