The Big Bang Theory: Season 11
Ever since television attained dominance as the primary source of home entertainment, several core genres have withstood the constantly changing preferences of the audience. For decades every television season has brought about new shows based on a few simple themes: the police/detectives, the judicial system and the medical profession. Traditionally these are hour long dramas targeting the adults in the family. While many members in the audience enjoy escaping their daily grinds in enthralling stories most seek a means of escapism rooted in light hearted comedy. That lead to the most persistent format in television history, the situational comedy, the sitcom. While dramas usually focus on exciting setting, circumstances and professions, the sitcom is crafted upon a foundation of relatability. The most common format involves a group of people either at home or on the job. In 2007 CBS premiered a variation of such a proven formula which combined friendly neighbors and people sharing an apartment as well as professional similarities, ‘The Big Bang Theory’. This consideration focuses on the eleventh, and as it turns out, penultimate season. The fundamental premise was brilliantly simple and exceptionally relatable. A pair of young men, physicists with PhDs, share an apartment in a variation of ‘The Odd Couple’. Both are socially inept geniuses but Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), notably better able to fit in than his OCD roommate, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons). Their equilibrium is upended when a beautiful, friendly young woman, Penny (Kaley Cuoco). Under most circumstances this setup would wear thin within a few seasons but thanks to creative writing and incredible chemistry between an ensemble cast, directly resulted in its longevity. The dilemma that faces every showrunner is simple to describe yet quite difficult to achieve. The goal is to retain the elements responsible for the success of the show yet introduce enough changes to keep the series interesting. The traditional paradigm for sitcoms is consistency. Season after season they keep the same cast and circumstances with each episode independent of the others. That format became outdated when the audience began to expect fully developed story arcs, even with comedies. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ has proven to be among the most robust examples of the genre.
The key to the versatility of the show is the willingness to expand the cast. First close friends of Seldon and Leonard were brought in, astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) and MIT trained mechanical engineer, Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg). Initially each had problems relating to women, but that situation was rectified during the interning decade. By this season a fully formed ensemble cast had been established, each with completely developed personalities. For several seasons Penny was the only female character, primarily as Leonard’s on again-off again love interest. Sheldon was painted as so completely incompatible on a psychological level to be involved in anything remotely resembling a normal relationship. The changes were infused gradually with great care for developing a cohesive narrative. Howard, the faux lady’s man, marries a biologist, Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch). At this point they are happily married with two children. Customarily, marriage was a ‘jump the shark’ plot development but this show went beyond making it work, it became an expanding central theme. After years of relationship flux, Penny and Leonard get married. Defying another common pitfall, they live in the guy’s apartment while Sheldon takes over Penny’s place across the hall. Against all odds he moves in with his girlfriend, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik), a Neuroscientist. In a case of art imitating life Dr. Bialik earned her doctorate in that field. Raj overcame his inability to talk to women while sober and had several serious relationships with amazingly brilliant and beautiful young women. He has attached himself to Howard and Bernadette serving as godfather and caretaker for their children. In keeping with the modus operandi of the series, peripheral character, Stuart Bloom (Kevin Sussman), became a regular after years as the owner of the comic book store frequented by the guys. He is the sad sack friend who is not on par intellectually but well versed in comic and movie lore. He also gravitated to staying with Howard and Bernadette as a ‘mannie’.
Throughout all these changes the showrunner never lost sight of the whimsical humor that propelled the series to pervade the zeitgeist of a generation. The firmly crafted foundation remained the culture shock when highly intelligent young me are forced by circumstances to socially interact with a beautiful, vivacious young woman from a normal midwestern community. The course alterations in the narrative was carefully infused into the series at a steady, metered pace. Many shows would hold back on major plot twists until the fiscally crucial sweeps period of season finales. Certainly, several key story developments are reserved until the last episode, for example the cliff-hanger of Sheldon proposing to Amy. The significance of that highly emotionally charged scene would have been greatly diminished. That relationship had been building for seasons as the inherently self-absorbed Sheldon and the socially naive Amy reached out to each other to find a somewhat normalized common ground. Initially it was acting upon a long-repressed need to be close to another person in a potentially intimate fashion. Both experience an expansion of a previously myopic world view that slowly blossomed into love. This season offers a unique variation of a period of life that is common, preparing for a wedding. considering Sheldon is so controlling that Leonard sign a roommate agreement and Amy a similar document defining the parameters of their relation, the plethora of deskins necessary for any nuptial, this planning stage made the moon landing appear to be spontaneous.
The wonderful nature of this series resides in its ability to change; its willingness to encourage realistic growth in each of the characters. This devotion to the quality of the stories is intrinsically infused down to the core of the narrative. This is evident with the way a relatively minor character such as Stuart was handled. Beginning as little more than a background character present during the scenes when the guys were perusing the latest characters. He was carefully expanded until in this latest season he occupies a central position in a significant plot thread, Raj and Howard from establishing the rarified world of scientific research to two of the most iconic characters on television. Indubitably many fans readily identify with young men knowable in science fiction mythos, graphic novels and the backstory of every entity to wield the green power ring of Oa. Still, there is such an accessible core of humanity present in every character. The romance between Penny and Sheldon defied expectations by balancing happiness with the usual tribulations we all have endure for the sake of love. The traditional sitcom tends to maintain characters in their respective niche. Bernadette underwent the transformation from Penny’s coworker at the Cheesecake factory to earning her doctorate. Now she is the mother of two balancing work in the private sector, mother of two small children while remaining close to her best girlfriends, Penny and Amy. Across the board, change was accomplished through carefully crafted character development and dedication to quality. It is lamentable that the upcoming season will be the swan sing for the series. In entertainment such success and popularity affording the talented cast, writers and directors the opportunity to pursue the projects that will allow them the greatest degree of artistic growth. This penultimate season is among the most relatable and human yet. It properly set the groundwork for the regrettable yet inevitable conclusion of a memorable series.