“What is your most middlebrow taste?” I see this question occasionally pop up on social media, and for the past few years, I have been quite certain of my answer: I like “The Big Bang Theory” and will miss the show when its series finale airs on Thursday night.
(To clarify: I’ll miss new seasons of the show, as it appears destined to live on in syndication for at least another century or two, comprising 68 percent of TBS content.)
Usually I like more niche television programs like “Occupied” or “The Expanse” or “The Middle.” “The Big Bang Theory,” on the other hand, was a comparative ratings monster. It also tends to inspire decidedly mixed feelings among the cultural commentariat.
The Washington Post’s television critic Hank Stuever concludes, “Though it spoke the language of Comic-Con and STEM with a fluency that seemed modern and even hip (for network TV), make no mistake: ‘The Big Bang Theory’ was resolutely conventional, aimed straight down the middle and hitting a bull’s eye.” AV Cub’s Kyle Fowle noted, “there isn’t all that much unique about The Big Bang Theory. It’s a tame sitcom that’s easy to watch for a lot of people.” Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, who reminds everyone that the show was a critical darling in its early years, concludes, “The show might not have been about geek culture in any real way, but because it applied a veneer of geek culture to pretty traditional sitcom stories about friendship and romance, it managed to appeal to both actual geeks and people who knew those geeks and didn’t quite understand them.” The word “conventional” and its many synonyms appear in an awful lot of assessments about the show.
These assessments do not do complete justice to it. For one thing, when it first premiered in 2007, it had a truly unique character in Sheldon Cooper, as played by Jim Parsons.
There is no denying that the show lost some of is energy in later years, but it never compromised in its treatment of Sheldon Cooper. While never explicitly described as being on the autism spectrum, Sheldon was clearly anything but neurotypical. It remains genuinely impressive that showrunners Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady managed to have Sheldon develop a romantic relationship with Amy (played by Mayim Bialik) in a way that did not feel forced in any way. Sheldon evolved, but just barely, in a manner consistent with his hard-wiring. The episode in which he and Amy finally, in his words, “had coitus” was handled just about perfectly.
One of the claims made by critics was that the show was only superficially about geeks and nerds. That might be true, but a strong data point against it was the way it was received at Comic-Con. I happened to be at Comic-Con when the cast made an appearance, and the enthusiasm from the attendees seemed awfully genuine to me.
Mostly, what I enjoyed was the way the passage of time affected all of the characters for the better. In some sitcoms, like “Friends,” the characters become zanier in the later years of the show. In this show, the reverse was true.
Howard Wolowitz (played by Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (played by Kunal Nayyar) became less likely to trigger a #MeToo backlash as the show aged, while still being funny. Penny (played by Kaley Cuoco) became much less ditsy. In an era when hardcore geekdom can mean rage-tweeting on a smartphone about “Game of Thrones,” “The Big Bang Theory” offered a more gentle form of community in which friends would actually be in the same room. If that makes it middlebrow, then give me more middlebrow.
“The Big Bang Theory” falls into an odd category, one that saw societal norms shift during its run to the point where what had been quirky about the program became utterly conventional. Unlike some of its contemporaries (“House of Cards,” “Modern Family”), it handled this adjustment surprisingly well. It earned a graceful exit.
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Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.