Image B Sound B Extras D
"Pilot," "The Big Bran Hypothesis," "The Fuzzyboots Corollary," "The Luminous Fish Effect," "The Hamburger Postulate," "The Middle Earth Paradigm," "The Dumpling Paradox," "The Grasshopper Experiment," "The Cooper-Hofstadter Polarization," "The Loobenfeld Decay," "The Pancake Batter Anomaly," "The Jerusalem Duality," "The Bat Jar Conjecture," "The Nerdvana Annihilation," "The Pork Chop Indeterminacy," "The Peanut Reaction," "The Tangerine Factor"
by Ian Pugh I absolutely love the fact that "The Big Bang Theory"'s episode titles refer to throwaway gags buried in the show's worn-out sitcom scenarios. In "The Jerusalem Duality" (1.12), theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is flummoxed by the presence of a North Korean wunderkind who threatens to steal his thunder; eager to upstage him, Sheldon proposes to end to the conflict in the Middle East by building an exact replica of Jerusalem in the Mexican desert. Within this seemingly arbitrary naming convention, find everything "The Big Bang Theory" is attempting to accomplish--a jovial elbow to the ribs directed at the smart guys who can't see the forest through the trees in their approach to life.
Unfortunately, history has proven that sitcom writers are too often stricken with the tendency to fall back on lazy mediocrity, and "The Big Bang Theory" ignores its potential while reinforcing that history in spades. Why, for instance, bother rounding out your characters when you can just carve everyone into tidy little archetypes? There's Sheldon, the infallibly condescending, obsessive-compulsive hermit; Howard (Simon Helberg), the horndog/potential sex offender; Raj (Kunal Nayyar), the funny foreign guy with a pathological inability to speak to women; and Leonard (Johnny Galecki), our almost-normal protagonist, who serves as the group's pseudo-translator to the outside world (and thus the closest thing we have to an avatar). When beautiful Nebraskan transplant Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in down the hall, Leonard is instantly infatuated with her--and suddenly the group dynamic is thrown into turmoil. As expected, the four geeks still manage to expound on their respective obsessions at great length to whomever will listen, but in the absence of fleshed-out personalities, the four heroes become nothing more than static pedants. Whenever Penny (or, in her absence, the laugh track) expresses confusion at their long strings of technobabble, it comes across as a condemnation of the very idea that apparently esoteric knowledge like Schrodinger's Cat exists, a crude dismissal roughly equivalent to "whatever, fag."
As such, the series tends to resort to a similarly dismissive default when the time comes to develop these characters. Whether they're innocently, bizarrely oblivious (1.5, "The Middle Earth Paradigm," in which they fail to see the point of dressing up for a Halloween party without contests and prizes), or unforgivably creepy (1.2, "The Big Bran Hypothesis," in which Sheldon sneaks into Penny's apartment at night to clean and rearrange it), the viewer is expected to find these misfits endearing in the same way that people would be expected to find Napoleon Dynamite endearing: with detached bemusement, complete with a sly grin in reassurance that these douchebags will never encroach on their own narrow worldview. Any potential growth beyond the show's stated parameters is quickly quashed. The purchase of a life-sized replica of Rod Taylor's time machine forces Leonard to contemplate his attachment to childish things (1.14, "The Nerdvana Annihilation"), for instance, but once the opportunity to seduce Penny with that piece of personal growth dissipates, it's right back to the impenetrable bubble of endless "Halo" tournaments and "World of Warcraft" marathons--because these guys don't deserve to transcend their identities as targets of our derision.
At first, "The Big Bang Theory" seems to make some headway at the close of the first season, as Leonard and Penny finally break their awkward sexual tension and decide to try a full-blown relationship (1.17, "The Tangerine Factor"). Now, I don't necessarily object to ending an "Anything But Love"-esque courtship (oh, please, God) with the self-conscious union of "beauty and the geek"--nor do I really object to the classification of these people as such, or expounding on the difficulties of crossing those invisible social lines. I do object to the wholesale treatment of one classification as inherently inferior to the other for an oblique concentration of knowledge and awkward social quirks, like we don't all suffer from our own idiosyncrasies. There are no fewer than three episodes devoted to why Sheldon should stop acting like a self-centred prick, yet Penny's relationship problems are just ill-defined enough to be regarded as universal and something for which she is largely unaccountable. What I want to know is how the characters of "The Big Bang Theory" apply their knowledge and adapt to their idiosyncrasies, but, alas and alack, the show paints in strokes too broad to bother investing any thought in the small moments necessary for that to happen.
Warner brings "The Big Bang Theory: The Complete First Season" to DVD in a perfectly competent three-disc set. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is overly sharp and bright in the way that sitcoms typically are, while Dolby 2.0 Surround audio also enforces the same-old same-old by flooding the back channels with canned laughter. The Barenaked Ladies' magnificent theme song--really the only reason to put any time into "The Big Bang Theory" at all--fills the room quite nicely, however. (Editor's Note: Like all CBS series, "The Big Bang Theory" is broadcast in DD 5.1 and always sounds surprisingly rich and beefy for its genre; why they've downconverted it for DVD is anyone's guess.) "Quantum Mechanics of 'The Big Bang Theory'" (17 mins.) is a full-frame doc billed as "a behind-the-scenes look into geek chic," whatever the hell that means--all I saw was a collection of recycled clips backed by rambling anecdotes from creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady about the show's conception and its, like, crazy-smart technical consultants. Bonus tragedy: Nayyar laments his desire to do something dramatic--revealing a dream, I think, to play a hard-boiled detective--and break out of shitty comedy like this. Originally published: October 15, 2008.