I’ve been known to despise The Big Bang Theory (BBT). I originally liked it and watched the first 7 seasons with pleasure, but at a certain point, I realized that it was actually making fun of nerds rather than championing them. It also just turned in to Friends except they were “nerds.” However, there is one commendable aspect of the show that I discovered recently. I decided to watch the newest episode of Season 10 and I was surprised at how much the show has changed. Not just the premise and plot, but also how some of the characters and comedy has changed. The laugh track is still annoying, but some characters that I thought would never evolve did, while other stayed the same. The comedy is now more grounded in making jokes about each other rather than racism and sexism (though themes of that still run rampant throughout the show). I think what makes BBT everlasting and a staple in over 19 million viewers lives is how much the actors put into the characters, as well as the writers. Each character has their own profile. There’s no guessing game to who the character is. We know their likes and dislikes, their insecurities, and their strengths.
I guess it’s easy to say for a show that has had ten years to develop. Of course, you'd think it'd be inevitable for characters to fulfill their arc, but for some shows it isn't. I didn't think BBT would ever grow, but it has. Raj, Amy, and Sheldon are totally new characters. Raj not only talks now (he has for a while), but he has his own stuff going on. He could have been easily discarded as he has no love story or drama of his own that takes precedence over the Leonard Sheldon dichotomy, but the show decided to keep him on and give him his own plot twists. Amy is no longer the vagina-ed version of Sheldon, but a compassionate, understanding, and empathetic person. Lastly, Sheldon is no longer an unfeeling robot and he has developed emotions and cares about others around him, though he still gets lost when it comes to social cues like sarcasm. Howard is still the main comedic sidekick and he’s alright, he hasn’t changed much from the beginning. Penny, Bernadette, and Leonard are still as white bread as ever. But the characters that really did need a 180 degree change did, and that’s the good thing. They’re no longer caricatures or stereotypes, but people you can imagine being your friend in real life.
The change was also gradual, given the fact it took around 7 years for the changes to start happening. The show took its time. They started out with each character in a pin hole and then gently expanded each character’s horizons. That’s why some of the episodes’ plots are thin, because it’s just for more character development. So even when the plots are lame, the characters can keep it together because we know who they are, and they know who they are.
The fact that it took so long for them to change can be to the show's advantage. In new shows like Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat we don't know who the characters are because they’re so wishy washy. Mainly because they're supposed to change or realize they're wrong at the end of each episode. Each episode is there to teach the character a lesson, rather than the character coming to terms with something as time goes on. For instance in Blackish, the dad needs to come to terms that his son is a nerd, but then in the next episode he’s back to making fun of his son for being a nerd. In Fresh Off the Boat, one episode Jessica is fine with breaking the law with her husband, and the next episode she’s throwing him under the bus in front of the entire school. We don’t know who these characters are because they’re supposed to make a huge change in every 20 minute episode. That’s impossible! It makes the characters not only hard to relate to, but overall unlikeable people. They’re not people we’d want as friends or could imagine in real life, rather they’re just puppets for the director and writers to spew out contrived messages each week.
Even when the plots are really strong, like Louis not being able to represent all Chinese people on TV, or Jessica losing track of her identity, the episodes crumble due to the fact the characters are too complicated and over the top. Louis turns it into a big joke and forgets about the lesson he was trying to teach the audience, and Jessica makes Chinese culture look like a simple stereotype of everything white people hate about China, in order for us to side with Eddie and the kids that being "too Chinese" is bad.
It would seem as though characters with no defining traits would appeal to us as humans since none of us can be pinned down to a single characteristic. Eddie Huang can sometimes want a strict mom, but other times would want a lax one. He can sometimes embrace his Chinese heritage, but other times not. But that’s simply not the case. We want shows (and it shows from 10 seasons of BBT, 6 years of Fresh Prince, 8 seasons of Modern Family, 6 seasons of Sex in the City, and 10 seasons of Friends) where characters are easy to pigeon hole and are predictable. It feeds into our need for escapism, and our need to control things (since we can rarely control people around us).
In BBT it takes them a long time to realize anything which keeps the show consistent and the formula working. There's never a big or huge change within just one episode. When there is a new revelation or more dramatic episode, you feel more of a pay off because it happens so rarely. Maybe BBT can do this because it's more of a Friends sitcom than a family one, but The Fresh Prince of Bel Air as well as Everybody Hates Chris was able to do a family sitcom and have consistent characters. I know it can get boring, and Fresh Prince episodes also like to give a message almost every time (that is never touched on again and the characters revert to their original programming), but in the long haul, that's what shows need. They need consistent character traits and arcs over time, not in each episode, otherwise how are we ever supposed to know who they are? Even though I don't like BBT, I can commend it on being smart and staying relevant in people's lives for 10 years.
23 year old English major and ESL Teacher. Currently living in Fortaleza, Brazil. Feminist and kill joy with a cause.