The Big Bang Theory is a US sitcom that has been running since 2007, about a group of scientists who work at the California Institute of Technology and share a flat. With the show following their professional and romantic lives, it comes across as an unlikely “Friends with Geeks”, but has become wildly popular around the world. What makes The Big Bang Theory so popular?
First, there’s a killer theme tune, specially composed by Barenaked Ladies. Never underestimate this. But key to the success of the Big Bang Theory is the writing. Chuck Lorre has created a show that amuses audiences on multiple levels. There is, no doubt, a large mainstream audience that laughs at the hapless misadventures of Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj, taking all the science talk and cult references as simple comedy evidence of the characters’ nerdishness.
The scientific concepts discussed by the cast in episodes are usually pretty solid, however, and the references to cult franchises such as Doctor Who, Star Trek, Firefly, Red Dwarf, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and various comic characters enable fan culture to see themselves reflected with respect and a knowing eye for detail. The show succeeds because while the mainstream are laughing at these characters, fans are laughing with them.
This is a show that can go for broad relationship comedy about a mismatched couple (Leonard and his on-off girlfriend Penny), but still drop in a cameo from Star Trek: The Next Generation alumnus Wil Wheaton, playing an evil version of himself and prompting Sheldon to quote extensively from The Wrath of Khan for half an episode. The show works on several different levels and has something for just about everyone.
But every writer knows that even the sharpest comedy needs a strong performance in order to work, and the cast of Big Bang Theory both work together well as an ensemble group of performers, and have perfect timing. The standout member of the cast is undoubtedly Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper, the egotistical former child prodigy with no social skills, while Kayley Cuoco’s aspiring actress Penny is both a highly plausible fantasy figure for Leonard, and also a highly capable comic actress.
Ultimately, the Big Bang Theory has become popular through sharp writing which is both scientically literate and fan literate, excellent performances and high production values. If the writers can continue to provide topical material, and develop the characters’ relationships, there seems no reason why the show shouldn’t run for years to come.