After 12 seasons, 68 awards, and 224 nominations, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory is finally coming to an end in 2019. I say “finally” because, since the show first premiered in 2007, I’ve never managed to figure out its appeal. Slated as a nerdy comedy that follows the lives of roommates, friends and neighbors who are all in the sciences — save for Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the resident “hot girl” — The Big Bang Theory has consistently relied on lazy writing, entrenched misogyny and racism and an overinflated sense of accomplishment.
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Here’s an example: although Penny has been a main character since the pilot, she has never been given a last name. She allegedly has one, according to a 2014 comment from executive producer Steve Molaro, but it hasn’t been made canon. Molaro told Vulture, “We’re kind of a superstitious lot here. We’ve made it this far without knowing Penny’s last name. I think we’re good not finding out.”
Are we, though? Two other major female characters on the show, Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch) and Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Balik), both have last names. Notably, they are also characterized as being smarter and more capable than Penny. Perhaps Penny’s lack of a last name doesn’t seem like a big deal to the writers, but as a viewer, it’s pretty jarring. It suggests a lack of autonomy and personhood, which is a major problem for any character, but especially one who’s been consistently at the forefront of the series all these years.
As noted by ScreenRant, it’s not just the misogyny in the writing that’s a problem. The show is built on negative stereotypes of nerd culture, going so far as to insert pop culture references and actual science while playing a laugh track. Casual racism, including frequent remarks about Rak Koothrappali’s (Kunal Nayyar) culture, is peppered throughout the series. Sheldon’s (Jim Parsons) social anxiety is often the butt of jokes.
The comedy of The Big Bang Theory is, in a word, mean. Despite this, the show attracts millions of viewers each week and is one of the top-rated comedies in U.S. television history, according to ScreenRant. That should be surprising, but in many ways, it isn’t. Geekdom as portrayed on The Big Bang Theory is the stuff that nerds have been mocked for their entire lives. This series heavily relies on tropes that categorize nerds as wildly intelligent, socially anxious weirdos who can’t interact with an attractive woman without losing their cool.
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Its popularity doesn’t end in the United States, either. According to Metro, in 2016, the series was syndicated in 77 different countries. It has a spin-off, Young Sheldon, which enters its second season this fall. The Big Bang Theory even sports an 81 percent “fresh” rating on the film critique site Rotten Tomatoes.
Clearly, there must be some appeal, though in the three seasons I watched — in an effort to understand why my partner at the time was so in love with it — The Big Bang Theory never worked for me, for all the reasons listed above. Plus, after a while, the apparent humor of the show becomes stale and sort of exhausting. As someone whose interests dovetail with those of the characters on this show, it should be significantly more fun to watch than it is. But it’s not.
I’ve even tried jumping into episodes from later seasons, in the hopes that early-season kinks were worked out. Spoiler alert: They weren’t. The addition of more women besides just Penny somehow increased the misogyny, rather than leveling out the show’s early reliance on showing geeks in heat over the hot new neighbor.
To be frank, the show should have gone off the air long before now, but when CBS announced that it would not be renewed after the upcoming season 12, I breathed a massive sigh of relief. I wasn’t alone. The Big Bang Theory has long drawn ire from critics for harming the very groups it claims to represent, although some — like a reporter for The Verge who wrote a passionate defense of the series’ portrayal of geekdom — did not rejoice in the news of its cancelation.
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I fully support more inclusive television that celebrates subcultures like geekdom, but they have to be done right. Unfortunately, The Big Bang Theory does not fit that description. It will be a relief to see it end next year, even if it remains in syndication until the end of time. Seeing this show praised every awards season is almost physically painful because of how deeply flawed it is.
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