In the first of a new series of articles for The Digital Fix, Steven Slatter looks at what contributes to the successful longevity of a TV show, starting with The Big Bang Theory.
What are the key elements to creating a beloved hit TV show? Well thought out and developed characters, consistent and well paced story, good performances, and an investable premise are no doubt paramount but, more importantly, is that what’s required for longevity (we’re talking 10+ seasons)? Is it just the same formula played out over and over again, or is changing the status quo essential? Do some shows outstay their welcome? Do others leave too soon? This feature series is set to discuss not only long running shows such as Stargate SG1, Friends and The Big Bang Theory but also those like The X-Files, that came back after a lengthy hiatus and Star Trek, some perhaps that continued well past its finale.
The Big Bang Theory first aired in 2007 depicting friends Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard, a group of formulaic nerds in love will all things science fiction. While their love and knowledge of comics and video games is vast, their true passion is with factual science, with three members having doctorates, and one, a top class Master’s degree in engineering. They live in their own little bubble until they meet Penny, a stereotypical blonde, wannabe actress who Leonard becomes smitten with…that was twelve seasons ago!!!
The show was something a little different.. The live audience, comedic sitcom style of television brought an air of familiarity, helping viewers feel at ease while digesting out of the box characters. But the story was – and frankly is – refreshing. Its main focus and selling point centers around the idea that these guys are full on comic collecting, scientific, know it all nerds, a cliché that would have had similar people bullied and ridiculed, but now look cool. The Big Bang Theory both normalised the concept of being a nerd and by its completion, helped popularise it alongside the development of such properties as the MCU, DCEU and new Star Wars movies.
With an over saturation of comedic style shows, it’s essential to stand out and be different, which is exactly what Penny and Sheldon helped achieve. From the get go, Penny played a key role; not only was she the love interest that helped bring drama and sexual tension, but she single handily brought together two opposing worlds, the geek/nerd, and the popular/slightly more ditsy, creating a scenario that otherwise wouldn’t happen. If not for her, the audience reach could easily have been segregated.
The character arcs were fantastic; they each had little quirks and personalities traits that left you loving each one differently. While this concept is something used across the board in television, it’s rare that someone on the autistic/Asperger spectrum is seen. Sheldon was another element that helped the show stand out and is arguably the best character on this show, masterfully portrayed by Jim Parsons. His social obnoxiousness, misunderstanding of sarcasm, knocking three times before entering a room, and witty catchphrase “Bazinga” create beautifully written comedy, thanks to Sheldon’s complete innocence and sincere belief that he is, at all time, acting correctly. More importantly, it highlighted, educated and broke down the stigma that having a disability affects social behaviour. It brought the discussion to a national audience. Through Sheldon, people with Asperger’s, autism, ADHD and OCD have someone to look up to, to show anyone can be and do anything – a superhero if you will.
But is this enough to a keep a show running for twelve seasons? No. Something The Big Bang Theory did so well was evolving and consistently changing the status quo by incorporating new characters. The addition of Bernadette and Amy as main cast members brought new love interests for the main cast, and developed a new female side group where the likes of comics and movies were rarely spoken of, once again widening the audience demographic. Equally, the plethora of side characters and celebrity cameos kept things fresh and unpredictable, so episodes rarely felt overdone and samey.
The story is easily the most important feature of any TV show, make something that’s unfunny people are likely to tune out, but make something with investable, funny, relatable characters. Have a story that’s always moving forward, and you’re onto a winner. The Big Bang Theory is the latter, with characters consistently progressing, like Raj slowly being able to talk to women, Howard moving out of his mother’s house, Sheldon consistently getting a better understand of social norms and Leonard well…he doesn’t change all that much, but his devotion to his friends glues the four together. The progression with the female cast only cemented the continued character growth and if not for their incorporation, the show would perhaps have died long before it did.
Comedy is a key feature for any sitcom and one that if done poorly can make or break it. While laughs are important, the live audience format makes it a lot easier and helps jokes come across funnier than they may well be. Not only can additional laughs be added in during production, but given that you hear audible laughter after every gag, it’s only natural to follow suit. It’s arguably cheating, and one that’s utilised a lot towards the end, but it also helps writers concentrate more on character and story development which is equally as important. So while you may go an episode or two with simple chuckles, it always delivered a complete gut buster when you least expected it, which helped increase its popularity.
While not necessary for longevity, rewatchability is a factor that helps to prove the worth of a show. Let’s face it, there’s a reason the likes of Friends, Frasier and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air are continuously shown on TV to this day. The Big Bang Theory should be in the same discussion. Not only are the episodes easily digestible at only 20 minutes long, but sequential viewing isn’t essential; you can simply watch any random episode and enjoy it as much as the next, which is something you couldn’t necessarily do with other great shows like 24 or Game of Thrones, a testament to the brilliant writing.
The Big Bang Theory lasted 12 long seasons because it had different relatable characters, thought outside the box and had well-constructed story and premise. It was consistent, hilarious and all around loveable. It could be watched by self-confessed nerds and people who didn’t know what a Hulk was, and be enjoyed all the same. The ending was beautiful and well timed. Admittedly, the last few seasons had become a little stale, as it began to lose touch with what made it popular in the first place, feeling like a cash-grab by the makers. But the amalgamation of thinking outside the box, the unusual nature of the storylines, excellent cast, rare characters, top gags and plethora of celebrity cameos, together have ensured the show’s continual success even after it’s finished.
Now go binge it on Netflix.
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