Monday, February 06, 2012

[TV] It All Started With a Big Bang

It All Started With a Big Bang: It's been a long time since I've really like a standard network three-camera sitcom, probably since Seinfeld, but Big Bang Theory got me. The setup is 4 young scientists, living in the deepest depths of nerdom, find that an exceedingly hot little blond ditz has moved in across the hall. Hijinks ensue.

Except it is so much more than a rehash of Revenge of the Nerds. The nerds are not portrayed as pathetic little puppies to be laughed at, yet pitied. They are, in their own way, truly cool people who I would love the hang with (well, every once in while maybe). What makes them this way is the exceeding wit of their dialogue and the delicacy with which they are provided just enough humanity to engender attachment.

It's easy to completely overlook what a tremendous writing achievement it is to pump out a consistently funny sitcom for years on end. The writers of great and glamorous cable shows that highlight how astounding TV writing can be have an advantage in that they only need generate a dozen or so episodes every year and if they aren't quite up to snuff, they just delay things for a few months. This is a positive development for writing in general, but it is no greater an achievement, I would argue, than cranking out 26 sitcom episodes every year, like clockwork, no delayed deadlines, and having them be consistently funny and fresh.

Yes, there are clunkers Big Bang Theory but surprisingly few considering the constraints. You have about 24 minutes per episode. You need a short bumper, you have roughly two 8-10 minute segments to hammer through three acts, and you have a trailer. You may not use profanity. Adult themes are under scrutiny. No long story arcs. You are stuck with limited set options and virtually no special effects. You cannot do anything too unexpected ro challenging. You need a laugh line or gag about every twenty seconds.

Imagine sitting in a writers room with a handful of other stressed out, underpaid writers, with nothing but blank paper and an empty whiteboard in front of you, and knowing you have to come up with an conforming premise, plot, and teleplay by the end of the day, and if it's not completely hilarious you will be writing corporate press releases to pay your rent.

Big Bang Theory writers have mastered that environment for multiple seasons now. For what it's worth: Respect.

Most of the accolades for the show have centered around the actors, which is fine because they are astonishingly great comic actors. Impeccable timing all around. And multiple Emmy winner Jim Parsons as Sheldon is as good as everyone claims. Even the guest stars sparkle. There's another unsung hero: Casting.

It's a geeky show, that's part of the premise, and if you were are at least fractionally geek you will apreciate all the in-jokes and references. There's another writing triumph: they trust their audience enough not to feel the need to explain every Star Trek or computer gaming reference. When one character says, "I am the Internet Explorer to your Firefox" or they make a reference to the "The Ice Planet Hoth" no one feels the need to elaborate for those that don't get it.

In it's own way, Big Bang Theory is as fine an achievement as the best of the high concept cable dramas.