The Complete First Season of The Big Bang Theory is out on DVD on Tuesday. It consists of 17 episodes of the sitcom, including Chuck Lorre’s end vanity cards, which instead of being a production company logo are little bits of his philosophy or fiction or rants.
Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) are nerdy genius grad students (named after Sheldon Leonard, producer of TV classics including Make Room for Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show). Penny (Kaley Cuoco, previously on 8 Simple Rules) is the blonde Cheesecake Factory waitress who lives across the hall. Leonard develops a crush on her and sees her presence as a chance to try out another social sphere. The result is a great “crossing the tracks” kind of relationship that reminds me of 1930s movies, only instead of class/income, this time it’s brainpower that separates the characters.
Howard (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh (Kunal Nayyar) are the boys’ friends. Howard thinks he’s a ladies’ man, only his bragging is based on his geekiness, and Rajesh has a pathological inability to speak to women. The writers compare Howard to Pepe Le Peu in how overconfident he is, and it’s right on target.
Some of the one-liners are laugh-out-loud funny. The plots can be ridiculous, as when Sheldon is so obsessed with the mess in Penny’s apartment that he breaks in at midnight to straighten up, but it still stems from the characters. (That’s the one where Leonard, when he thinks he hears a noise in the middle of the night, wields an illuminated light saber as both nightlight and weapon.) There’s also slapstick, witty banter, geek culture references, and goofy fun. Much of it works because of the skilled delivery of the players. The plots aren’t really the point so much as the character interaction.
The pilot features Sheldon and Leonard going to a high-IQ sperm bank to get some extra money. They solve the receptionist’s crossword for her, demonstrating that they have no tact or consideration for emotions. In typical sitcom fashion, Penny’s shower isn’t working, so she winds up wrapped in a towel in their apartment, while the guys wind up getting pantsed by her ex-boyfriend. The laugh track in that episode is also turned up too high. Keep going afterwards, and the show will quickly improve and grow on you.
The first really good one is the fourth episode, where Sheldon gets fired for insulting his department head. It shows how quickly the geeks’ lives disintegrate when their routines and comfort zones are interrupted. It also allows him to go to the market with Penny, who has begun humoring her neighbors. Those two interact hilariously in a clash of opposites. It culminates in him trying to find out details about her menstrual cycle in order to encourage her to save money on a lifetime supply of tampons and getting the door slammed in his face. Laurie Metcalf (a Roseanne alumni) guest-stars as Sheldon’s fundamentalist mother, which plays up how much these grown men (in their mid-20s) with academic careers look, act, and relate as youngsters.
In contrast, Penny’s character is so undeveloped as to have no real ambition. There’s a throwaway joke in the pilot about her wanting to write a book, but we know more about what she’s running away from — bad boyfriends, getting out of Nebraska — then what she wants to be. That’s not surprising, given that it’s a Chuck Lorre show, and he seems to still be working out his problems with driven women after being involved with Grace Under Fire, Cybill, and Roseanne. These days, he much prefers the blonde bimbette type for comic relief. (See also Two and a Half Men.) Penny’s still mostly an object and plot device, although the actress does a great job fleshing out what she’s given. She’s fallen into almost a mom role, taking care of the nerds.
The series came back after the writers’ strike hiatus with a series of great episodes, beginning with the ninth, where the two leads fight over whether to present their work at a physics conference. (You can tell the break because of the length of Penny’s hair.) Episode 10 features “exquisitely convoluted” lies (Sheldon’s phrase) to keep them from having to listen to Penny’s poor singing performance, while 11 has Sheldon coping badly with being sick. In episode 12, a new, younger rival arrives, which disrupts Sheldon’s entire worldview and ego. At this point in the series, the scripts are polished and the cast really clicking, and that continues on through the series ender, in which Penny and Sheldon have a meaningful conversation about Leonard.
Sheldon is my favorite. He’ll say anything and he’s really really smart and completely unselfconscious about it. He’s worse than Leonard in terms of relating to others on anything other than a purely intellectual basis. He’s got little patience for most people and most conventions of behavior, plus he’s constrained by his obsessive habits. The actor does a terrific job with long sentences that he delivers masterfully.
The guy characters remind me of the people I went to school with. Heck, I was one of these people — and thankfully, the show does acknowledge girl geeks, with the occasional appearance of Sara Gilbert (whose character on Roseanne was married to Galecki’s character) as Leslie, Leonard’s sometime girlfriend, beginning in episode 3. (Maybe I still am one of those people, interested in DVD commentaries and computer gaming and evenings at home with a few good friends instead of going out to clubs.)
My brother, a new Ph.D., also enjoys the show because of what he says is its realism when it comes to the authenticity of struggles over status and publication in academia. He cited the ninth episode, where the leads argue over whether to present their co-authored paper at a conference. He said in his department, they would play a game of “find the error” in professorial and student presentations because it would establish a pecking order. Sheldon’s meglomania in looking down on everybody is common in that environment, with over-confidence masking insecurity.
The only extra on this set is the 17-minute “Quantum Mechanics of The Big Bang Theory: A behind-the-scenes look into geek chic” featurette. The Executive Producers (and series creators) Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady talk about the show interspersed with clips that illustrate what they’re talking about and the stars are interviewed about their characters. It’s actually a great introduction to the show, although anyone who would buy the box set likely already knows most of the information it contains. I would have liked to have known more about the theme song as well, with maybe a free downloadable version included. A complimentary copy of this DVD was provided by the studio.
The second season of the show debuts September 22 with Sara Gilbert added as a series regular.