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“Our long collective nightmare is finally over.”
That’s how critic Stuart Heritage of The Guardian celebrated the announcement by CBS that the current and 12th season of The Big Bang Theory would be its last. Yet the 15-20 million viewers who watch the half-hour sitcom each week likely feel otherwise.
The Big Bang Theory debuted in 2007 and originally focused on straight-man Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and narcissistic Sheldon (Jim Parsons), best friends and roommate geniuses who work at the California Institute of Technology with their friends, Howard (Simon Helberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar). The pals can hold their own when discussing particle physics, yet are clueless when it comes to relationships, particularly with women.
Though ratings were lackluster in its first season, eventually Big Bang thrived. And by its end, it will have run longer than the classic sitcoms Friends or Seinfeld. It has been the top-rated comedy since 2010 and was the top-rated show overall the last two seasons. It’s also scored on the awards front, garnering 10 Emmys from 52 nominations, and has now spun off a popular prequel, Young Sheldon.
The show’s appeal isn’t limited to American audiences. Chinese video site Sohu bought the streaming rights for Big Bang in 2009, and it quickly became the country’s favorite foreign show. Citizens were outraged when the Chinese government suddenly censored it five years later. In 2011, The Guardian called Big Bang “the latest factor behind a remarkable resurgence of physics among … university students” in the U.K.
Even the show’s reruns are ratings gems. Since TBS bought syndication rights for an unprecedented $1.5 million per episode in 2010, the network’s ratings with viewers under age 50 have soared, and Big Bang reruns sometimes beat first-run shows.
Some explain this phenomenal popularity by pointing to the show’s normalization of nerd culture. Yet it’s doubtful many viewers identify with its brainy geeks. More likely, their social awkwardness and outsider status resonate. That says less about the show than it does about the hyper-connected yet socially atomized world in which we live and work.
Throughout its run, Big Bang has incorporated religion in significant ways. Though none actively observe their faith, most characters have identifiable religious backgrounds: Howard is Jewish, his wife Bernadette is Catholic, Raj is Hindu, and Sheldon grew up in an evangelical Christian household. Sheldon’s mother, an occasional guest character on the show, typically makes laughably pious or politically insensitive remarks, but she shows genuine love for her son, and Sheldon’s friends like and admire her.
Analyzing Big Bang, researchers from Biola University concluded, “When writers make fun of the religious and spiritual diversity [of the characters] … the by-product is clear acknowledgement of their importance.” In a show that celebrates misfits, religious difference at least finds a seat at the table.
Despite its casual overall attitude toward sex, the show has evolved to champion traditional marriage, with most characters eventually marrying or forming relationships headed toward marriage. Penny and Leonard, after romantic twists and turns, eloped at the end of the show’s ninth season. Sheldon, whose uniqueness made finding “a helper meet for him” a miracle of near-Biblical proportions, met his match in his neurobiologist wife, Amy. Howard, endlessly teased for “only” having a master’s from MIT, married microbiologist Bernadette, and they have two children. In the show’s final season, the writers seem to be planning happy endings for all the geeks: Perennially lovelorn Raj is dating Anu, a woman his parents matched him with for a potential arranged marriage. Even Stuart, owner of the comic book store where the guys regularly shop, has a serious girlfriend.
The Big Bang Theory offers no eternal solutions—just a stumbling-through-life search for happiness—yet does serve to make misfits endearing, an empathy that can be the precursor to love. It may even resonate with the misfit in us all.