Nayyar, Parsons, Galecki, and Helberg (left to right) Michael Yarish/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Out with a bang
Top-rated, long-running Big Bang Theory appealed to the misfit in us all
by Laura G. Singleton
“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.
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Wars and warrens
Netflix series Watership Down offers a dark but enjoyable adventure story
by Marty VanDriel
Tyranny, violence, heroism, self-sacrifice, and rabbits: Who knew these could blend together so well? Readers of the 1972 novel Watership Down might have anticipated that the latest adaptation, released by Netflix in December, would be much more than a nature story.
Richard Adams’ novel is required reading for many high-school and middle-school students. An animated film of the same name was released in 1978 to some controversy, as some British critics thought the “U” rating it received (deeming it suitable for all viewers) downplayed the movie’s violence.
The computer-animated Netflix reworking is impressive: The closing credits name dozens of “hair and fur” artists who managed to make hundreds of realistic rabbits all look different from one another.
The plot centers on a group of rabbits led by Hazel (voiced by James McAvoy) and his companion Fiver (Nicholas Hoult), who has had disturbing dreams of “something foul and fierce” coming to destroy their home. The group flees after those in power scoff at their warnings. A day later, steam shovels and excavators destroy their burrows and tunnels, and most of the rabbits who remained behind are killed. Fiver’s vision of hills filled with blood has come true.
A series of adventures brings the bedraggled rabbits to their new home, Watership Down. But their peace is short-lived: Neighboring warren Efrafa is ruled by the tyrannical despot Woundwort (Ben Kingsley), and he is determined to wipe out these new settlers.
Woundwort’s rule by intimidation and brute force contrasts with Hazel’s gentle, sacrificial leadership. In an epic final battle, his band of brave, cunning rabbits must defend themselves against Woundwort’s army of invaders.
The PG-rated series is too frightening, violent, and dark for younger children, and parents might want to discuss the pagan spirituality of the rabbits, who speak of the sun as the creator and of death as “the black rabbit.” But overall, Netflix’s Watership Down is an enjoyable adventure that might cause you to imagine another world the next time you see a rabbit in your garden.
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Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes World Productions/Netflix
BBC series Bodyguard offers thrills and intrigue, but with objectionable content
by Marty VanDriel
Terrorist bombings, political intrigue, an affair, and assassination attempts: Bodyguard serves up all these ingredients and more. The British drama spiced up with American action scenes has earned high ratings in the U.K. and on Netflix. But be warned this BBC series has earned its TV-MA rating.
Sgt. David Budd (Richard Madden) served with British forces in Afghanistan, and the experience scarred him emotionally and physically. Harrowing memories and flashbacks drive him to drink, and his temper often flares, leading to the end of his marriage. Budd loves his family, but his wife refuses to live with him in his current state. “You need help, David!” she and David’s colleagues say.
On duty, Budd is a model police officer. His time in combat soured him on politics and politicians, but one would never know it from his diligence and prowess as a bodyguard. After foiling a terrorist train-bombing plot, Budd is assigned to protect Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), the Conservative MP serving as home secretary (responsible for U.K. internal affairs and security). Montague is a rising political star, a powerful woman whose speeches echo the firm resolve and tough talk of the original Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.
Montague has proposed controversial anti-terrorism legislation that would increase the government’s ability to snoop on private citizens’ phone calls and internet use. The legislation, along with Montague’s rising star status, make her a prime target for terrorists, political opponents, and privacy advocates.
When a sniper attacks Montague’s vehicle convoy, we wonder: Is the prime minister jealous enough to have ordered her killing? Are the attempted train bombers determined to take out this powerful new leader? The plot gives viewers just enough clues for enjoyable speculation.
Given the intriguing storyline, it’s disappointing this show is weighed down by objectionable elements. Characters occasionally swear and blaspheme, and the relationship between Budd and Montague turns quickly into a passionate physical affair, complete with sexual scenes. Too bad: The two had plenty of chemistry and tension that could have developed without that.