tv review

The Big Bang Theory Was a Pop-Culture Black Hole

Photo: Michael Yarish/CBS

The Big Bang Theory has ended after 12 seasons. Its series finale is bookended by the series finales of Veep a few days earlier and Game of Thrones a few days later, and as I spent a few days in the middle catching up on Big Bang’s final season, I had the sense I was being very capably rolled up into a warm, muffling blanket. Conversations, both within the show and about the show, are not noisy or urgent. There are few high stakes, and even the stakes that arguably are high (like winning a Nobel Prize or being pregnant) are treated as fairly minor events. The Big Bang Theory’s end is enormous — at its height, 20 million people watched this show every week — but compared with the end of Game of Thrones, it’s also weirdly silent.

In some ways, that’s because the things that once made The Big Bang Theory original and different in the ecosystem of network multi-cams are now the things least surprising about mass popular culture today. When the show first premiered in 2007, it was less common to hear adult characters on TV talk about going to comic-book stores, or see them wearing T-shirts with superheroes on them, or watch them get in arguments about the best Doctor from Doctor Who. Before the dominance of the Marvel film franchise, before the return of Star Wars movies, before superhero TV series took over the CW, The Big Bang Theory was out there telling stories about four men with careers in the sciences, who wholeheartedly loved to sit down and play Settlers of Catan. They were not standard fodder TV heroes.

The protagonists were the sorts of guys that the friends from Friends would’ve mocked. (Except for Ross, who would’ve been envious of their Dungeons & Dragons game, and would himself have been mocked for feeling that way.) Although Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, Howard, and Penny began more as stereotypes than characters, and their nerd jokes sometimes didn’t land with real nerds, and the show’s early gender politics were terrible, and the multi-cam form of the show made it feel old-fashioned from the jump, there was still something that felt new about putting the nerds at the center rather than at the margins. That was true even if, as Todd VanDerWerff put it in Vox, “It was never about nerd culture so much as it used nerd culture for what felt like a novel setting.”

The final seasons of The Big Bang Theory feel less culturally notable than the opening seasons, in part because the world the show envisioned, a world where everyone knows who Thanos is, has largely come to pass. The references and cultural benchmarks that made it different are now the things we all share. But one other reason the Big Bang Theory ending feels like more of a whimper than a bang is because while the show has always absorbed lots of pop culture, pop culture has never really returned the favor.

The Big Bang Theory is a show that’s often about culture, even if, as VanDerWerff points out, those bits are mostly used as set dressing for stories about relationships. In a season-nine episode, “The Opening Night Excitation,” Sheldon realizes Amy’s birthday is the same night the new Star Wars movie is released, and he makes the sacrificial choice to see the movie later so he and Amy can have sex for the first time. The rest of the gang goes to the movie without Sheldon, and the episode cuts back and forth between the two scenes — first Sheldon and Amy in the pre-sex lead up; then Leonard, Howard, and Raj worrying the movie won’t be good; then Sheldon and Amy in the post-sex glow; then the other three left reeling by the movie. In Hayes Act–era films, sex was implied with shots of trains going into tunnels, and sheets falling to the floor. On Big Bang Theory, sex is described as being as good as a new Star Wars movie.

The Big Bang Theory sucks up certain segments of pop culture like a sponge, and those references are the background on which the show’s nearly plotless stories run. Nerdy genre movies, comic-book series, TV shows, and video-game metaphors make up the language these characters use to communicate. They form the references and benchmarks for how these characters move through life. But outside of a very few exceptions like the catchphrase “Bazinga,” the reverse has never been true. The Big Bang Theory is about culture, but culture has never been about The Big Bang Theory, not in the same way that culture has been about the Marvel universe, or discussions about The Last Jedi, or everything about Game of Thrones. The president is not posting memes about his administration with Big Bang Theory fonts. There’s no glut of pieces on the popularity of Sheldon as a baby name. Next week, there will not be petitions for the creators to remake the finale, or if there are, they will be jokes.

The fictional conversations within The Big Bang Theory have never driven large conversations outside the show. We are not in the midst of a national debate about gender balance in the sciences (although maybe we should be). There has not been a big consideration of academic plagiarism, spurred by the plot where other scientists try to take credit for Sheldon and Amy’s work. There’s not been a major discussion about what’s going on with Leonard and Penny because, to be frank, very few events happen to them, especially in the later seasons.

Maybe that silence is because The Big Bang Theory is a multi-cam sitcom on CBS, although other multi-cams like Roseanne and The Conners and One Day at a Time and Murphy Brown suggest that the form itself is not the issue. Maybe the quiet is because once culture caught up to the show — once we all knew about the Marvel Universe — Big Bang never moved on to newer frontiers of nerddom. In fact, it’s largely ignored most elements of pop culture that have any controversy associated with them at all: It’s a show about Star Wars, but it’s neatly sidestepped the misogynistic online fallout after The Last Jedi, and Gamergate, and the Sad Puppies fiasco at the Hugo Awards. Whatever the reasons may be, the flow of cultural information through Big Bang has always run mostly one way. To use the kind of astronomical metaphor Raj Koothrappali might appreciate, the show behaves like a black hole. It sucks in pop culture, but the show has never reflected back any of the light it’s absorbed.

Throughout their runs, the two other shows in this week’s graduating class of TV shows have tilted like mirrors against the Zeitgeist. Game of Thrones and Veep have their own fictional worlds, but they’re also constantly asked to comment on ours. They are reflective in a way The Big Bang Theory has never been, and their finales have felt like referendums not just on themselves, but on Where We Are Now.

The finale of The Big Bang Theory doesn’t feel like that at all. If anything, Big Bang’s finale is a meditation on the show’s own refusal to change. Sheldon and Amy win the Nobel Prize, and after he freaks out about how much of his life is suddenly altered, Sheldon’s acceptance speech is about how friends are more important than prizes. Penny is pregnant — something both sudden and suspect, given how much time she spent cogently explaining why she never wanted kids — but the show ends before that has any chance to change her life. And anyhow, the kids on this show rarely appear on camera. The biggest, most paradigm-altering shift in the finale is that the building’s elevator gets fixed, a sweet inside joke dating to the very beginning of the show that also demonstrates exactly how allergic The Big Bang Theory is to change of any kind. Penny riding upstairs in the elevator got a bigger audience whoop than her pregnancy.

Things have happened over 12 years on The Big Bang Theory, but not much has changed. It’s why the series’ ending so strongly resists making any big moves for its characters, why the finale doesn’t feel at all like the cataclysmic event of the show’s title, why the show ends on the most familiar, most recognizable scene that its repeated hundreds of times. In the end, everyone sits on a sofa and eats Chinese takeout. The Big Bang Theory told stories about its characters, but there was never much of a story to tell about the show. However big a role pop culture may have played in its stories, the show itself could never have served as a barometer for the rest of pop culture. It’s impossible to be a meaningful barometer if the dial only ever reads one thing.

The Big Bang Theory Was a Pop-Culture Black Hole