Monday, September 01, 2008

The Big Bang Theory: The Complete First Season
TV on DVD review by Sombrero Grande

Have you ever watched a sitcom and wished the camera would follow the wacky neighbor back home so you could watch their life unfolding comically instead of that of the more "normal" main characters? The Big Bang Theory finally allows you and I to do just that.

The Big Bang Theory centers on the lives of two young physics genuises and their nerdy group of friends, leaving the typical sitcom big-breasted blonde character to take up the neighbor role. Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) are roommates who spend the vast majority of their time playing video games and arguing over scientific inaccuracies in movies like Terminator 3. Then along comes Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the aforementioned female character, who just so happens to move into the apartment directly across the hall and for whom Leonard instantly falls. While Sheldon is quite content to leave his mind focused purely on matters of science, Leonard begins trying to win Penny's heart and, of course, in sitcom fashion, wacky hi-jinks ensue.

It had been a while since I'd gotten into a laugh-track-infused sitcom, and the first few episodes of the series made it a little difficult. The first episodes seem far too focused on trying to prove to the viewer that the main characters are smart, relying on all the most common nerd stereotypes almost solely and to a belabored degree. The writing in these early episodes smacks of "writing smart people for dumb people" and it isn't until near the end of the first disc in this three-DVD set that the show starts to hit its stride and lets the characters just be themselves instead of mere nerdy cut-outs.

Much of the show's best material comes from the geeky discussions that pop up near the beginning of most episodes, as well as whenever Leonard and Sheldon's friends Howard (Simon Helberg) and Rajnesh (Kunal Nayyar) come over to visit. Listening to the nerdy chatterers ramble on can be a real treat as it feels refreshingly real for a sitcom, and possibly because I've been in my share of those kinds of discussions before and I know that that's how they really sound and it's hilarious to be on the outside listening in.

Some of the show's best episodes include "The Nerdvana Annihilation" wherein the gang pools their money to buy a prop from the movie The Time Machine and "The Loobenfeld Decay" wherein Leonard makes up a lie to spare Penny's feelings and Sheldon feels the need to "improve" the lie by going to astounding lengths to make it "un-unravelable."

A neat convention in the show is that fact that the elevators in the apartment building are out of service, forcing the characters to have their conversations while walking up several flights of stairs, providing some unique and clever staging opportunities.

One downside of really letting the characters come into their own is accentuated by the DVD presentation in that watching each episode back to back really brings out the unappealing qualities in Sheldon. By the middle of the second disc it seems as though every episode deals with the other characters just having to put up with Sheldon's jerky behavior. In "The Pancake Batter Anaomoly," Sheldon comes down with a cold and becomes the most needy and obnoxious person alive as he continually tests the patience of Penny (and the viewer) with his unending need for the kind of comforting things his mother did for him when he was sick as a child. What's missing for Sheldon is something that makes him vulnerable to balance out his obnoxiousness. In the fantastic show Arrested Development, Gob Bluth is a character who does despicable, unethical things unceasingly, however he's one of the most loved characters on the show because of the constant manner in which the audience is reminded of how pathetically vulnerable he is. Only one episode in season one of The Big Bang Theory shows any kind of vulnerability for Sheldon and that's "The Jerusalem Duality" wherein a smarter, younger genius threatens Sheldon's top standing at his job, but it all feels resolved much too quickly and in the episode that follows, "The Bat Jar Conjecture," he's back to being a total jerk once again without seeming to have been humbled from his previous experience at all. I imagine that watching these episodes all a week apart would dull Sheldon's obnoxiousness, but the fact that they're all viewable one after another on the DVD really makes him seem all the more consistently unappealing and unrelenting. Sheldon has the snootiness of Niles from Frasier but without the charming awkwardness of his attraction for Daphne; instead Sheldon has the icy coldness of Lillith from Cheers.

Another small nit-pick with how the show shapes up on DVD is that fact that the episodes all have witty titles that are hard to discern from one another. Without taking out the DVD's companion booklet to read the descriptions it's hard to recall what happens in "The Hamburger Postulate" or "The Pork Chop Indeterminacy" as these and other episodes all refer to a seemingly insignificant and often unmemorable moment within each to derive their names. I get what the writers are going for, but it really makes me nostalgic for the Seinfeld and Friends manner of naming episodes.

The one bonus feature on this DVD set is called "Quantum Mechanics of The Big Bang Theory: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Geek Chic." It's the typical fluff interview with the series creators where they praise the cast and talk about how the idea for show first came up. The brief interviews with the cast members (all in their outfits from the Pilot episode, so it's obvious that this was filmed alongside their first episode) are mainly more fluff with the actors describing briefly their own characters, intercut with clips from the show. However, the candid words of Parsons and Nayyar describing their typecasting in comedic roles and the fact that Parsons in particular sounds like he's hesitantly given up on being allowed to do anything else is kind of sad and makes me wonder why the editors chose these snippets of their interviews to feature on this DVD.

For a sitcom with a laugh track, The Big Bang Theory, like the I.Q.s of the characters it portrays, is decidedly above average. It doesn't quite reach the stars, but it provides a significant quotient of laughs in a light and familiar sitcom framework. In layman's terms, it's definitely worth checking out for those TV viewers looking for something funny that's different but not too different and smart but not too smart.


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