The Big Bang Theory is a situation-comedic series featuring a group of California friends — nerdy scientists Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Raj, and their gorgeous waitress next-door neighbor Penny (who eventually became their friend). It follows them as they interact with geek culture, get into mischief, and fall in love. The show ran for 12 years, from 2007 to 2019, and was nominated for 46 Emmys, winning seven of them.
The Big Bang Theory is possibly one of the top sitcoms of the 2010s. Big Bang topped all other TV shows in the United States in 2016, with approximately 20 million viewers turning in to see Sheldon and co.’s antics, more than watching Sunday Night Football. (And Sunday night football is a big deal in America.)
Despite the debates and backlash, there’s a case to be made that Big Bang is popular not because it’s hilarious or because viewers are stupid, but because it’s far edgier, smarter, and revolutionary than anyone gives it credit for. This isn’t something you’ll see among other multi-camera sitcoms.
Bearing that in mind, here are five main reasons why The Big Bang Theory became so popular.
It Is Based on Real Science
Science-themed television series have a shaky track record when it comes to including science. Sure, it’s a show about scientists, but it’s geared at everyday people who aren’t sure if protons are real or if they were invented for Ghostbusters. So it might surprise you to hear that Big Bang contains genuine science and then exploits that science to deliver background jokes in a way that no other program has done.
UCLA professor David Saltzberg has been the show’s go-to guy for science since its start. The uber-complex equations scribbled on the whiteboards in the guys’ apartment in most episodes? They’re all true, and Saltzberg frequently chooses them as in-jokes regarding current science controversies or what will occur in the episode.
Saltzberg occasionally receives half-completed scripts with the phrase “Insert science here” scrawled in dialogue brackets.
The core cast of Big Bang even includes a scientist. Mayim Bialik, who portrays Dr. Amy Fowler, is a professional neuroscientist who assists the cast and crew with prop selection. It’s not nearly as science-focused as an actual Sheldon might want, but then again, what is?
It’s Full of Successful Female Scientists As If It’s No Big Deal
Here’s a fun game to play. Name the last sitcom where two successful female scientists aren’t A) supporting characters or B) using their science skills to dismember dead bodies. Try to recall the last time you watched a TV show in which those two characters not only appeared but also had entire episodes dedicated to them.
Neurobiologist Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler and microbiologist Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz, played by Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch, joined the cast in Season 3, back in the idyllic days of 2009. While they were first introduced as romantic foils for Jim Parsons’ Sheldon and Simon Helberg’s Howard, they’ve since developed into their characters, becoming cast regulars with their storylines about their lives and what it’s like being professional, accomplished women in a typically male-dominated world.
That’s a lot of exposure for a show that started with four nerds yearning for the attractive waitress next door.
It’s even manifested into real-world impact in Bialik’s instance. Bialik is a certified neuroscientist, according to Forbes, and she now uses her Big Bang celebrity to visit schools and try to get teenage girls intrigued in STEM disciplines.
The Characters Develop and Change (Even Sheldon)
Big Bang is a multi-camera sitcom that, like many multi-cam sitcoms, takes pleasure in being a show that can be seen at any moment during its length. Only when you reflect on the program’s beginnings, do you understand how misguided this pride is. Big Bang’s characters adapt and mature more as they would in a serial drama than they would in a wide sitcom.
The best example is Howard. When the audience first saw him, Simon Helberg portrayed the character as a lusty cross between Quagmire from Family Guy and a slimy adolescent whose bed sheets you don’t want to change. In later seasons, everyone has seen Howard settle down with Bernadette, shake off his creepy side, overcome his concerns about going into space, and cope with his mother’s shockingly emotional death.
In other words, he’s done exactly what everyone else has done. He’s an adult now like Penny, who transitioned from Smurfette to a career woman, movingly putting her dreams of being an actress behind her.
The Cultural References Can Be Fully Obscure
Big Bang goes to great lengths to get its science accurate, and it does the same with geeky cultural references. While any episode might feature the men discussing Terminator or Thor or something else from the mainstream of geek culture, it’s also likely to include references to esoteric material that would have the Mystery Science Theater 3000 lads reaching for their phones.
The show has gone much further with its guest stars, bringing scientists unknown to the average audience—people like Brian Greene, a string theorist, and Mike Massimino, a real-life astronaut.
Every witty cameo by a well-known figure like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Elon Musk, there’s one by Nobel Laureate George Smoot. This enthusiasm to go over and beyond the line of geeky duty has undoubtedly endeared the show to its audience.
It Deals With Some Serious Issues
Big Bang has a reputation for being a broad piece of humor, so you’d never guess it covered some pretty heavy material. The comedy occasionally delves into emotional territory that most conventional sitcoms would avoid.
Bernadette’s feelings regarding pregnancy are one of those areas. Melissa Rauch’s character talks about how pregnancy might ruin a woman’s career and isolate her as early as “The Shiny Trinket Maneuver” from Season 5. Bernadette is pregnant by “The Dependence Transcendence” in Season 10, expressing her dissatisfaction with her unborn child.
That’s not only heavy for a network sitcom; it’s also something that few people like to discuss in real life.
Sitcoms are designed to put everything on the line for laughter. The writers had Sheldon speak sincere words to Howard when Mrs. Wolowitz passed on Big Bang. The moment was described as “wonderful” by the AV Club.
It’s not uncommon for sitcoms to follow in these footsteps. Big Bang may not reach these heights, but it is far more profound than most people realize.