With ‘The Big Bang Theory’ Over, What Does the Future Hold for the Television Sitcom?

Big Bang
Photo: Warner Bros. Television
Last week, The Big Bang Theory­—the highly-rated sitcom that first debuted on CBS in 2007—bid farewell after 12 long seasons. When the series first started, traditional half-hour sitcoms with laugh tracks, a multi-camera setup, and live studio audiences were starting to be considered a thing of the past. With the conclusion of Will & Grace and the debut of 30 Rock in 2006, a new breed of television comedy was introduced that dared to fly without a laugh track and with quirkier, oddly-tempered jokes that were almost always geared towards a particular sense of humor. Gone were the days, it seemed, when television sitcoms were produced to please all audiences with family friendly premises and characters—The OfficeEverybody Hates Chris, and later Parks & Recreation appeared to usher in a new era for the television comedy in the mid to late 2000s that let the audience come to the show, and not the other way around. But in September 2007, CBS premiered The Big Bang Theory and let it become a shining star for what was now apparently a form of television comedy from a bygone time.
In all seriousness, The Big Bang Theory was not the only remaining multi-camera sitcom with a  laugh track and audience-pleasing jokes in this postmodern era of television. If anything, while the other networks became committed to following and setting new trends, CBS remained more conservative and continued to put their faith in male-dominated, patriarchal procedurals and comedies. While NBC moved onto 30 Rock and Parks & Rec and ABC moved onto Modern Family and The Middle, CBS continued to give big budgets to traditional (and often male-dominated) television sitcoms—Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your MotherRules of EngagementMike & Molly, and The Big Bang Theory—to name only a few. In an era where the tastes and production of American television comedy was shifting, CBS stuck to what everybody already knew: a good, old-fashioned sitcom with a laugh track, zany but loveable characters, and an affinity for happy endings. And for awhile there, it worked—CBS was practically the only network that managed to continue to bring ratings to new, traditional sitcoms, and while other networks continued attempts to replicate multi-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks, not many stuck. The Big Bang Theory, however, managed to become either the most-watched or the second most-watched program on American television by its seventh season—an accomplishment difficult to achieve in a world that was already converting to streaming.
The series was not initially a huge success, commercially or critically. The Big Bang Theory had a modest debut in 2007, with mixed reactions from television critics and somewhat below average ratings. It was enough for them to survive the infamous writer’s strike of 2007–2008, and they returned in their Monday night timeslot either preceding or following Two and a Half Men for an additional two seasons. By season four, the series had grown enough in both ratings and popularity that CBS moved it to Thursdays at 8:00—which was once broadcast primetime television’s most coveted timeslot. For the next few years, it was television’s second highest-rated comedy, behind only ABC’s Modern Family. While that series might have been single-camera without a laugh track, both functioned as the past and present of the television sitcom molded together as one—a family comedy for modern times presented in mockumentary style, and an unapologetically geeky take on the Friends formula. The Big Bang Theory’s sixth season brought not only some of the highest-rated episodes of the series but some of the highest ratings by any primetime program in the 2010s—a 2013 episode, which brought over 20 million American viewers, was one of television’s highest-rated broadcasts since 2007. In 2014, CBS renewed the series for three additional years—an ambitious investment practically unheard of by our postmodern standards of television. By season seven, it was the second most-watched program in the United States, and took hold of the number one spot by season eleven. The Big Bang Theory came on and people watched—which became more and more extraordinary in an era where network television had become hopelessly usurped by Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. Since 2010, it has been the single most-watched television program in Canada (aided by nightly reruns on CTV). Ratings continued to boom, and so the series continued—despite the fact that The Big Bang Theory died creatively multiple seasons before its ultimate conclusion.
It is undeniable that The Big Bang Theory’s success was made possible by the success of Friends in the ‘90s, and its continued popularity in reruns and on streaming services (one publication even claims that The Big Bang will leave behind a much greater legacy than Friends). Sheldon Cooper is basically Chandler Bing with a PhD and an inability to relate to others. And while a series about a group of science fiction-loving, Klingon-speaking geeks and their hot, blonde neighbor might not have immediately resonated back in 2007, The Big Bang Theory would eventually come to be embraced by the same audiences as a new and different version of the Friends premise—only with slightly more diversity and the same staunch heteronormativity. It didn’t matter if every audience member didn’t comprehend the scientific references to figures such as Richard Feynman or Marie Curie laced in a majority of the series’ episodes, because we understood the characters as social beings and related to them on that level. We understood everyone’s frustration and ultimate compromises with those relentlessly devoted to rules, routine, and insistence on imposing them on everyone else, and we cheered for Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) just as we cheered for Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) in 1996. But where Friends excelled and The Big Bang Theory ultimately failed was that Friends knew where to draw the line and knew when there were no more stories to tell. Similarly, while Modern Family is scheduled to conclude after its eleventh season next year, there are still a few stories left to tell and loose ends to wrap up. The Big Bang Theory ran out of stories to tell after season eight. Maybe season nine, if I’m feeling generous. It definitely could have concluded after season ten. But then CBS renewed it for two more years, and we finally said goodbye after season twelve—the network and producers were allegedly interested in an additional two years, since Jim Parsons turned down a new $50 million deal in favor of ending the series.

(Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS)

Rather than living in the shadow of FriendsThe Big Bang Theory almost feels like a contemporary version of Happy Days (which ran for eleven seasons on ABC between 1974 and 1984). Much like that series, The Big Bang Theory went through several different incarnations before finally landing on a formula that was concrete and didn’t need to change again—but by that point, it again felt like all of the stories were already told. Seasons eight through twelve of The Big Bang Theory feel as if Friends were to have continued on after everyone was married and had children. Perhaps if they had attempted to portray a unique and refreshing take on married life with all of the central characters now married (with the exception of Raj), it wouldn’t have felt like the series was stunted creatively and died a slow, agonizing death. Of course, it could have been much worse—once it achieved its status as an untouchable ratings monster, The Big Bang Theory could have become an outrageous fantasy with the characters winning the lottery and fighting terrorists on trains, in the vein of Roseanne. But just like CBS, the series stuck to what they knew, and it got boring. Fast. The writing for most episodes after season ten felt hopelessly uninspired, and honestly, can you blame them? Aside from Two and a Half Men—another CBS cash cow which also ran for twelve seasons under wildly different circumstances—can you name me another American television sitcom that ran for twelve seasons? Even Happy Days, and soon Modern Family, will have ran for eleven. And maybe if there was still life left in The Big Bang Theory with stories left to tell, twelve seasons wouldn’t have felt so long. But after Leonard and Penny were finally married, Sheldon reached sexual maturity with Amy, and Howard and Bernadette started a family, was there anything left that was worth telling? Not really. The series did conclude with Sheldon and Amy winning the Nobel Prize, something Sheldon had aspired to from the very first season, but even that felt like sugar on top of an already over-sweetened sundae. It was as if the series had become the sitcom equivalent of a police procedural that can easily run for close to twenty seasons, since the lives of the characters are not the central focus (not so coincidentally, those procedurals also tend to be CBS’s speciality). The Big Bang Theory ran for twelve seasons not because there were stories still left to tell, but because until the very last episode it was an unstoppable force of ratings for CBS in a world that had long since declared network TV dead in favor of streaming. And in the world of entertainment and certainly television, a cash cow trumps endless creativity every time.
Amid a series of nostalgic goodbyes, the end of The Big Bang Theory has also called the future of the multi-camera television sitcom into question. Apart from several new comedy pilots every year and short-lived sitcoms that quickly get thrown out, CBS still has Mom—another sitcom created by Chuck Lorre (who is also the man behind The Big Bang TheoryTwo and a Half Men, and several others)—presented in the traditional style of laugh track and studio audience, which has been renewed through its eighth season. They also have Man with a Plan—an uninspired modern retelling of The King of Queens or Everybody Loves Raymond starring Matt LeBlanc—entering its fourth season, and The Neighborhood, a somewhat socially conscious tale of an overly friendly white couple moving into a black neighborhood, which has been picked up for a second year. The other networks have their own fair shares of attempts at the television sitcom for the modern age, including successful revivals of Will & Grace and Roseanne (but not Murphy Brown, whose own revival received mixed to negative reviews and was cancelled by CBS after a single season). But the end of The Big Bang Theory has left many questioning if there will soon be another series to take its place, especially given that The Big Bang was a placeholder from a time when network television meant more than it does now. Does the traditional, multi-camera sitcom still have a place in a world captivated by creatively bold series like Veep or Schitt’s Creek?
Sitcoms, let alone drama series, produced by network television have also come to be all but ignored by the Primetime Emmy Awards, which are now dominated by programs produced by streaming services and HBO (while the single-camera Modern Family did well at the Emmys for its first few years, the last multi-camera sitcom to win Outstanding Comedy Series was Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005). But with classic twentieth century sitcoms like The Golden GirlsSeinfeld, and of course Friends still popular in reruns decades after their heydays, some remain optimistic that the classic, multi-camera sitcom that generations have grown up to could always make a comeback, as it’s done countless times before. “I still believe that shooting a show in front of an audience is a wonderful way to a tell a story,” says Chuck Lorre. “I don’t think the audience watches and counts cameras. They watch the show because they love the characters and it delivers on the comedy … If you have something worthwhile, I don’t think it matters whether it’s single-camera, four-camera, eighteen cameras, or a flip book. If it’s really good, it’s going to find an audience. Maybe that’s naive or overly optimistic. But I have to proceed on that basis.”

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