We’re in the final few episodes of The Big Bang Theory. The show might just be the last, skinny link to a time when broadcast television, and one type of show, really ruled. It’s possible there won’t be another show like it, ever. Of course we’ve said that before but it’s more likely than ever.
Television in the 20th century
When television started, a lot of the early talent moved over from radio. Not only the actors, but the shows themselves. An early hit was “The Jack Benny Program,” which chronicled the fictional life of a famous comedian of the day along with his friends. Every week they would get into some wacky situation and every week, within 30 minutes, everything would get resolved. It’s easy to see how that formula didn’t change for decades.
The high point of what came to be called “the situation comedy” was clearly the 1980s. While “sitcoms” dominated the ratings before, it was the 80s-style sitcom that really represented the pinnacle of the form. There were so many to choose from and the style really got perfected. You had multiple cameras shooting on video tape, a basic premise with a few core characters, and more often than not there were wacky neighbors and outlandish situations that made room for a good belly laugh every 90 seconds or so. Of course, there was also a live studio audience. Sitcoms took over in the 1980s, which sadly meant there was nowhere to go but down.
By the 1990s a few really top sitcoms were shining brightly, and all of them were on NBC. Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends were the top of the heap. ABC had winners too, but the decade belonged to NBC. They did their best to stretch their winning streak, with a steady stream of shows that hoped to rise up to that top level.
2004: The year sitcoms hit the skids
Friends was NBC’s last bona fide hit in the sitcom arena and when it went off the air in the spring of 2004, it was a crisis moment for the entire sitcom form. Reality television was booming in those days and there were many who thought the day of the sitcom was over. In many ways they were right. In the 2004-2005 season, only CBS’ Everybody Loves Raymond made the top ten. From then on there would be only one or two sitcoms at the top and each one tried to stretch the form in a different way.
Everybody Loves Raymond was a traditional, multi-camera sitcom centered around a comedian and his made-up family. It was, like its predecessors, a reliable source of chuckles every 90 seconds or so. However it was among the last of the breed.
How I Met Your Mother topped the ratings charts through much of its run. It took regular sitcom tropes and added consistent narration and an even faster pace of jokes. It was at the beginning of meme culture and so the goal was to provide simpler, yet more frequent, buzzworthy moments.
The Office launched a completely new sitcom form: the mockumentary. By framing a scripted show as a reality show, it managed to seem really fresh. The same format worked for Parks and Recreation and is still going strong with Modern Family after ten years, although Modern Family has backed off from the documentary conceit almost completely.
Enter The Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory is a surprisingly conventional sitcom. It’s not trying to tell a time-travel story or be a documentary. It’s a comedy about young people who share common interests and become a family in the process. For the most part nothing happens; like sitcoms of old you can miss a few episodes and not even know it.
Big Bang went on the CBS schedule in 2007 and there were really not very high hopes for it. Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki were sitcom veterans, of 8 Simple Rules and Roseanne respectively. Neither had headlined a show before. The rest of the original cast were unknowns. The show, shot on very few sets, was cheap to produce. It came from the mind of Chuck Lorre, a proven sitcom winner who had already been producing this kind of show for close to 20 years.
It’s not so much that it succeeded…
Big Bang kept on going but not because it was a monster hit. The Writer’s Guild of America went on strike from November 2007 to February 2008 and this ended up being disastrous for scripted television in general. Fan favorites like Lost and Breaking Bad suffered because audiences struggled to remember their confusing plots. Hour-long dramas, with long production times, were also hard hit.
It’s fair to say that the TV industry never really recovered from the writers’ strike. Audiences shrank and they went increasingly to other channels instead of returning to broadcast fare. When they did come back, things looked quite different. Big Bang and The Office were well established at the time of the strike and both benefited from being easily-digestible half-hour yuckfests that audiences were able to easily return to.
As Big Bang got more popular, the bar got lowered. Right now it’s the most popular scripted show on TV but only gets about a 2.4 rating from viewers 18-34. Back in the 1980s that would barely have qualified it for a spot in the top 100. The top rated show of 1986, The Cosby Show, managed a 34.7 rating that year. So it’s easy to see that it’s not so much that Big Bang succeeded. It just didn’t fail as bad as everything else.
End of an era?
The Big Bang Theory isn’t the only multi-camera, live audience 30-minute sitcom on television. There are actually quite a few, and they’ve gotten more popular lately thanks to nostalgic reboots of Will&Grace and Roseanne among others. But its end does represent the end of an era, when the sitcom ruled the roost. It’s the last of its kind in many ways and when it’s gone, we may never see its like again. Of course that’s what they said every time a massively popular sitcom ended but I have a feeling that this time is different. This time, we might actually be closing the door. We’re a much more sophisticated audience thanks to DVRs and internet. We don’t need mindless shows that we can miss if we need to. Besides, there are so many of them available on demand now, it’s hard for new ones to break out.
When BBT ends, the last big hit will be the rapidly fading Modern Family, which is shot single-camera and doesn’t have an audience. Still a sitcom, but a bit further removed from the form.