It’s late September and while we’re in an era when television shows premiere throughout the year, this is still the point when the broadcast networks begin the new season with a slate of new and returning shows.
Along with a host of other shows, two of the most popular sitcoms on the air, CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and ABC’ “Modern Family,” began their new seasons respectively this week. Despite their advanced ages (“Big Bang” is beginning its eighth season, while “Modern Family” is kicking off its sixth), both shows are still wildly popular, thanks in no small measure to the fact both are in heavy rotation in syndication.
“The Big Bang Theory” is a relic of a different time. While most of today’s situation comedies are single-camera productions (i.e. “Modern Family”) and filmed in the same fashion as a drama without a laugh track, “Big Bang,” like most sitcoms up until the 2000s, is shot with multiple cameras with canned laughter.
Going into the new season, “Big Bang” is the most-popular scripted program on television (NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is No. 1 overall), averaging 19.96 million viewers each week, a mind-boggling figure in today’s heavily saturated television landscape with hundreds of television channels available.
The show wasn’t a hit right out of the gate and had to find the right tone before a massive audience arrived. Placing No. 68 in the ratings after its first season, “Big Bang” began as the story of two nerdy scientists, Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki), living in an apartment across the hall from blonde waitress Penny (Kaley Cuoco) and the conflicts that ensued due to their contrast personalities.
As the show moved forward, it expanded to include Leonard and Sheldon’s friends – Howard, an engineer and self-proclaimed lothario who lives with his mother, and Raj, an Indian astrophysicist who is unable to talk in front of women without the aid of alcohol. In later seasons, the cast expanded further to balance out the gender disparity with the arrival of Bernadette, a squeaky-voiced microbiologist and eventual love interest for Howard, and Amy, a neuroscientist who shares many of the same antisocial traits as Sheldon and develops a sort-of romantic relationship with him.
If there was a point when “Big Bang” went from under-the-radar to its current juggernaut status, it was likely when the show went into syndication and began airing several times a week on TBS in September 2011, coinciding with the start of the show’s fifth season. The series broke into the ratings’ top 10 that year and has moved up each season since.
In March of this year, the show was renewed for three more seasons, taking it through 2017, and this past summer, the three original leads, Parsons, Galecki and Cuoco, renegotiated their contracts so that they will now earn $1 million per episode.
The renewal will take “Big Bang” through its 10th season, a feat only a handful of situation comedies have reached, but an argument could be made despite the show’s popularity, it ran out of steam a while ago.
One of TV’s best comedies through its first three or four seasons, the show has seemed increasingly stale each season and Monday’s first two episodes weren’t much of a diversion from that path. Coming off a “cliffhanger” at the end of last season in which Sheldon embarked on a cross-country train trip after losing his job and finding out about Leonard and Penny’s engagement, the first episode revolves around his attempts to get back to Los Angeles and calling Leonard for bring him home.
The episode begins with Sheldon running around a train station in his underpants, so maybe the $1 million per episode is also covering the tab for Parsons’ dignity. Regardless, the episode, like most “Big Bang” episodes, is good for a few laughs while covering the same comedic beats it usually mines: Sheldon’s dependency on Leonard, Howard’s weird relationship with his mother and Penny’s perpetual flakiness.
There was a time when “Big Bang” felt fresh and much of the credit for it still being mildly amusing goes to Parsons, who won his fourth Emmy award for the role last month. He’s able to take a character that in other hands might be intolerable, and make him, if not likable, then at least entertaining to watch each week.
“Modern Family” isn’t a ratings monster like “Big Bang,” finishing 19th in the Nielsens this past season, but it is still a widely beloved show, evidenced by it winning its fifth-straight Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series last month, a feat only “Frasier” has equaled. That probably says more about laziness of voters than anything else since I don’t know many people who would list “Frasier” or “Modern Family” among the greatest sitcoms of all time, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
When it premiered in 2009, “Modern Family” felt very much like a comedy of our time, telling the story of a large family that includes Jay, an aging patriarch who marries Gloria, a younger, beautiful Colombian with a son, Manny; Jay’s daughter Claire and her dimwitted husband Phil, who are raising their three kids, Haley, Alex and Luke; and Jay’s homosexual son Mitchell, who is married to effeminate Cameron, with whom he has an adopted Vietnamese daughter, Lily.
It seems a lot to keep track of on paper, but it’s really not and the show has done a fairly consistent job intermingling all of the characters and depicting a family that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the traditional makeup.
“Modern Family” has probably always been a funnier and more well-written show than “Big Bang” and Wednesday’s season premiere was evidence of that. With so many characters, the show generally breaks each episode down into three story lines. Wednesday’s premiere kept it simple by having each of the three families interacting for the most part with just each other.
The biggest laughs on the show usually come from Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil (Ty Burrell)’s family and their storyline, focusing on them realizing the peaceful summer they enjoyed was possibly due to middle daughter Alex’s absence from the house, was the best of the episode. Suggesting that one of their kids is the root of the family’s problems is kind of dark, especially for a family sitcom, but they don’t take it too far and it ended up wrapping up in a positive way. It also builds to the episode’s great tag, revolving around oldest daughter Haley’s webcam.
On the other end of the spectrum, the show usually struggles when it deals with Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Wednesday’s episode, focusing on Cameron driving Mitchell nuts by going over the top with affectionate histrionics after last season’s wedding finale, was another example.
One of “Modern Family”’s biggest weaknesses is the tendency of the characters to constantly bicker at each other, leading to them coming off as unlikable, and that happens most frequently in Cameron and Mitchell story lines. There’s simply not much believeablity that these characters even like each other, let alone are married, and it’s compounded by the fact that Stonestreet’s Cameron is possibly the most obnoxious character on TV.
For both “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family,” consistency is their biggest hurdle. Airing on broadcast networks, they’re still utilizing the model of 20-22 episodes per season. With that much content, it’s difficult for every episode to be original and funny. And with both shows having already done well over 100 episodes, it’s even more difficult.
“Modern Family” still has the ability to generate some huge laughs each week, but “Big Bang” may have unfortunately reached its expiration date.