By Jaime Weinman - Friday, January 4, 2013 - 0 Comments
I spend more time defending The Big Bang Theory than I do criticizing it, mostly because I don’t think much of the internet’s most popular lines of attack against the show. (These are, as follows: the show laughs “at” nerds instead of “with” nerds; the show is not funny when you remove the laugh track; and it is “nerd blackface.”) I don’t think it’s ever been quite as good a show as we hoped it would be in its second season, though that season is still good enough to justify its success, and it can still turn out very good episodes.
To some extent, the issues with the show have changed a bit in the last couple of years. The thing holding it back was that it seemed to be stuck in the same groove, but there’s no doubt that the addition of two female regulars has allowed it to go different places, plus it’s turned one character, Wolowitz, from the most irredeemable character in the group to arguably the least immature. The changes have had problematic effects as well as good ones – for example, it’s split the show into “girl” and “guy” scenes, and Penny and Sheldon rarely have scenes together – but at least it doesn’t do exactly what it did for the first three years.
The other issue that I feel has come to the forefront, at least when I watch it, is that Sheldon gets away with everything, and it’s gone past the point where the group dynamics make a whole lot of sense. This has always been something people pointed out with the show, and they even made fun of it themselves (it was made clear that there wasn’t much reason, beyond force of habit, why the other guys hung out with him). But last night’s episode, the highest-rated in the show’s history, had him going to near-apocalyptic Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 6:23 PM - 17 Comments
First off, the comedy event of the evening is the return of Parks & Recreation, finally forming a Danielsverse hour with The Office as God intended. Watch it.
Non-events include the beginning of Perfect Couples‘ official run in a time slot that can’t possibly hurt it: after a low-rated show, up against American Idol. (Actually, as Modern Family‘s strong performance last night demonstrates, Idol is not — especially now that it’s lost a step or two — a killer of shows that already have a loyal viewership. Shows that are trying to get a loyal viewership, or shows that just plain nobody wants to watch like Live To Dance, are another matter.)
And then there’s Big Bang Theory, which has had a rather strange season in terms of its place in pop culture. Successfully anchoring its own night, getting more awards recognition and heading into syndication (the Comedy Network already has it in frequent reruns), it’s becoming more of a pop-cultural presence, and yet there’s also a sense that its moment has passed. Partly because it’s up against Community, which means it’s not getting as much attention online, but mostly because it just didn’t quite get over the hump that separates the good from the great.
Its best season was its second, and that’s not at all uncommon for a comedy, but the second season was a bit… I’m not going to say nobody thought it was great, because it did, in fact, get quite a lot of critical praise that year (all the more impressive because it’s not the sort of show that usually impresses critics). I’ll just say that I personally really enjoyed seeing it improve and gel and turn out some really good episodes, but it never quite seemed to be at that point where it was turning out a batch of great episodes, rather than good episodes with great moments. That’s a bit different from a show that peaked in its second season like How I Met Your Mother. That show also had flaws you could point to, but at its best, it was producing episodes that were so satisfying that the flaws were irrelevant.
Big Bang was more the kind of show where you could point to some fantastic scenes without being totally convinced by the episode, or even remembering exactly what happened in the episode. Maybe that’s part of the whole CBS esthetic. The showrunner of the NCIS twins has frankly said that he doesn’t think audiences remember plots, just moments. That’s actually true, particularly in television (think as far back as all those Twilight Zones where we remember the big twist without being certain about what led up to it) so maybe Big Bang has something similar in mind with its loose, baggy storytelling, where the plots are often thrown away or unresolved, and the only thing that matters is to have a basic situation that leads to some comedy scenes. I didn’t think the show, even at its best, turned this kind of thing into great episodes — to do that, the scenes have to be not just funny but absolutely damned spectacularly funny. But it was a legitimate approach, at the very least, that helped it stand out from all the over-plotted sitcoms on the air.
Anyway, the third season was uneven and the fourth has just been mostly disappointing, though I generally liked the controversial “Sheldon builds a robot” episode (while being surprised that the staff supposedly Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, September 23, 2010 at 3:11 PM - 0 Comments
And now comes one of the bigger nights of this wild premiere season — though another night that probably won’t produce a breakout hit. Except for Lone Star (where the network had to make a special announcement that they’d be showing a second episode) and last night’s The Whole Truth, there have been no out-and-out flops among the new shows. But there haven’t been any out-and-out smash hits either: NBC’s The Event was probably the best performer relative to its time slot, while Hawaii 5-0 and Mike and Molly both did well but not terrific considering their plum time slots. Most of the new shows are like that, doing OK but not great but not terrible either. Which ones stay on and which ones get canceled will depend on how they do in future weeks and what the network has waiting in the wings, plus the network executives’ opinions. (Cougar Town, for example, continues to do very poorly given its time slot, losing a huge chunk of Modern Family‘s audience. But ABC seems to like it, so they might cut loose some other show to keep it on.)
Instead, the big numbers have been posted by returning hits, particularly light n’ fun shows: Two and a Half Men, Modern Family and Glee were all up from last year.
In other ratings tidbits, the season premiere of Being Erica didn’t provide much good news: it was down to only 400,000 on an otherwise good night for the CBC. Since the network didn’t promote its return very much, I’ve heard speculation that this is seen as a possible last hurrah for the show: a chance to wrap things up without much hope of renewal. I guess we’ll see. I personally enjoy the show but have to admit that, because we’d seen her learn her lesson so often, I started to drift away a bit. There’s only so many times a character can learn the same lessons about personal growth.
Now here are tonight’s U.S. “big four” premieres, starting with the much-hyped competitive 8:00 slot:
CBS: The Big Bang Theory
ABC: My Generation
I said just now that the hour is competitive, but in a sense it isn’t: The Big Bang Theory is likely to win the hour in total viewers and the Coveted Demographic. What makes it interesting is the question of how well it will do — will it get somewhere near what it got after Two and a Half Men, establishing it as a genuine smash hit? Or will some of its viewers prove unwilling to follow it to Thursday, establishing it as a bad night for CBS to try comedy? If the show can do in its new time slot what Glee did its new slot, then it will be a game-changer for its network, which would then move the aging CSI and start a two-hour Thursday comedy block to replace NBC’s. But that’s a huge “if,” which is why everyone’s going to be looking very closely at the numbers.
Then there’s Community. This show is not going to win the night; the question is whether it will hold up enough to get a third season. The quality should be as good Continue…
By Jaime J. Weinman - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 11:00 AM - 13 Comments
A show-stopping visit to Banff last week confirms no one’s mocking William Shatner anymore
On June 16, the last day of the Banff World Television Festival, William Shatner was the subject of the feature interview. You could tell Shatner was in the building because of the line, stretching back and forth across the hotel, to see the Canadian actor and Priceline.com pitchman. And for the people who got in, he provided the equivalent of a one-man comedy show: getting laughs and applause every few seconds, telling anecdotes about his economics degree at McGill and his work in live theatre, and making fun of the long questions asked by the moderator, Big Bang Theory creator Bill Prady. He asked the video cameras, recording the event, to do a close-up of him so he could re-enact his famous terrified expression from an episode of The Twilight Zone. He delighted the audience with his awareness of a write-in campaign to make him governor general of Canada, saying that a governor general “needs to be old, distinguished and wealthy, and I’m none of those things.”
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, July 20, 2009 at 5:24 PM - 3 Comments
You may have heard that next season’s Big Bang Theory will feature Leonard (remember him?) and Penny “pursuing a relationship,” which could mean anything from three episodes to a full season. (Big Bang seems to have a habit of making announcements that don’t completely pan out; remember the announcement about this time last year that Sara Gilbert would be a semi-regular in the second season?)
What interests me more is the habit some shows have of clinging to the remnants of their original premise, even when that premise has become irrelevant. Leonard/Penny thing has never worked, but it’s been in the show since the pilot and the writers can’t quite give up on the idea that it’s an important aspect of the show, even though Leonard’s relationship angst continues to provide most of the weakest moments. This is the flipside of the idea that shows often abandon their original concepts: sometimes a show, even a successful one, will keep on trying to milk the original concept even after the audience has moved on. It doesn’t bode particuarly well for hopes that BBT will make the leap from “good” to “great” in its third season.
While I’m on the subject of BBT, the show’s lukewarm Emmy reception — Jim Parsons got nominated, of course, but hardly anyone else did — is interesting because it is sort of a reality-check to the idea that traditional sitcoms are on their way back, at least in terms of the prestige/admiration they get from the industry. BBT is pretty well-respected by insiders, but in a strange reversal for a Chuck Lorre show, it may actually be more popular with critics (particularly younger critics to whom the stripped-down, minimalist storytelling comes as a refreshing change from over-plotted single-camera shows) than with insiders. Penny’s actress, Kaley Cuoco, was probably the most unfortunate Emmy omission; since the Sheldon/Penny relationship is at the heart of what makes the show work, she deserves recognition almost as much as Parsons does, and the very fact that she’s created a likable, reasonably intelligent female character on a Lorre show is achievement enough.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, May 11, 2009 at 11:02 PM - 2 Comments
The second and third-most-popular CBS comedies had a little too much of, respectively: Penny/Leonard (can’t they just leave him at the North Pole and give Penny and Sheldon more time for hilarious bits like the door-knocking routine?) and Ted (not a bad episode, but why spend a whole half-hour on a relationship nobody cared about and a creepy, self-loving lead character who pities himself because true love hasn’t come to him by the time he’s 30?).
But while I left halfway through the world’s most popular comedy, Two and a Half Men — I actually don’t dislike it, it just doesn’t compel me to watch it all the way through — I’m now left wondering: since part of the episode involved Jon Cryer getting a ventriloquist’s dummy, was there a scene in the second half where someone talks to the dummy as if it’s real? Because quite apart from shows like Soap that built four years’ worth of stories on that gag, it’s tradition that any episode involving a ventriloquist’s dummy must involve a scene where a character acts like the dummy is real. Now I may have to check the West Coast feed of TaaHM just to see which character followed tradition and tried to kill the dummy.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, May 1, 2009 at 2:54 PM - 4 Comments
Noel Murray at the AV Club has an interview with Jim Parsons (the thinking man’s Jaleel White), an excellent interview that places particular emphasis on the multi-camera, live-audience format and the role of the audience as a sixth character on the show.
Because, as the article notes, The Big Bang Theory now gets a lot of love from people in the TV industry, this is likely to be the year Parsons gets some Emmy recognition; he didn’t get nominated last year, but he has to be considered a favourite to get at least a nomination, if not the award. But upon thinking about whether he has a chance of winning, I realized that I don’t even know what category he would be nominated in. Actors on ensemble shows, particularly ensemble comedies, can often be categorized as either supporting players or leads, and can be submitted in either category.
Take Alec Baldwin. There’s one person on 30 Rock who is clearly a lead: Tina Fey. Then there are a bunch of people who are clearly supporting players. But Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy could be considered both a supporting actor and a lead: his character is clearly secondary to Liz (and his “and” billing at the end of the credits is usually given to high-profile supporting actors, not leads). But he’s the most important male character, and therefore could be thought of as the lead. Baldwin chose to submit himself as a lead actor, but he could have gone the other way. And then you’ve got Friends, where actors were literally nominated in both categories — not at the same time, but one year Jennifer Aniston was nominated for Supporting Actress, and then a couple of years later she was nominated as a lead. All six characters were of equal importance, so you could consider them all leads, or all supporting actors with nobody in particular to support.
With Jim Parsons, show doesn’t have one person who’s clearly a lead, though it does have at least two characters who are clearly supporting players (Howard and Raj). His status is much like Alec Baldwin’s, in that he could be considered a very popular, very prominent supporting actor or (because he’s the breakout character and takes up so much screen time) the male lead. It really mostly depends on what category he’s submitted in.
Since the distinction between lead and supporting is almost meaningless on a lot of shows, the best reason for submitting an actor in a particular category is that the submitter thinks there’s a better chance of a nomination or win in that category; the network or the producers will often pressure the actor to submit in the category which seems more winnable. The reason it was a good idea to submit Baldwin as a lead is that Jeremy Piven has the supporting actor category locked up every year. If Baldwin had been nominated in the supporting category, he would have lost to Piven the way Neil Patrick Harris and many others do every award season. As a lead actor, he won in his second try. Piven’s antics along with a certain amount of Entourage backlash may finally cost him the award this year (in which case, please give it to Harris already), but Parsons probably has a better chance of winning in the lead category.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 12:24 AM - 5 Comments
Tonight’s How I Met Your Mother was the kind of episode I like, after a batch of episodes that have had entertaining moments but haven’t really been my style. (This was a sequel to last week’s episode, “Sorry, Bro,” and while that episode had its admirers, I thought the story was a bit pointless and way too heavy on scenes with no other regulars besides Ted.) This has been an uneven season, but when the show gets a story that really works, it reminds me why it’s still my favourite comedy: because it gets comedy and storylines out of every character’s relationship with every other character, and tries to take familiar relationships in unexpected but appropriate directions. In this case, the fact that Lily has been responsible for breaking up Ted’s unsuitable relationships, including his second-season breakup with Robin, is true to what we know about her, but expands on it.
And speaking of expanding, since both the female leads on the show are pregnant, we’re going to see a lot of stories written around the necessity to keep them sitting down a lot or otherwise not too close to the camera. In this episode, Alyson Hannigan spent most of the episode in a chair, and Cobie Smulders spent most of the episode on a TV screen way in the background. It worked fine in this episode. Additional trivia: this was like the second episode in four seasons not directed by Pamela Fryman. Veteran writer/producer Rob Greenberg, a consultant on HIMYM, did this one.
In some ways, How I Met Your Mother is a show where the writers use all kinds of gimmicks, flash-forwards, characters in funny wigs and makeup, to lend a hip veneer to one of the most old-fashioned sitcoms on television, one that is extremely sentimental and incorporates a huge amount of pre-Seinfeld hugging and learning. But that’s all right with me, and I think the weakest episodes are often the ones that are the least sentimental and serious.
If HIMYM reminded me of its strengths, its time-slot mate, The Big Bang Theory, reminded me a bit of what keeps it from being a really great sitcom (or even an intermittently first-rate one like HIMYM). This was a good episode, so I’m not singling it out as a bad example, but just as a typical example of the way this show tells its stories, which is to keep them very simple and unadorned. They often don’t really end so much as peter out, a bit like the stories on The Office, but The Office is usually trying to convey some over-arching theme underneath the simple stories. (Penny’s business might be carried over to another episode, or it might not, but the episodes almost always end abruptly, and the resolutions are not much more complicated than the guys deciding they can’t make a thousand more Penny Blossoms.) Not that I want TBBT to try and get deep and emotional; it doesn’t pretend to have depth or to want to teach lessons, and that’s fine. But the stories are so simple that they can feel incomplete, and because almost nobody ever appears besides the five main characters (in this episode, they were the only ones who appeared), I sometimes wish they’d push them just a little farther. Pushing the characters and stories to more interesting places is what separates a great show from a good one; it’s what separates, say, Cheers from Wings. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a solid show with a fine cast, like Wings, except that there are higher expectations for a good sitcom in an era that doesn’t have many of those things.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 5:15 PM - 8 Comments
I haven’t done a writing staff post in several months, and returning to the format, I decided to do one of the CBS comedies. This one is as good a choice as any, because it’s one of their two most enjoyable comedies (the other being How I Met Your Mother) and because Chuck Lorre is building kind of a comedy-writing empire.
Update: Bill Prady says in comments that this post is about 75% accurate, which, I have to say, is not as bad as I feared. (I should say again that unless there’s a full biographical article available online, these posts are based on Google searches, news items, credits on Imdb and TV.com, other blog posts, and so on. But one thing I need to do in future is provide more documentation so it’s clearer were each piece of information comes from.)
As I said in an earlier post, Lorre uses his writing staffs differently from most other TV producers. Normally the staff beats out the story and then sends the assigned writer off to do a script, which is then rewritten by the whole staff. Lorre has cut out that middle stage, which is why his shows have three or four credited writers for every episode: the episodes are all room-written, and they then rotate the credits (union rules usually don’t allow an entire writing staff to be credited for writing an episode, except in very special cases). Whether this is a good or bad method is something I can’t judge without actually having been in the room. It arguably isn’t that big a change in practice, since most comedy shows are so heavily room-written that it’s almost useless to look for the individual personality of a particular writer in the script, no matter whose name actually comes after “written by.”
Here are the writers who have been credited in the current season. As with any writing staff, there are certain “themes” you can detect in terms of who gets hired. The most important theme, obviously, is that the people who work on Chuck Lorre’s shows tend to be people who have worked for him before. (Lorre has created and produced a lot of shows — some of which he didn’t even get fired from — so that leaves a lot of people for him to hire.) Another is that he seems to go for writing staffs where the median age is a little higher than on most comedy shows (certainly higher than the median age in the youth-obsessed ’90s). And several writers are there from previous associations with the other creator/showrunner, Bill Prady.
Bill Prady (co-creator, executive producer) – Prady’s Chuck Lorre connection is that he was a writer and producer on Dharma & Greg. When he was 22 he went to work for Jim Henson, writing for many Muppet projects including the short-lived Jim Henson Hour. (He also freelanced some scripts for You Can’t Do That On Television, adding to his ’80s cred.) After Henson’s death, Prady continued to return to the company occasionally to write material for the Muppets. He moved into sitcom writing, freelancing some episodes for shows like Married… With Children and getting staff writing/producing jobs on shows like Dream On, Caroline In the City and the aforementioned Dharma & Greg. Before re-teaming with Lorre, he was a co-executive producer on the fifth season of Gilmore Girls.
Lee Aronsohn (executive producer) appears to be Lorre’s right-hand guy. He co-created Two and a Half Men with Lorre and was a writer-producer on two of Lorre’s previous shows, Grace Under Fire and Cybill. His first job as a TV writer was on The Love Boat, where he was a staff writer in the second and third seasons; his claim to fame there was writing the episode that introduced Captain Stubing’s illegitimate daughter Vicki (named after his dog). Throughout the ’80s he contributed scripts to many sitcoms, including Charles In Charge (which Chuck Lorre also wrote for, but at different times). He was a writer/producer on Murphy Brown the year she had her baby, and he once wrote an interesting post on rec.arts.tv about why Murphy’s baby vanished from the show. (“I was really excited about what this could mean for the character, and I wrote an episode about the conflict she feels between pursuing her career and caring for her child (“Midnight Plane to Paris”). However, at the end of that season, network testing discovered that people were not interested in seeing Murphy as a mother — they wanted to see Murphy being Murphy — so the kid was shoved into the background.”) After producing Grace and Cybill, both successful but troubled shows, he created a show for CBS called Life… and Stuff, a vehicle for comedian Rick Reynolds, a slightly bitter domestic comedy in the Everybody Loves Raymond vein; he was removed from the show during production and it only lasted a few episodes as a summer replacement. I don’t know what he was doing between that and Men, but in any case, he re-emerged as co-creator and co-showrunner of CBS’s biggest post-Raymond hit. He also is, or was, a big fan and collector of Mad magazine memorabilia, and contributed some items from his personal comic book collection to Leonard’s Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 12:35 PM - 7 Comments
I have to admit that I’m enjoying The Big Bang Theory more than How I Met Your Mother this season, at least overall. (TBBT has no depth whatsoever, so it’s impossible for it to come up with an individual episode that’s as good as HIMYM’s “Shelter Island.”) What makes the show consistently entertaining is, as everyone knows, the character of Sheldon (Jim Parsons); but more importantly, it’s the relationship between Sheldon and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) that has become the hit of this show. I’ve theorized in the past that comedies, more than any other type of show, depend heavily not on individual characters but on character relationships; a comedy should have at least one character relationship that is so strong that we are actually happy, filled with anticipation, when those two characters have a scene together. For some reason, Sheldon/Penny has become that kind of relationship; along with Liz and Jack on 30 Rock it may be the best comedy relationship on TV at the moment. As we saw in last night’s episode, they have a strange combination of antagonism and mutual respect. She’s annoyed by his insanity and the fact that his friends are too wimpy to stand up to him, but likes the fact that he doesn’t treat her like a bimbo; he’s angered by the way she messes up the sacred routines of his lifestyle, but admires her for not being intimidated by him. Their scenes together are a nice reminder that the best male-female relationships often have nothing to do with sexual tension — since their relationship would not work if Sheldon was sexually attracted to her (or, for that matter, in any human).
On the other hand, Leonard has clearly become the weakest link on TBBT. (The weakest character should have been Penny, who was the weakest character when the show began, but the Sheldon scenes have turned her into a popular character — sort of like Tracey on 30 Rock has been saved from annoyingness by his excellent chemistry with Kenneth.) He doesn’t do much more these days than stand around whining that everybody else is acting crazy.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, August 11, 2008 at 5:39 PM - 0 Comments
Adding new regulars to a comedy can be tricky. Not dramas; today’s dramas at least, are more or less built to accommodate the coming and going of characters; you expect that they’ll add a regular or two every year and, on some shows like Lost, drop almost as many regulars as they add. But because a comedy is usually based around a relatively small core group, adding a new person to that group is usually taken as a sign of desperation, an admission that something wasn’t working the first time around or that the network is meddling. When a drama adds a new regular in the second season, it’s a normal occurrence; when a comedy adds a new regular, it’s usually because the original cast just didn’t quite cut it. Call it the Steve Urkel Theory of Comedy Casting: any character added as a regular to a comedy is added to make up for some deficiency in the regular cast.
That said, just because adding a new regular is a sign of desperation doesn’t mean it never helps. So I’m glad that Sara Gilbert is joining The Big Bang Theory as a regular, because her guest appearances last season Continue…