Why The Big Bang Theory Is The New Friends (And Why That’s A Compliment)

The Big Bang Theory is a TV phenomenon – not just the biggest show in the solar system, but proof that geeks will inherit the earth, too. At its heart, it’s a show about a group of friends, just like another much-loved, much-repeated sitcom: Friends. With Big Bang re-runs seemingly permanently on our screens, we tot up the parallels between the Central Perk gang and the Cheesecake Factory crew.

1. All The Cool Kids Think It Sucks…

Admit to kinda-liking The Big Bang Theory in hipster-y company and you might as well confess to being a Dapper Laffs devotee. Just as Friends was, TBBT is a cultural pariah to many. “I don’t even know where to begin when talking about why I hate Big Bang Theory so much,” rants a post on cooler-than-thou site Sick Chirpse. “It’s like a collage made entirely from turds and I’m trying to decide which turd is the most unpleasant.”

2. …But It’s Smarter And Funnier Than They Give It Credit For

With its three-camera format, winking sex jokes and sentimental streak, TBBT was never going to be a critical darling along the lines of cerebral meta-comedies such as Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm. But, like Friends before it, at its best TBBT takes standard sitcom tropes – misunderstandings, pratfalls, zinging comebacks – and fashions beautifully polished, brilliantly performed gags from them. Quit shaking your head. Yes it does.

3. (Although Yes, Sometimes It Does Suck)

Friends-haters had plenty of ammo: yes, the show was startlingly white, the characters’ ‘problems’ were very much of the first-world variety and the sugary schmaltz could be heave-inducing. The Big Bang Theory can be similarly problematic: the writing is hacky at times; the laughter track gets OTT; and some of the jokes relating to Raj flirt with, if not racism exactly, then certainly uncomfortable stereotyping, of the kind that orbits Apu on The Simpsons.

4. The Ratings Are Ridic

Like many sitcoms that go on to become all-conquering behemoths – Seinfeld, Cheers, The OfficeTBBT struggled at first. The first season didn’t rank within the top 50 shows of the year in the US, while the second only managed 48th. By its sixth season, however, TBBT was the most popular comedy on TV; by its seventh season, it was the most popular show on TV, finally beating its long-time rival, the inexplicably massive NCIS. Episode premieres reach in excess of 23 million viewers in the US, and 1.3 million here. Still, TBBT has a way to go to hit Friends’ dizzying peak of 52.9million US viewers, achieved for the 1996 episode The One After The Superbowl.

5. The Cast Is The Key

Friends‘s casting process was famously drawn-out, but after seeing “a countless number of actors”, co-creator Marta Kauffman knew she’d hit upon show-making chemistry when “the six of them read together for the first time, and the atmosphere was electric. A chill ran down my spine.”

TBBT‘s casting process was similarly arduous, but, as with Friends, it’s the performances that make the show. From Melissa Rauch’s deceptively aggro biologist Bernadette to Kevin Sussman’s tragicomic comic shop guy Stuart, there’s not a weak link in the chain. The show’s crowning glory, of course, is Jim Parsons’ laser-precise portrayal of physics professor Sheldon – it takes incredible skill to make a character so militantly dickheaded feel sympathetic and rootable-for (hence his Golden Globe and four Emmys).

6. Thanks To Points 4 And 5, The Cast’s Wages Are Insane

The Friends cast broke records with an unheard-of $1million an episode each for the final two seasons – plus 2 per cent of all future revenues, which currently translates to annual royalty cheques of $20million apiece. For essentially doing nothing.

TBBT‘s central cast also know their worth (or their agents do, anyway), and have similarly bagged themselves a weighty $1million an episode, plus 1 per cent of any future revenues. Given that TBBT is as relentlessly syndicated around the globe as Friends is, that’ll mean serious bank long after the show ceases production.

7. It Does The Whole ‘Friends-As-Family’ Thing Dead-On

Friends was the first show to tap into the then-zeitgeisty concept of friends being ‘the new family’. Most sitcoms were centred around either workplaces or traditional family units, but Friends‘ creators were sharp enough to see potential in the trend for young people putting off settling down and instead using their mates – rather than spouses or relations – as their support networks.

There have been countless attempts to clone Friends‘ ‘mates-as-family’ format – some brilliant (Happy Endings), some woeful (Rules Of Engagement). TBBT, however, is the first of these clones to achieve the fine-tuning of Friends‘ group dynamic. The plotlines may be cartoonish, but the core relationships feel strangely real and relatable – the fractious affection between polar opposites Penny and Sheldon is particularly well handled.

8. It’s A Cultural Time Capsule

By the time it had become a phenomenon, Friends was not only reflecting a certain lifestyle – the career-chasing, perma-dating, cappuccino-sipping 20-something – it was actively defining and influencing it. This was the show that introduced the world to the ‘manbag’, ‘the friend zone’, ‘BFFs’, DIY sex-tapes and, of course, the Rachel ’do.
TBBT, meanwhile, is both a product of and a contributor to our current generational obsession with ‘geeky’ pop-culture. While few of us are as committedly geeky as Howard, Raj et al, we’ll all coo along with them at a Robocop suit, a Star Wars prop or *gasp* Stan Lee.

9. It Keeps Its Characters In Check

If TBBT endlessly crucified its core characters for their geeky obsessions and social awkwardness, it’d feel tiresomely mean; similarly, if it waved through their more man-childish behaviour without a snicker, it’d never have found an audience beyond cellar-dwelling supergeeks. Sometimes we laugh with these plucky underdogs; other times, at these exhausting losers.

That hard-to-strike balance between rooting for the characters and delighting in their self-made downfalls is what underpinned Friends‘ success. For all the show’s schmaltzy wish-fulfilment, it was always ready to slap a character in the chops if they got too self-obsessed – witness Phoebe telling Rachel that her pining over Ross “reminds me of the time I was living on the street and this guy offered to buy me food if I slept with him.” Rachel: “How is it like that?” Phoebe: “It’s not. See, that was an actual problem, whereas this is just a bunch of high-school crap.”

10. It’s Perfect Guilty-Pleasure Comfort Telly

…and that’s why it’ll be repeated ad infinitum, a la Friends. Immobilised across your sofa, catastrophically hungover? Now is not the time to crack open that Ingmar Bergman boxset. Chances are, Big Bang is on E4, right now. Ssshh. It’s cool. We won’t tell anyone…