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23 August 2018

Millions watch The Big Bang Theory every week. So why are we supposed to hate it?

The gloating response to news that the show is ending underlines the dismissive attitude of the establishment. 

By Nick Hilton

The Big Bang Theory is dead! Long live The Big Bang Theory!

If your response to the news that The Big Bang Theory, America’s highest-rated sitcom, is to end in 2019 was anything other than “finally!” you are either a cultural pariah or, you know, one of the almost 20 million people who watch it every week. CBS have decided to can the sitcom next year after its 12th season (giving it a chance to pull ahead of classics like M*A*S*H and Frasier, which only managed a cool 11) after rising costs and a degree of narrative inertia tarnished the allure of their golden goose.

I am a fan of the show. It is my default half-an-hour-to-kill sitcom, where I can disengage most of my brain activity and three of my senses. I have grown to love it and have now seen every episode several times, a fact that people find inexplicable given the fact that I have a couple of English degrees and generally, I believe, good taste. When I say that my favourite TV shows of the past few years are Happy Valley, Girls and, um, The Big Bang Theory, people assume I’m joking. To like The Big Bang Theory in self-proclaimed “cultured” circles is not just passé, it’s positively offensive.

And that will be the show’s biggest legacy. Not the millions of people who love it or the millions more who simply tolerate it, but the way its very existence and success have angered the establishment. As news of its cancellation spread, the Guardian rushed to publish an article an article entitled The Big Bang Theory is ending – our long nightmare is finally over”, which included the astute observation that the show “regularly gets more than 15 million viewers an episode, and, statistically, not all of them can be incapacitated to the point of being unable to change channels whenever it comes on”. 

There are few other shows that could announce their conclusion only for commissioning editors everywhere to seek out haters, rather than lovers, to write up responses. Think of the hagiographies The Simpsons will receive when its interminable run ends, or the normcore jubilation when Silent Witness is finally sent to the morgue. They even managed to find people to mourn the demise of The Daily Politics

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But you are not allowed to enjoy The Big Bang Theory. It is, somehow, an insult to your own intelligence to watch it. Even if you haven’t watched a minute of it, you’re allowed to hate it, because somehow it has become a pop-cultural axiom that the show is Bad. Even as the tide of cultural judgment condemns the phrase “guilty pleasure” for its sense of shame at enjoying something enjoyable, that same jury return blackcap verdicts against The Big Bang Theory on all counts. The show’s legacy will be its status as the worst show ever to hold the title of the world’s most popular sitcom.

As a defender of the show, I am fatigued by offering explanations and excuses for why I find it fun. The best defence of the show is the show itself. I recently completed a re-watch of the first season (yes, this is how I’m spending my finite time on earth) and was struck by how perfect the episode “The Loobenfeld Decay” is. It is an intricately constructed 22-minute farce that could have dripped from the quill of Ben Jonson or the pen of Alan Ayckbourn, but instead came from a writer’s room consisting of Chuck Lorre, Bill Prady and Lee Aronsohn. If you watch that episode then you will understand the show – you still might not find it funny, but you won’t find anything to hate.

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Like Friends, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Office, Roseanne and all the great sitcoms that have come before, The Big Bang Theory is not perfect. It is, at times, self-conscious, clever without actually being clever, and victim of the same punch-down humour that plagues all long-running shows. It feels like a Reddit thread, played out on the cusp of social acceptability, for an audience that would prefer to recycle woke Tumblr memes.

I won’t, in this era of Trump, say that 18 million Americans can’t be wrong, but whatever its problems, it does not deserve the condescension and vitriol it receives from the press. Contrary to the opinions of my bubble, the show is not bad, and as someone who has watched and re-watched every episode, I should know.