People are still watching The Big Bang Theory (CBS, CTV, Thursdays, 8 p.m.) in huge numbers. It's still one of the biggest shows on TV, both here and in the United States.
I say "still" because it's been on for a very long time now and last week aired its 200th episode. In fact, the show has now reached a stage of development – or lack of development – that pushes some people to loathe it with the same fervour that fans adore it.
Comedy is hard, the pros tell us. And yet we live in an era when there's an avalanche of fresh, different and funny comedy. From Aziz Ansari's Master of None on Netflix, to Broad City on Comedy Central to network series such as Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat.
In late-night TV, John Oliver and Samantha Bee are making everything else look lame. In Canada this spring on CraveTV we will see Casual, which is Jason Reitman's sublimely dark relationship comedy. We've already got Letterkenny, which feels so fresh it's glistening.
So why are people still drawn, in vast numbers, to Big Bang? If the 200th episode is an illustration, it's nostalgia.
In part, perhaps, it's nostalgia for the traditional, network, multi-camera sitcom with characters who are fixed in the funny and never change. But Big Bang has changed, so in part it's remembrance of characters past – when Sheldon (Jim Parsons) was a sexless tyrant of a geek; when Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) could only talk to women when drunk and Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) was an ass in tight pants who hit on every woman he encountered.
Now Wolowitz is married and soon to be a father. Koothrappali has a girlfriend and can speak to her sober. And, of course, Sheldon is in a relationship with Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik).
The 200th episode featured an awkward birthday party for Sheldon. He didn't want one and never has. Not because he's a super-smart scientist who can't abide such frivolity. But because of childhood trauma, when his sisters teased him mercilessly. It all got a bit mushy and unfunny when Penny (Kaley Cuoco) sat with him in the bathroom to comfort him.
The episode also used the birthday party scenario to bring back characters from the past. Most welcome was Sara Gilbert as Dr. Leslie Winkle, the experimental physicist who used to command Leonard (Johnny Galecki) into having casual, no-commitment sex with her. That was before his tortured wooing of Penny got serious and led to marriage. Winkle was a glorious comic creation, a female mirror image of the nerdy guys. She even dressed like them. She was a great foil and a strong counterpoint to the women Leonard, Koothrappali and Wolowitz continually pursued.
Also present was Barry Kripke (John Ross Bowie) who used to appear all the time. Kripke has always been a finely hatched character, and not just because of the rhotacism, which causes him to pronounce "r" and "l" as "w." He's a self-aware science geek who once announced that he knows he is "creepy, pathetic and can't get girls." But his disdain for Sheldon, like that of Leslie Winkle, was a nice ingredient in the comic concoction.
Essentially, the episode was a reminder that Big Bang used to be a lot better. It drew attention because of the big-name guest stars – Adam West, the original Batman was there, and Stephen Hawking sang Happy Birthday to Sheldon.
Yet it was the returning characters who were once part of the texture of the show that forced the viewer to think about the series. And, perhaps, to think that while the characters are older and maybe a bit wiser, the show hasn't really shifted an inch. The elevator is still broken. The guys wear the same kind of clothes they wore 200 episodes ago. We don't know Penny's last name
And maybe we don't know Penny's last name because she is still "the hot girl" and the show's core essence is its original premise – nerdy science guys are addled because a hot girl lives across the hall.
The show isn't funny any more. The same tired jokes go around in circles. It's dated and stale. When people watch now, they are remembering when it was funny, and have a sentimental longing, a sweet wistful affection for the past. That's a powerful emotion. It's why the ratings are still great for Big Bang Theory.