Tag Archives: Famous Sitcoms

Nature Vs. Nurture: A Case Study In “The Big Bang Theory”

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What makes someone an uptight, narcissistic control freak who refuses to admit when they’re wrong and will never let anyone else sit in their spot on the couch?

What makes someone a needy, whiny, emotionally stunted man-child who is chronically insecure and in constant need of approval?

What makes someone an outgoing, overly social free spirit who is also habitually irresponsible, exercises poor judgement, and intellectually dense?

These are all personal questions that have a multitude of answers, none of which are definitive. There are entire fields of study devoted to answering such questions, none of which are perfect. It often comes down to a question of whether someone was born with certain traits or are simply a product of their environment.

It’s the classic nature versus nurture debate and, in almost every case, it’s neither one nor the other. Some people are born with certain traits or personality quirks that physically manifests in their brains. Others are heavily influenced by the people and environment they grow up around. In between all of this is a multitude of other factors that are difficult to quantify.

Figuring people out what makes them tick and how they got that way is challenging, even if you consider yourself a very insightful person. People, in general, tend to be complicated. Human beings might have basic drives to survive, reproduce, and find a tribe, but there are countless variations beyond those drives.

Many of those exaggerations are also pushed to hilarious extremes with fictional characters. Between the Hulk’s anger issues and Lex Luthor’s narcissism, fictional worlds can provide useful insights into the whole nature/nurture dynamic. Whereas someone like Lex Luthor was born with little empathy and way too much ego, the anger issues of the Hulk were a more complicated, as well as disturbing.

These characters, like real people, often have a combination of nature and nurture that helps influence who they, how they got that way, and what they eventually become. It’s often subtle and building a story around it is difficult. However, there’s one group of fictional characters that I believe embody the nature versus nurture dynamic better than most.

Those characters are the cast of “The Big Bang Theory,” a show that recently ended it’s remarkable 12-year run as one of the highest-rated sitcoms of all time. While the show has garnered plenty of criticism and outright hate, there’s no denying that the show struck a chord. No show involving the same group of characters lasts for 12 years without resonating with audiences on some personal level.

While there are certainly parts of the show that I don’t care for, I still consider myself a fan of it. I even admit that I got emotional when I saw the series finale. I thought it was incredibly well done and it marked a fitting end for the journey that Leonard, Howard, Raj, Sheldon, and Penny began 12 years ago. Many other fans of the show agreed with that sentiment.

Love it or hate it, and plenty did hate it, the show had a great deal of appeal outside its cheesy jokes and comical portrayal of geek culture. After seeing the finale and watching a few reruns, I think one of the most endearing appeals was how much the characters grew over the years. Given that it was a sitcom and character growth in sitcoms are notoriously slow, I think it’s one of the show’s biggest accomplishments.

From the beginning, the personalities of each character are established with distinct traits that were heavily exaggerated for comedic effect.

Leonard was needy, insecure, and weak-willed. He was basically the ultimate beta-male nerd from every 80s teen comedy.

Howard was obsessive, selfish, and immature. He also had some stalker-like creepiness baked into his approach towards getting women.

Raj was passive, effeminate, and quirky, but largely defined by his inability to talk to women.

Sheldon was self-centered, stubborn, and egotistical. He might have also been autistic.

Penny was a bubbly, upbeat, lovable free spirit. However, she was also irresponsible and exercised poor judgement, especially when it came to her personal life.

Like every sitcom, every major plot and iconic gag was built off these traits. From Leonard trying desperately to win Penny’s affection to Howard’s efforts to pick up women to Sheldon’s inability to keep a secret, “The Big Bang Theory” had plenty to work with in terms of eccentric personality quirks. I believe a large part of the show’s success is a direct result of how well it made use of those quirks.

As the show progressed and we learned more about these character, we also learn more about where they came from and what influences them. We find out that Leonard’s insecurities might stem from the relationship he had with his mother. He also learn how much living with his loud-mouthed mother has effected Howard. We learn where Penny came from and how that informed her personality.

We learn plenty about Sheldon too, but it would take a long time to go over his many issues. He was, by far, the most eccentric character on the show and one of the most controversial.

For each character, we get a strong sense of their nature. More than most sitcoms, “The Big Bang Theory” belabors and reinforces the core personality of each character. If you watch just a few episodes, you can get a fairly decent feel for their behavior and how they would react in most situations.

At the same time, however, the show also demonstrates how new influences change these characters over time. In fact, the foundation for this change is established in the pilot episode when Penny first moves in to the apartment across from Sheldon and Leonard. She is a very different kind of influence on these two and vice versa. You could even argue that it’s the most important catalyst for the entire show.

It’s only after we learn about the nature of each characters that we appreciate what a critical moment that was in the context of each character’s journey. Before Penny’s arrival, Sheldon and Leonard didn’t have many disrupting influences. They were surrounded in familiar territory. They had nothing prompting them to change or grow in new directions.

The same goes for Penny. Before she arrived, she was just a simple girl from the mid-west who had never lived around hardcore geeks and accomplished scientists. She never even showed much interest in science, geek culture, or anything of the sort. While it didn’t seem to affect her at first, there were signs of their influence as the show progressed.

Both Howard and Raj went through similar transformations. In the early seasons, there were many sub-plots built around both of them trying to get the attention of women, despite Raj not being able to talk to them without being drunk. Most of them fail spectacularly. Some were downright pathetic at times and not in a funny way.

 

Then, new influences came into their lives. Howard met Bernadette, who underwent her own transformation as she became a bigger part of the group. While their relationship had its upheavals, it did more than anything to humanize Howard. It still didn’t fundamentally change him. He was still immature and obnoxious at times, but he also showed that he could be a respectable family man.

Raj’s growth wasn’t quite as dramatic, but he did eventually learn to talk to women without the aid of alcohol. He also went from just wanting to get the attention of women to seeking love, marriage, and family. He even gains more self-confidence and assertiveness as the show went on, some of which was a result of interacting with Penny and the rest of the group.

Then, there’s the growth of Sheldon Cooper. More than any other character, Sheldon demonstrated the value of having quality influences.

His nature is, by far, the most eccentric and extreme. It’s the nurturing forces, however, that I think had the greatest impact on both his character development and the overall progression of the of the show.

There’s no getting around it. In the first few seasons, Sheldon was a stubborn, selfish egotist. For a time, it was even a popular refrain to note that Sheldon was just one lab accident away from becoming a supervillain. Given that most supervillains tend to be petty, eccentric, and self-centered, I think that’s an accurate statement disguised as a joke.

Thankfully, that accident never happened. Instead, Sheldon was frequently nudged and, in a few cases, shoved into being less insufferable. Penny was usually the one to get him out of his comfort zone in the early seasons. Then, Amy Farrah Fowler came along and gave him a nurturing force that seemed almost impossible in the earlier seasons.

Amy brought issues of her own to the table, but like Bernadette did with Howard, she proved to be a stabilizing presence for Sheldon. She didn’t fundamentally change him, nor did she even demand it. She simply provided new influences. Granted, he stubbornly fought them, at first. He fought harder than anyone else in the group. In the end, though, he still embraced these changes and was better because of it.

It was that change that made his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the end of the show so perfect. In that moment, he achieved something he’d been hoping to achieve since the earliest season. It was the ultimate affirmation of his genius and his abilities, which he’d bragged and boasted about to no end. It could’ve been the ultimate ego trip for him.

Instead, he thanked his friends. He demonstrated humility on a stage in front of a huge crowed of people. For someone who started the show seeming incapable of empathy and nuance, it was a powerful moment. It showed that this weird, colorful character that we loved and hated at times had really grown. He even acknowledged the source of that growth in a genuine, heartfelt gesture.

When you look at that moment in the context of the entire show, you can see just how powerful those influences can be. These chaLracters, all of which were set in their ways to some extent, showed just how much those influences can change. Even for characters with idiosyncrasies like Sheldon Cooper, people can change in positive ways.

Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Raj, and Penny wouldn’t have undergone those changes without nurturing one another to some stent. At times, that nurturing took the form of annoyance and frustration. That only makes the change more fitting because most people resist that change. Even in the real world, our default reaction is to keep doing what we’re doing and make every excuse along the way.

While many sitcoms have their characters undergo plenty of upheavals, “The Big Bang Theory” goes the extra mile in showing how people can be changed by the people and influences around them. They’ll still stay true to their nature.

Sheldon will always have that distinct Sheldon-like persona, as will Penny, Leonard, Raj, and Howard. However, with the right kind of nurture, they can become endearing characters in their own right. Say what you will about the quality of the show, but its place in TV history has been secured.

Bazinga!

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Why “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” Is The Perfect Dark Comedy

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Every TV show, from sitcoms to talk shows to adult cartoons featuring dimension-hopping super-genius, attempts to capture a certain theme and hone it to the utmost. They try to craft the right kind of characters who exhibit the necessary traits to convey those themes while still being memorable, likable, and endearing. On top of that, they have to do it for multiple seasons, at least until they achieve syndication.

It’s an enormous challenge. Few shows succeed and even fewer do so consistently. Even among those select few, there’s a risk that the characters and stories will get stale. Due to the nature of half-hour TV shows, there’s only so much you can do before Archie Bunker’s casual bigotry becomes more pathetic than funny. That doesn’t even get into shows that end up crashing and burning in the series finale.

Then, there’s a little show called “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.” In the annuls of TV history, this show is basically a unicorn wrapped in gold, covered in diamonds, and encoded with the browser history of every active politician.

Pragmatically speaking, this is a show that should not have lasted 13 seasons. For one, it airs on FX, a network most people probably don’t know they have, if they actually have it. In addition, the show’s budget is incredibly limited. The pilot was allegedly shot for less than $100 by a cast of aspiring actors who had zero name recognition, at the time.

On top of that, there’s the premise of the show. In its simplest form, “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” follows the shameless misadventures “the Gang.” This crew consisting of Charlie Kelly, Ronald “Mac” McDonald, Frank Reynolds, Dennis Reynolds, and Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds basically take every traditional approach to making an enduring TV show and punches it in the kidneys.

This is a show where the characters will buy a boat with the intention of entrapping women.

This is a show where the cast will make an unauthorized Lethal Weapon sequel, complete with blackface, homoerotic subtext, and gratuitous sex scenes featuring Danny DeVito.

This is a show where two people are tricked into digging up the body of their dead mother.

This is a show where you’ll see people hold a funeral for a baby to get out of a tax audit by the IRS.

These are not the activities of lovable characters. Even Shelden Cooper had moments in “The Big Bang Theory” where he came off as genuinely compassionate. With the Gang, there are none of those moments. Sometimes, they’ll be teased. In some episodes, the Gang will give the impression that they’re about to finally realize just how deplorable they are.

Trust me, they’re doing exactly what you think they’re doing and then some.

Ultimately, they don’t just revert back to their less-than-reputable selves. They demonstrate that they never had any intention of changing their ways. Anyone who believed otherwise either hasn’t watched more than two episodes of the show or are deluding themselves. As antithetical as this is for crafting a compelling TV show might be, it doesn’t change one inescapable fact.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” is funny, enjoyable, and obscenely entertaining.

It almost sounds like a paradox. As someone who only recently became a fan of the show, I have hard time explaining that appeal to most people in a way that doesn’t sound weird. It takes a moment to appreciate the appeal of watching a cast of self-absorbed, narcissistic alcoholics. However, within the tone and context of the show, it doesn’t just work. It achieves something profound.

Specifically, “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” is the perfect manifestation of dark comedy at its finest.

Comedy, in any form, can be difficult. Jokes, gags, and bits can become overplayed and stale. There’s only so many times you can watch Charlie Brown fail to kick a football and still laugh. Dark comedy is even more difficult. It involves taking distressing, taboo subjects and trying to make them funny. Some, like George Carlin, can pull it off masterfully.

I like to think that if George Carlin were still alive, he would be a fan of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.” The show’s approach to dark comedy isn’t overly complex. It’s just exceedingly overt. It doesn’t try to balance out those dark themes with something serious or nuanced. It blatantly takes things to an extreme and dares to laugh at the absurdities.

Trust me, it gets more absurd than this.

Take, for instance, the funeral for the dead baby that I mentioned earlier. There are only so many ways you can make funerals and dead babies funny, but this show never shies away from a challenge. It also helps that every character in the Gang has the moral fiber of a Big Tobacco lobbyist on crack. They won’t just cross lines. They’ll make it a spectacle.

In this particular case, Sweet Dee is getting audited and for good reason. She acted as a surrogate to carry the child of a transgender woman that Mac used to date. Trust me, it’s more absurd that I can ever put into words. However, Dee didn’t do this out of the goodness of her heart. Nobody in the Gang is ever that altruistic. She did it because she got paid. Then, she decided to list the kid she gave up as a dependent for the tax benefits.

Naturally, this put her at odds with the IRS. Like every problem the Gang faces, she tries to run away from it or pass off the problem to somebody else. However, the problem only escalates. In most TV shows, especially half-hour sitcoms, this is the point where the characters face the consequences of their actions and try to learn from it. Instead, the Gang tries to resolve the problem by holding a baby funeral.

It’s undeniably dark, but the way it plays out is still funny. The way Dee and the rest of the Gang conducts themselves is so irreverent that the inherent darkness of the issue only makes it funnier. It shows just how far the Gang is willing to go to shirk responsibility and avoid consequences. It gets bad and it belabors just how irredeemable these characters are, but it’s still funny.

A big part of what makes that approach funny is how blatant this show is when it comes to the time-tested tropes that TV shows have relied on for decades. Take any show, from “Breaking Bad” to “Friends,” and you’ll see a concerted effort to develop and progress the characters over time. Ideally, they achieve some sort of ultimate goal by the end.

Instead of growth, the Gang actively avoids any effort at growth. Their only goal is to continue being the unapologetic assholes they’ve always been, drink heavily, and recklessly pursue whatever crazy ideas they come up with. Who they are in the first few seasons of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” aren’t considerably different than who they are in the latest season.

In any other show, characters who don’t grow and progress usually derail the underlying themes. Sometimes, that’s unavoidable. The very structure of a TV show, especially a half-hour sitcom, ensures that the characters can only grow so much. Even after the show achieves syndication, it tries to stick to a formula, even if doing so undermines the very process the characters need to evolve.

By going out of their way to not evolve, the Gang insures “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” never deviates too far from the qualities that make it funny. It even channels its use of dark comedy to poke fun at the same tropes that other shows heavily rely on. From the frustrating use of clip shows to turning romantic sub-plots into a case study for excessive stalking, the show seems to revel in spitting on these time-tested methods.

What makes that comedy even more potent is that after 13 seasons, “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” has lasted longer than some of the most iconic TV shows in history. It has outlasted the likes of “Cheers,” “Mash,” “Friends,” and “Frasier.” Moreover, it keeps finding a way to be funny and relevant. I think a non-insignificant part of that is how it uses dark humor.

There’s plenty more to be said about the show and why it has lasted so long. Even some of the show’s cast members have a hard time explaining why the show is still on the air. Even more likely wonder how the show can keep getting away with being so brazen about using dark comedy to tackle issues surrounding race, religion, gender, sexuality, mental health, and bird law.

There are likely many factors that have contributed to the success and longevity of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.” It helps that the actors and crew of the show really enjoy working together. There’s something to be said about a show in which the original cast have a genuine passion for their work. It’s well-documented how a toxic environment behind the scenes can derail successful shows.

At the end of the day, though, “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” works because it’s funny and entertaining. It found a way to take the best aspects of dark comedy and run with it. As long as it can keep doing that, the show will have an audience. If it can include more episodes that involve Mac dancing or Danny DeVito getting naked, then that’s just a bonus.

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