Every sitcom needs a breakout character. Usually it’s the coolest guy, like Barney on How I Met Your Mother. But on The Big Bang Theory, whose second season just began on CTV, the most popular character is the one who hates coolness and everything associated with it. Sheldon (Jim Parsons) is a theoretical physicist and a tall, cold-eyed intellectual monster, incapable of showing affection or understanding human interaction. He says that the best part about having friends on MySpace is that he never actually has to meet them. He refuses to give his roommate a birthday present until he’s told that birthdays are “a non-optional social convention.” He prefers video games to sex because “sex has not been upgraded to include high-def graphics and enhanced weapons systems.” He’s so misanthropic and anti-social he makes Dr. House seem cuddly. No wonder the audience loves him.
When The Big Bang Theory premiered in 2007, it received mostly poor reviews, and seemed to be another piece of evidence in the case against the multi-camera sitcom. But recently the show has gained a fan following and even some kind words from critics. The main reason for that is Parsons, who two years ago was unknown except for a brief appearance with Zach Braff in the movie Garden State. His character has been compared to Niles Crane on Frasier: they both look down on people who aren’t as smart as they are, and Parsons even looks a bit like David Hyde Pierce. But Niles was basically a conventional person, with a wife, a sex life, and interests outside of his job. Sheldon gets laughs from his lack of any normal emotions at all, and his contempt for anyone who doesn’t share his asexuality and workaholism: “Screw him,” he says of a young scientist who gets interested in dating, “he was weak.” He’s Mr. Spock with regular ears, and he’s turned a hackneyed premise—a bunch of nerds hanging out with a ditzy sexpot—into a show that becomes unpredictable the moment Parsons walks in.
The question now is whether Parsons’s success can elevate The Big Bang Theory—whether the whole show can be as funny as Sheldon. The focus of the show was supposed to be Sheldon’s roommate Leonard (Johnny Galecki), a good-natured person whom co-creator Bill Prady has described as “the emotional heart of the show.” But though Galecki gets top billing, he spends most of his time feeding Parsons straight lines; it’s hard to pay attention to him when Sheldon is saying things like “my research will go on uninterrupted and social relationships will continue to baffle and repulse me.” Sheldon’s proud hatred of normalcy makes Leonard seem like a wimp when he longs for a normal life. Sheldon is such a strong character he makes the nominal hero seem weak by comparison.
On the other hand, there are signs that Parsons’s presence is helping some of the other characters on the show as they become funnier through their relationship with Sheldon. The show’s female lead is Penny, a sexy waitress played by Kaley Cuoco; she started out as a rather dull, generic blond-bimbo character. But while her scenes with Leonard are standard sitcom stuff, her scenes with Sheldon are fresh and funny. When she tries to share a secret with Sheldon, only to discover that he doesn’t understand the concept of keeping secrets, or when she listens to him explain her romantic problems in terms of an obscure scientific theory, she becomes more interesting just because the writers have to come up with offbeat ways for her to deal with Sheldon. When a show has one non-clichéd character, the writing becomes less clichéd too.
Which means that even though The Big Bang Theory started as a show about nerds learning to deal with the world, its success now depends on a character who wants the world to go away and leave him alone. Prady told Bob Andelman (www.andelman.com) that the “order and perfection” of scientific research is “a lot more appealing to Sheldon than the messy disorder of human interaction,” and that’s why he’s something new in sitcoms: instead of looking for love and friendship, Sheldon appeals to everyone who doesn’t like dealing with people—and that’s all of us, at times. If The Big Bang Theory can make Leonard as interesting as Sheldon, it could be a big hit. If it doesn’t, it may still be worth watching just to hear Parsons say, “We have to take in nourishment, expel waste, and inhale enough oxygen to keep our cells from dying. Everything else is optional.”