Now in its third season, CBS’s “geeky” comedy The Big Bang Theory is not only hitting its stride creatively, but it is gunning to be television’s most-watched comedy. Centered around two brilliant but socially awkward physicists, the show lovingly finds humor in the pair’s attempts to manage and make sense of their surroundings, all the while dealing with their equally intelligent (and often similarly misguided) friends, and the beautiful blonde across the hall who has taken a curious interest in them, much to the group’s delight.
The end of season two saw our nerd heroes Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj set out to spend their summer at the North Pole collecting data for one of Sheldon’s research projects. One does not need to be a rocket scientist (or a genius theoretical physicist for that matter) to have guessed that such an arrangement would fair pretty disastrously. This is all but confirmed by the third season’s premiere, which meets-up with the gang again as they return from their trip and offers plenty of laughs over the horrors of living for an extended period of time in isolation with Sheldon. Having spent the summer without the company of Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Penny (Kaley Cuoco) realizes just how much she cares for him, and after two years of “will they or won’t they” speculation, the couple finally make their relationship official upon Leonard’s return.
While there is certainly a legitimate debate to be had about whether or not that romance will or should last, the mere existence of it highlights one of the important improvements the writers of The Big Bang Theory have made to the show: character development. Wisely starting their revamping process with the Penny character, the writers have taken the dumb blonde that Cuoco first portrayed and transformed her into a funny, observant, and caring friend to the group, allowing the talented comedic actress to really shine. No longer a prop, Penny has become one of the guys in her own right, fully capable of putting the others in their place when necessary, but also possessing a nurturing quality that clearly demonstrates her affection for them all as well.
Similar improvements have been made to the rest of the characters, and the result is a series that in its third season can really tout itself as a template for how to use a brilliant ensemble to the most effect. Gone are the episodes that depended on the Leonard and Sheldon dynamic to provide every punch line, and replacing them are ones that showcase other character pairings. Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and Howard (Simon Helberg), Howard and his girlfriend (yes, you read that write, Howard gets a girlfriend in season three), and increasingly Penny and Sheldon have all been featured as the focus of various episodes, with each spotlight adding extra dimensions to the characters that previously would have seemed superfluous.
Other highlights of the season thus far include the show’s creative use of its guest stars, including several actors sure to appeal to the fans who know them for their popular roles in shows such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. Wil Wheaton especially stands out for his role as, well, Wil Wheaton, a semi-evil version of himself who proves to be a terrific nemesis for the usually unbeatable Sheldon. Laurie Metcalf and Christine Baranski also generate many laughs as Sheldon and Leonard’s mothers, respectively. Of course we mustn't fail to acknowledge the exceptional work Jim Parsons does each week as the high-strung Sheldon Cooper. The actor’s complete dedication and submission to his character is simply unmatched. And in a role that could easily slip into caricature, Parsons manages to keep Sheldon endearing by instilling a great deal of humanity within someone that on paper seems rather incorrigible.
In fact, it is that element of humanity within The Big Bang Theory that makes the show so appealing all around. Sure, some of the jokes poke fun at the characters’ eccentricities and their levels of intelligence. But for the most part, we are laughing with them, not at them, and that is refreshing. For some reason, being intelligent and being “cool” have come to be seen as mutually exclusive terms these days. As more and more people start tuning into The Big Bang Theory on Monday nights, maybe we can work to change that a little bit. All of us are hiding a little bit of “nerd” inside of us somewhere. Perhaps we should stop being so afraid of letting others see that and just be comfortable with ourselves as Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Raj, and Penny seem to be with themselves now.