(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 21.)
I found myself watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory the other night. It was the first time I’d seen it in years.
I enjoyed this show when it was fresh, innovative and smart. It was a clever but gentle spoof of nerd culture (or should that be geek culture? I’ve never been entirely sure of the difference).
The characters were appealingly quirky, the personal dynamics between them were rich with comedic possibilities and the dialogue was rapier-sharp.
But that was seven or eight years ago. Now the show is tired and predictable, and the dubbed laughter seems to have to grown steadily louder and more intrusive as if to compensate for the laboured script and lack of humour.
Wikipedia says The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, but I don’t believe it. The laugh track not only sounds dubbed, but crudely dubbed at that.
The four central characters were once believable as academically brilliant but socially dysfunctional bachelors with neurotic family backgrounds. Now they’re in their 40s and it stretches credulity that Leonard and Sheldon are still flatting together and obsessing over childish science-fiction and fantasy movies and TV programmes.
I watched for only 10 minutes or so, which was long enough to confirm that The Big Bang Theory in 2015 is running on empty.
This is an all-too familiar trajectory with American TV comedies. They start out witty and exhilarating and deservedly attract a big audience. But the viewers don’t seem to notice when the show ceases to be witty and exhilarating, so the host network keeps it going – and going, and going. Eventually it becomes a sad parody of itself.
This doesn’t always happen, mind you. The Simpsons, which made its debut in 1989, has lasted better than most and still displays occasional traces of the wickedly subversive humour that made it such a ground-breaker. It has become the longest-running prime-time show in American television history.
But we’ve seen the pattern with other programmes. M*A*S*H, Happy Days and Cheers all kept wheezing on long after their glory years were behind them.
You learn to recognise the warning signs when a show starts to lose momentum. Big-name guest stars begin turning up. There are flashbacks to previous episodes and excursions out of the studio to exotic locations for visual interest – anything to keep the viewers interested once the scriptwriters start running out of ideas.
In the recent Big Bang Theory episode that I watched, the four characters were on a road trip to Mexico. Par for the course.
I also note from Wikipedia that the frequency of cameo appearances by guest stars, from physicist Stephen Hawking to astronaut Buzz Aldrin, seems to have increased as the show has aged. Even The Simpsons has frequently resorted to celebrity guests.
Another warning sign is that shows eventually lose their sharp edge and lapse into sentimental schlock. This was tragically true of M*A*S*H, which in its heyday broke barriers with its mordant satirical dialogue.
In the case of Happy Days, the desperate quest for novel story lines led to the coining of a phrase – “jumping the shark” – that captures the moment when a programme loses whatever credibility it might still have enjoyed.
It happened in the premiere of the show’s fifth series, in which the character Fonzie jumped over a shark on water skis. Significantly, that episode contained another telltale sign of a programme in decline: the characters were on a trip to Los Angeles, far from the usual setting of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
To be fair, Happy Days continued for another six seasons. But “jumping the shark” entered the language as a metaphor for any gimmick that stretches credibility to breaking point.
The Americans could learn something from the British here: quit while you’re ahead. Or to use another old showbiz cliché, keep ’em wanting more.
Fawlty Towers, a series so popular that snatches of dialogue (“Don’t mention the war”) have entered popular usage, ran for only 12 episodes – just two series of six programmes.
The scriptwriters, John Cleese and his then wife (and co-star) Connie Booth, resisted pressure to extend the show to a third series. They realised there was a point at which the idea would wear thin.
As a result, viewers never got a chance to grow tired of the programme. Quite the opposite: people are still enjoying it 40 years later.
The producers of The Office followed the example of Fawlty Towers by making only two six-episode series. Both shows now enjoy a status similar to that of a rare vintage wine.
What’s mystifying is why people keep watching American shows long after they have lost their spark.
I can only speculate that there’s a segment of the population that’s comfortable with whatever’s familiar and predictable, and that can’t be bothered making the effort to get their heads around something new and challenging. They’re probably the same people who enjoy eating at McDonald’s because they always know exactly what they’re going to be served.