The Big Bang Theory is back for its third season on Monday and judging from the four critics preview clips I got to see for the first episode, it's back in perfect form. How so much comedy can come from Sheldon’s (Jim Parsons) angst is amazing, but that’s only a catalyst for the show. The real success comes from a great ensemble cast with huge chemistry that can turn any line or awkward situation into laugh out loud funny. That and nerds are in. Just look at Chuck.
In last season’s finale, the four scientists, Sheldon, Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Howard (Simon Helberg), and Raj (Kunal Nyyar), were settling in for their summer in the frozen wasteland of the North Pole. This was especially hard on Leonard, since he and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) were still embroiled in the difficulty surrounding their feelings for one another. In the end he goes, much to her dismay, but was seen at the North Pole breaking out her cherished gift of an ugly blue Snugli. The final scene was the guys at the North Pole in the same spots, playing games like always, eating freeze-dried Chinese food.
The season three premiere, titled “The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation,” picks up three months later when the guys return, complete with Grizzly Adams facial hair and all. They are weary from their time in that “frozen hell” except for Sheldon (sporting only a goatee), who sees a Nobel Prize coming from the expedition. That is until he finds out the research was fudged by his anxious to return home team. Sheldon doesn’t take the news well and goes home to Texas in disgrace.
Sheldon going home opens up an inspired comedic premise because it results in plenty of good stuff from his mother, played by Laurie Metcalf in a return appearance. There’s some great Jesus humor involved, especially when Leonard, Raj, and Howard arrive to get Sheldon. Leonard and Penny also have a barrier-breaking moment that will kick-start their relationship, which has been a much publicized story arc for season three. Heck, even Penny tries to comfort Sheldon in a very funny scene. Most of all, the snappy lines and perfectly timed humor, a trademark for this show, are back in true form.
Whoever keeps saying that multi-camera sitcoms are dead obviously hasn’t tuned into CBS on Mondays. All that’s needed to make something entertaining is a couple of crafty TV veterans, a brilliant idea, and actors who are waiting for their chance to shine. The Big Bang Theory is the latest of CBS’s long legacy of sitcom successes. Still, one has to wonder how anyone could make nuclear scientists trying to have a social life work. That may sound hard, but creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady have made it look easy. It all starts with their cast.
“If you go back and watch that you’ll see that the comic success of that big character (Sheldon) is based on the timing of the person working with him,” said co-creator Bill Prady at Comic-Con in July. “You know the thing is Jim’s character, not Jim himself, Sheldon is insufferable, except that Leonard suffers him. So we accept him as sufferable. And so it takes this amazing piece of performance from Johnny Galecki to take the person that could put up with that. So, I don’t think we’re in danger of that because the characters don’t work in isolation, they work in balance.”
What else makes The Big Bang Theory work? It taps into a geek culture, the one that’s been underground for so long that it’s actually mainstream now. Those endless discussions among friends twisting “what if” scenarios about The Flash or The Green Lantern or the never ending theoretical studies of Star Trek is not counter-cultural anymore. Thanks to online social networking it’s become a daily part of life for many. When four grown geniuses in a TV show are into it too, suddenly we’re not so ridiculous.
“I think that these guys don’t change much,” said Simon Helberg. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. They’ve figured out everything to a T and when they stray, they kind of get pulled back in. So, I think we’re going to see them constantly try to break a little from their habits, or from my mother, from being heavily immersed in video games, but they always come back and that’s where they’re comfortable.”
The writers are all self-professed geeks as well so no discussion is sacred. “I’m gonna say that there are a couple of other writers that are bigger comic book guys than me,” said Prady, one of those self-professed geeks. “They did a curriculum for me so I could catch up. But you cannot touch me on Star Trek , my friend. Original series, Next Generation, Voyager, can’t touch me.”
When building any successful show, it also helps to have a group that truly adores working together. Sure it’s not a requirement (see Roseanne), but it helps. “This is the best place I’ve ever worked,” said Prady. “You cannot top this cast and these people and it is true, true joy.” Kunal Nayyar told us a hilarious behind the scenes story about the ping pong tournaments that happen on the set. “[I] just had a tough defeat in the tournament. You know, the thing is, the director who bought us the table? I’m positive he goes back and practices. Because I always lose to him in the tournament. And, then Kaley comes in wearing short sexy clothes to like mess with us. So this year in the tournament, I wore short, sexy clothes.” Did it work? “No! Could you imagine me in a tank top and hot pants? Exactly! I don’t know what I was thinking. I lost. I distracted myself because I was itching.”
So dig in, for season three gets off to a very promising start. We can be sure that Penny and Leonard will provide many roller coaster relationship moments, that Howard will still be tortured by his mother, and Raj will still have issues talking around women. As for Sheldon, just being him is enough for us to watch every week. Super intelligent and insufferable is in.
The Big Bang Theory premieres on Monday, September 21 at 9:30pm on CBS. "The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation" is written by Steven Molaro and directed by Mark Cendrowski.