Critic's Notebook: Satisfying 'Big Bang Theory' Series Finale Caps a Journey of Surprising Growth

From one of the worst and broadest pilots in recent memory, the Chuck Lorre- and Bill Prady-created series became a solid show, delivering multicam laughs and a great vehicle for Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki and more.
Courtesy of CBS

Because it's always illustrative to see where things began before seeing how they end, I sought out the pilot for The Big Bang Theory to rewatch that episode — the show's second pilot, though that's neither here nor there — before Thursday's series finale.

Naturally, even though I pay for CBS All Access and a half-dozen other streaming services, the Big Bang Theory pilot is not available for legal streaming. Sigh.

Fortunately for all and sundry, I remember the pilot for The Big Bang Theory well. It's awful. Sorry, it just is. It's a nerd minstrel show packed with embarrassingly over-obvious punchlines and performances which, for the most part, had to be overhauled either in very short order or, in some cases, over the course of many years. Among other things, I will never understand how anybody on the Big Bang Theory production team or in the ivory white halls of power at CBS thought it was acceptable to have the show's lone person of color be an Indian with an exaggerated accent who literally couldn't speak in proximity to a human female.

Like I said, I wanted to rewatch the pilot ahead of the finale because there's something incredibly satisfying about the distance between the show The Big Bang Theory started out as and the show it became over the subsequent 270+ episodes leading up to Thursday's finale. Whenever I give a comedy series five or 10 episodes to find its voice, to lock into its characters and to find the strengths of its actors, The Big Bang Theory is a show I can point to for justification, maybe not as successful an illustration of the principle as Parks & Recreation, but a much better illustration than the four seasons I watched of 2 Broke Girls, hoping it might eventually cease to be vaguely racist and unvaguely coarse and crummy.

The Big Bang Theory was a very, very bad show when it started out. For a certain segment of the internet, it remains a punchline because of the bad show it once was and the general and the incorrect perception that multicam comedies are automatically broad and therefore less-than, a superficial dismissal of the precision excellence that Chuck Lorre is sometimes able to bring to the format.

The Big Bang Theory became a good and reliably amusing show, never the most consistent, but a frequent source of sharp punchlines, great guest casting and a core ensemble that creators Lorre and Bill Prady — plus longtime writing lieutenants like Steven Molaro, Steve Holland and Eric Kaplan, plus series director Mark Cendrowski — built out with admirable intelligence.

As bad as the Big Bang Theory pilot was, the original pilot was even worse, in large part because instead of Kaley Cuoco's Penny it featured Amanda Walsh as Katie, an inexplicably mean (under the guise of "toughness") new girl in the life of Johnny Galecki's Leonard and Jim Parsons' Sheldon. It wasn't Walsh's fault. The character was just a misguided blunder. And they knew it. Penny, in the new pilot, is better in one important way: She's kind. Early episodes treat Penny like a glorified blow-up doll and Cuoco plays that gamely, but the way the show objectified Penny and, even worse, picked on her promiscuousness bordered on repellent, and the way the male characters all slobbered over her was never appealing. But she was kind. She had empathy for the characters that the show sometimes didn't have.

Gradually, the writers realized how good Cuoco is. Awards voters never did, which is a real shame because back when the show started, solid sitcom lead performances like hers could actually be nominated for Emmys. Voters got the idea that Parsons was the only way to recognize the show, and it somehow never dawned on them that Parsons was a better actor opposite Cuoco, and Sheldon was a better character opposite Penny. The writers noticed. Down the road, I hope casting directors notice. You see somebody like Christina Applegate doing career-best work in Netflix's Dead to Me and you remember the way Married... With Children used Applegate, especially in the beginning. I think Cuoco has a Dead to Me kind of performance in her.

After planting a future relationship clumsily in the pilot, the writers figured out how Penny could be clever in her own right, which facilitated a more plausible pairing with Leonard and — against all odds — turned his obsession with her into a relationship that played well through the finale. In turn, the writers gave Sheldon his own female foil and Mayim Bialik's Amy became another series highlight — first just as an intellectual equal and then as the only romantic partner that could have made sense. Melissa Rauch's Bernadette turned Howard (Simon Helberg) from the series' creepiest character into a frequent laugh-getter. The writers never settled on a good love interest for Kunal Nayyar's Raj, and it's no coincidence that he remained my least favorite character throughout.

There's no secret here: Nerd-baiting may have made The Big Bang Theory into a hit, but strong, funny female characters made The Big Bang Theory into a good show. Without them? Dear Lord, go back and watch the sperm bank opening to the pilot. It's astonishingly bad and, in retrospect, shockingly out of character for both of its leads. That's what the humor of the show was when it started.

Thursday's finale concentrated primarily on sweetness and on the good faith accumulated for most of the cast. I don't really think the show was about teaching Sheldon Cooper to appreciate friends and to be able to apologize for all of the patience he took advantage of, but if that's how the writers wanted to construct the finale, I can accept it. The scene at the Nobel Prize ceremony where Sheldon acknowledged his second family — the remnants of his first family, featured in the better-than-you-think-it-is Young Sheldon, didn't attend for some reason — yielded exactly the teariness it was supposed to. Parsons sold it.

The only reason I haven't celebrated Parsons here and in the series is because the guy has four Emmys. He's great. He actually always was — in both the bad original pilot and the even worse original original pilot — and the show let Sheldon grow in ways that were unlikely and yet believable. Galecki's nerd-face in those early episodes was a problem, but from probably the second season on, he entirely held his own. He was the key to making us understand how anybody tolerated Sheldon, and the finale even gave an explanation for why Leonard wore hoodies all the time. 

By the way, were we supposed to think that Sheldon's grateful Nobel speech might have been a dream or hallucination? They skipped a few plot steps if they wanted to avoid that.

They also skipped plot steps in making me believe in the excitement around Penny's pregnancy, revealed at the end of the first of two finale episodes. Penny's desire not to have children has been a relationship sticking point for a couple seasons now, and somewhere between Penny getting drunk with Sheldon — one last great Penny-Sheldon scene — and coming home and having sex with Leonard (thinking of Idris Elba) and discovering she was pregnant and the reveal to the audience, there was a whole arc in which she decided this was something she wanted. Penny and Cuoco both deserved to have that arc, and I'm disappointed the show didn't give it to them.

The pregnancy was more a nod back to Leonard's pilot declaration about the babies he and Penny would have. In the pilot it was icky, positioned as it was basically as a callback to the visit to the high IQ sperm bank. I'm not sure it was quite sweet in the finale. At least it wasn't icky. I wish we could have seen Penny decide she wanted to be a mother, just to sell that happiness, but between the drinking game with Sheldon and her enthusiasm about pickled herring, it still ended up being a great finale for Cuoco.

The finale fittingly didn't know what to do with Raj, and a cameo from Sarah Michelle Gellar paid off only in one confused reaction from Sheldon. Oh well. It was never really Nayyar's fault.

Also... The elevator worked! I really assumed that was going to be the series' last shot, the gang standing outside Penny and Leonard's apartment and the elevator door suddenly opening. Probably the gang eating takeout together as a new version of the theme song played was better.

Lorre has liked to position himself as a critical underdog over the years, and there's always been a perception that The Big Bang Theory was a popular success and a critical punching bag. Have I mentioned that the pilot was very bad? That probably explains something. However, by my count, The Big Bang Theory won two Television Critics Association Awards for outstanding achievement in comedy and Parsons won another. That's not bad for a critical punching bag.

So let this critic sign off by saying that I'm glad I stuck with The Big Bang Theory after those early episodes. It was a broad and popular comedy, and a broad and popular comedy that I'll miss.