How 'Big Bang Theory' Is Plotting Its Endgame

Showrunner Steve Holland talks with THR about finding the balance between a satisfying series finale, avoiding a "parade" of guest stars and staying true to the CBS comedy's central characters.
Michael Yarish/CBS

The Big Bang Theory isn't approaching its final season any differently than the 11 others that helped make CBS' nerdy hit TV's No. 1 comedy.

The multicamera entry from co-creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady and exec producers Steve Molaro and Steve Holland won't plot out its final 24 episodes and won't look to provide answers to some of its biggest burning questions (Penny's last name? It's Hofstadter now).

To hear showrunner Holland tell it, the final season will focus more on providing a satisfying ending for Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Penny (Kaley Cuoco), Howard (Simon Helberg), Raj (Kunal Nayyar), Amy (Mayim Bialik) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch).

When the comedy returns Monday with the first of its remaining 24 episodes, it will be business as usual with Sheldon and Amy enjoying their honeymoon (watch an exclusive clip below). In fact, producers and the cast didn't know the show would be ending until after the first six or seven episodes had been written. The decision to call it a day on the ensemble comedy — which was made by Emmy-winner Parsons with support from Lorre, who decided the show was an all-or-nothing venture — didn't derail any of the storylines producers had planned. That includes following up on Sheldon and Amy's big scientific discovery from their wedding day in the season 12 finale and perhaps finding love for perennial single guy Raj.

Below, Holland talks with The Hollywood Reporter about delivering a satisfying finale, balancing a closed-ended story with a sense of life going on for the gang and if Big Bang could deliver a Friends-like ending.

How did the decision to call it quits with this season come together?

We all knew going into this season that there was a chance it could be the end. The cast's deals were up and it had been a long time. So, they came together and they had a discussion about it and I think people had different opinions about it but ultimately, everyone felt like this was a good time to end it and end it strong. Everyone was involved in it. I was emotional. The show has been a big part of people's lives, and the decision to bring it to a close was a difficult one.

I'd heard for a long time that the decision to end the show ultimately was going to be up to Jim because, as many of you have said over the years, it's hard to imagine this show without Sheldon. How much of that is true?

I don't want to confirm. I think different people in the cast felt differently about whether they were ready to end it or to move on, but I think ultimately everyone agreed that 12 years and becoming the longest-running multicam in history was a big accomplishment. And everyone wanted to end on top. To us, the show is that whole group of people and if any part of that was going to go away, we didn't want to keep doing it.

Big Bang has never been a show that plotted out season-long storylines but has always followed the characters week to week. How did the decision to end the show impact what you previously had planned for season 12?

It didn't impact it a lot. It was early enough in the season that we hadn't written that much. I don't want this whole season to feel like one long farewell. Our goal is to make a really strong, really funny season, and then also find a way to end it in a way that seems satisfying. But it's nice to actually have the time to do that. It would have been hard, I think, if we'd found out in February or March that it was the end and with only a few episodes left to go [in terms of the writing process]. This really lets us take our time and plan things out in a way that we don't always do.

What episode were you working on when word came down about the final season?

I think [we found out during] the second week of production. I think we had shot one, but we had probably written six or seven.

So around episode six or seven, will viewers notice any change in tone?

I don't think so. There are things that we had planned to do anyway that we were going to follow through [on]. I don't want the last season to feel melancholy. I think it still needs to be a fun, funny year.

As you look toward a dwindling number of episodes that you have remaining, how are you approaching the end? Do you know what the series finale is? Have you talked about it?

We have always talked about it over the years and everyone has had thoughts, but then it became much more concrete. And maybe about a week after the announcement of the show ending, Chuck [Lorre, the co-creator] came down and was like, "OK, I guess we should start thinking about where we want to land this thing." We had a big, open discussion where people threw out ideas — and we've chatted about it more since then. On Thursday, [exec producer] Steve [Molaro], Chuck and I sat down and we talked about what we thought the last episode should be. We're all really excited about the idea.

Without spoiling anything, what were those finale talks like?

We talked a lot about finales in general. Endings are always hard and I'm sure people have invested so many years in this show, you know, I'm sure there will be people who have very solid ideas of what they want the ending to be and they'll be disappointed if it isn't that. For us, you want to find a way to do something that feels right for these characters and satisfying and surprising and that's not just fan service. We always think if we can find something that feels right to us then hopefully people will like it.

How much does that tie back into the pilot or maybe even last season's finale with Sheldon and Amy's big scientific discovery?

Their discovery is going to play a part in the season. That was always a plan for this season.

Is there a larger theme for the final season at all?

No, we've never really operated like that and that's true now, too.

How much of the story will be closed-ended or is it more of a sense of life goes on for these characters?

I don't want to say! [Laughing.] It is a tricky balance because there are stories we would have told this season whether it was the last season or not, and there were some story arcs that we started, like Raj going to his father to arrange a marriage. Those were already in the works as things we were going to tell this season anyway. So it's a question of how closed-ended we want that finale to be.

Are there stories that you've always wanted to do that you haven't gotten to over the years that you're now saying, "We have to find a way to fit that in"?

Absolutely. It's so funny because we have only shot the first four — so there's 20 episodes left to go — so it both feels like a lot of episodes left and sometimes it feels like not enough. There's a bunch of stories that we're still excited about; stories we've talked about over the years, and now it's our last chance to actually get to tell them.

There's obviously a wish list of guest stars and sometimes that's just people that we want to meet. But ultimately, we want to be careful of not just making it a parade of guest stars, which is an easy trap to fall into on your last lap. We really want to make sure we focus on our characters and give them the proper ending that they deserve.

There are certainly people who would be fun to meet, but more importantly there are people who have been a big part of the show that we really want to make sure we get to revisit before it's over. Bob Newhart we have back in the fifth episode. And Laurie Metcalf [as Sheldon's mother] and Christine Baranski [as Leonard's mom] and people who have been such a part of the show from the beginning.

Speaking of family, there are still a few who have yet to be introduced, like Leonard's siblings and Howard's father. As you navigate that line between the parade of guest stars and staying true to these characters, have you thought about that? How high up are those people on your wish list?

Honestly, not that high. Howard's father is one we've talked about a bunch over the years and if we found the right story to do it in, we would do it. But we're more likely in the last season to go the other way and not just pull in all these people that we haven't seen yet and really try to focus on our core cast.

Big Bang Theory and Friends have a lot in common — both multicamera comedies that started about a group of single friends and ended with nearly all of them married, with an odd man out (i.e. Raj and Joey), with the apartment building as a central setting. As you look at the comparisons between both shows, have you considered a finale in which some people are moving out of the building?

We've talked about lots of different versions of the finale and that’s certainly a thing that's discussed. I mean, Friends did it so well, with the last shot of them putting the keys down in the empty apartment so lovely. So, I think they have done that one.

In terms of plot-specific storylines, now that Sheldon and Amy are married, how will their relationship evolve? He has always been so goal- and task-oriented. As he begins to chart what's next — children, buying a home — how much of that is on the table?

All that is on the table and also him having to deal with now having in-laws for the first time. Kathy Bates and Teller came back in the premiere and Sheldon is going to have to navigate bonding with his in-laws. Sheldon and Amy working together and being married is going to be a thing that plays out throughout the season. It's easy to focus on Sheldon and how he adapts to marriage, but I also think it's interesting how Amy adapts to it because she is also a strong, independent scientist and now she's going to have to wrestle with how she maintains that identity now that she's part of this couple, especially when they're also working together. That's an interesting story you haven’t seen told that much.

Bob Newhart's Professor Proton has always appeared to Sheldon when he needed him the most. What will bring him back?

Sheldon and Amy's first big post-marriage fight happens, and so Sheldon turns to the ghost of Professor Proton for advice.

Looking at Leonard and Penny, what is their final season journey? The premiere sees them worry that they're as dysfunctional as Amy's parents.

They're going to wrestle with what their future holds and whether they want to have kids is actually a big part of an upcoming episode, which is a story we skirted around for the last few years. But they've been married a long time and they need to address this head on. That's something they're going to be dealing with this season.

What are you hoping to explore with Raj now that he wants his father to arrange an marriage for him?

Raj is the big romantic of the group and the one who is the most desperate for love — and the one who has had the least success at it. It's an interesting thing that the most romantic one is turning to the least romantic way to find a partner.

Any chance Kate Miccuci's Lucy — Raj's season-six love interest — will return?

It's possible, although we haven't written her back into an episode yet. If we found the right story to bring Kate back in, we would definitely do that.

Have you decided if Raj's arranged wedding will be successful?

I can't say that for sure.

Will there be a wedding this season?

It's a possibility.

Looking at Howard and Bernadette, they are very settled — two kids, a house and both have successful careers. What is their final season journey?

We are writing an episode now where they've got all this stuff, everything is going great for them but also that can be overwhelming — especially for Bernadette. She's got this job she's successful at and she has two kids at home and how do you balance all of those things and still maintain any sort of sense of individuality? It's a fun, interesting trick I think.

What other guest stars are on your bucket list? Given the guys' love of Star Trek, many have wondered over the years why William Shatner hasn't made it on the show yet.

We have talked about him in the past; we've even come close to having him on in the past and it hasn't worked out. As a big Star Wars fan, I would love to meet George Lucas. I don't know if there's a right way to get him on the show. We have Jerry O'Connell coming back as Sheldon's brother, George, we have Keith Carradine coming back as Penny's dad.

Any storylines that you'd like to squeeze in before the end that you've talked about? 

We've talked about having Sheldon discover a videotape he made as a kid as a fun way to use Iain Armitage as young Sheldon in a flashback. We have talked about Amy and Sheldon going to a flag convention and being superstars there.

What about Penny's last name? Is that something you've talked about revealing after all these years?

I don't know for sure. There is always a chance we would, but at this point it's a superstition for us. It started off as an accident where we just didn't mention it, and then realized that we hadn't mentioned it and it has been years now. Then it became a weird piece of superstition. My guess is we won't reveal it.  Her last name is Hofstadter now.

Modern Family is plotting a big death this season. Is that something you've talked about?

Whether we're going to kill off a character? No. We haven't gotten to the ending yet. We've dealt with the death of Wolowitz's mother. So, sure, those things are possibilities, but when we get down to the finale — and nothing is set in stone since we haven't written it yet — but the DNA of the show is a happy, positive, loving show and I don't think it would feel right to leave this show on a downer note.

Over the years, many viewers suspected that Amy and Sheldon's wedding would serve as the series finale. What do you think about now when you consider the final frame of the show?

If you had asked us two or three years ago, we would have said that. But then the show kept going and we had to keep telling these stories and didn't want to hold too many things off. We sit in the [writers'] room and talk about it and now that we're talking about it and it's real, it gets emotional. It's hard to say goodbye to these characters for us because we have lived with them for so long and we have poured so many of our personal life stories into these characters that people start getting choked up in the room when we start talking about that last scene, that last image and how we want to say goodbye to them.

There has to be some sort of callback to the pilot scene where Leonard and Sheldon have their pants taken by a bully after trying to get Penny's TV back for her, right?

[Laughing] Right! We were all so much younger then.

What do you hope to see during the final season of The Big Bang Theory? Share your thoughts in the comments, below. The 12th and final season premieres Monday on CBS.