Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In Praise of Jim Parsons

I resisted The Big Bang Theory for a while. I'm not a fan of the traditional sitcom format in most cases, and frankly, a show about geeky/smart/nerdy/scientists struck me as a recipe for God-awful, easy-target humor. Y'know what I'm talking about, the folks that made up about 50% of the features in those Trekkies documentaries. The other half was great, with real people who just like the show and concept, but then you couldn't pass up the "Space Station Dental" or the kid in the Christopher Pike wheelchair replica. I'm not at all saying there's no humor to be found in geekdom, but must we always go right for the most obvious targets?

Example; when I'd visit conventions in Denver while I was in High School, the local news would always send a crew. That crew would always hang around for a while, but then find that one guy in the letter-perfect Captain Kirk uniform, with all the gear, who seemed to really believe he was Kirk. They'd get him to do all the famous lines, stand around in a "Kirk pose," which would only highlight the gut pushing against the uniform tunic. I'd always watch the report, and just be kind of mortified.

To be clear...THAT GUY EXISTS. You can't deny it, and we shouldn't hide from it. He's part an parcel of the geek sub-culture that's erupted in America. However, to the world at large, that guy represents ALL OF US, and whenever the mainstream media needs to create a geek character, that's what they aim for. No need to really worry about actual human qualities, or an inner life, when you can hit that HUGE target and get easy laughs.

So, when a new show about geeks, created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady (who gave us the "I want to kill myself this is so awful" Two and a Half Men), I just girded myself for the snide, easy jokes (apparent in Two and a Half Men), and vowed to avoid it when I could. Time passed, and eventually I found myself watching an episode in passing.

Watching, and finding myself completely taken with the show.

The cast and writers have managed to walk a fine line between finding the honest humor in geek obsessions, while still taking great care to make the characters genuine and universal, so that anyone can relate to them. Our lead character Leonard (Johnny Galecki), is never portrayed as less than a genius, but where other shows would just use that as an excuse to make his a bumbling social misfit, here he's given a true "everyman" status. On top of that, the "hot girl" from across the hall, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), who could have been an excuse for dusting off Three's Company dumb-blonde jokes, is only "dumb" in that she lacks the vast intellect of the other characters. Generally, it's just a tight ensemble, with Simon Helberg (Howard) and Kunal Nayyar (Rajesh) providing solid support. There's a palpable sense of teamwork, and allowing the characters to breathe and react naturally to each other. Everyone gets the space to play within their characters.

As with every good cast, there is one "power player," the actor about whom the others rotate, and who really keeps the concept, in all facets, sharply in focus. In The Big Bang Theory, the power player is Jim Parsons as Sheldon.

As an actor, I can really only marvel at what Parsons pulls off week after week. It's almost a textbook example of great television comedy acting. He makes precise, connected choices, that fit his character (arguably the broadest on the show), but never allows them to boil over into a parody. Sheldon feels like an extreme individual, but he also, always, feels real.

On the page, I can see that this character could've been an open invitation for overacting and attempting to upstage the rest of the cast. It's that kind of playing for the cheap seats acting that would've turned the show into what I originally feared it would be. However, Parsons' restraint and commitment to craft have allowed him, and the writers, to mold a character that I feel will live a long time as a classic of TV comedy.

I really feel the same about the entire cast, it's the sense of ensemble and the humanity of the characters that makes the show great. It's just so clear how easily Sheldon could've become a grating and utterly false sub-cartoon character, and I'm thankful that's not the case.


  1. The Big Bang Theory is hardly fresh or original. The setups for the hilarity were old back when The Dick Van Dyke show first used them. Seriously; Moog and Oog, the Neanderthals who invented Komedy with their famous "Big Rock Drops On Moog And Ruins Date" fireside bit, would recognize every premise this show sets out.
    What is special here, is the characters. We have slightly older "smart kids", edging into adult behavior but still very much affected by the geeky shit that such get into. AND IT'S THE RIGHT GEEKY SHIT.
    It's not random references to Star Wars or Star Trek, it's intelligent reference used to indicate the heightened importance of a concept or idea.
    The concept of moral relativism- of gradations of right and wrong- is illustrated with references to a current Batman comic story line, a tomato and a suspension bridge. For anyone who has ever spent time with a bunch of wise ass geeks at a Denny's, or stayed up late playing some sort of ridiculous role playing game... that rings exactly right.
    This is a show that puts that kind of humor- and that kind of character- firmly in the sitcom main stream. Sort of like the gay character in "Soap"- not so much ground breaking as "Damn. About time."

  2. Yes, Mark! I would agree that this is a good sitcom. It even has something that those of us from Nebraska can relate to. The blond chick from Nebraska that's also a Huskers fan. I have also attended a Sci-fi convention(it wasn't technically all Trek oriented) and yes there is the "over-the-top" fan. I was in Des Moines to witness two guys from Minneapolis stride in for the costume contest as Klingons. When the emcee asked for their names, they replied "do you mean our KLINGON names?"

  3. Damn, I like Two and Half Men.... ;)