There is a difference between smart writing and writing for smart characters. I tried posing this question to "The Big Bang Theory" co-creator Chuck Lorre at the Television Critics Association press tour back in July. He agreed with the basic premise, but couldn't explain how the writing would be different.
Lorre's uncertainty shows in "Big Bang Theory," a new CBS comedy about geniuses that suffers from some mighty stupid writing.
The show's premise is straight out of a different generation of conventional sitcom writing. Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) are brilliant physicists, titans of the academic world. Shocking irony? They don't know how to deal with women. So guess what? A hot gal named Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in across the hall. She's dumb as a post when it comes to math, sciences, reading, that sort of thing. Shocking irony? She's pretty good at that social thing. Before you can say "Scripted version of 'Beauty and the Geek," their two worlds are colliding with the sort of wacky plot hijinx the small screen hasn't seen since the glory days of "Three's Company," all delivered as if they were fresh.
For heaven's sake, in the pilot episode, Penny's shower is broken, so she has to use the nerds' shower! Naked! In their apartment! What's gonna happen if Mr. Furley finds out?
"Big Bang Theory" need only look to its lead-in, the frustratingly low-rated "How I Met Your Mother," for an example of a show in which the characters may not be geniuses, but the writing is smart. "HIMYM" isn't above using conventional sitcom situations, but it has enough fun with narrative and with language that everything has a fresher shine.
In the long run, there's a chance that "Big Bang Theory" may evolve into something more appealing than its pilot might suggest, though it's doubtful that Penny would understand that evolution. You see, she's not so bright. Big words confuse her. As initially written, the character is so bubbly and clueless it's a wonder she can figure out what direction to turn the doorknob to get out of her apartment in the morning. Then again, it's a wonder the show's main pack of nerds managed to reach their mid-20s without receiving some sort of terminal wedgie in middle school. They aren't just wildly stereotypically nerdy -- they drink juice boxes, stutter around girls and do Stephen Hawking impressions for fun -- they're also impressively contemptuous of people with lower IQs.
Lorre's comedy hits -- including "Two and a Half Men" and "Dharma and Greg" -- have generally been about showcasing how old-fashioned multi-camera shows can still work, provided the lead actors have the chops to deliver the punchlines. At their best, the lead performances in Lorre's shows -- think Charlie Sheen or Jenna Elfman -- have come across as effortless. While the leads of "Big Bang Theory" are all likeable and capable -- Parson's oddly mournful Sheldon is the stand-out -- the scripted characterizations are so thin that Galecki has to play extra-nerdy and Cuoco has to go extra-blonde just to make anything register.
To go off temporarily on a tangent, it's worth noting that "Big Bang Theory" is yet another nearly-all-white addition to CBS' Monday comedy line-up. Despite featuring a group of astro-physics nerds, the only minority is Kunal Nayyar's Koothrappali, a man so inept around women he's rendered entirely speechless. Add this show to the utter white-washing on "HIMYM" and "Two and a Half Men" and "Rules of Engagement" ("Old Christine" is better with the diversity) plus last season's ridiculously homogenous "The Class," and I'm tempted to wonder what the blazes is going on in CBS' comedy development department.