I will provide some discussion of story/character development, character dynamics, the contribution of the plot format of episodes, what generates comedy, and summarise some specific episodes in terms of story.
Each season, a distinctive phase in the relationships of the characters is developed:
Leonard seeks a relationship with a woman (and slowly builds confidence in who he is).
Sheldon struggles to tolerate people he considers to be his intellectual inferiors (and slowly learns about getting along with others).
Penny develops a less superficial attitude and comes to consider a serious relationship with Leonard.
Leonard and Sheldon’s friends, Howard and Raj, each add their own personality but have little ongoing character development.
Screenwriting theorist John Truby has suggested that TV shows work well with a main character who has four major sources of ongoing conflict, each embodied in another character. While this is one particular way of thinking about the characters and conflict of The Big Bang Theory, it can fit well. I will treat Leonard as the main character, since he is the character that has the most significant character development over the course of the series.
Many no doubt consider another character like Sheldon or Howard to be their favourite, or the most funny or entertaining. It could be strongly argued that the main purpose of a comedy show is to be funny and that, if there is a main character, it is the funniest one. However, my emphasis here is on story/character development that coheres an ongoing series with a continuing narrative.
Understood in these terms, the major characters can be treated as:
Main Support Characters
Minor Support Characters
The show has a range of characters who appear in some episodes but not others. These include work colleagues, friends, family, and love interests of the major characters (such as Leslie Winkle, Dr Gablehauser, Sheldon’s mum, Penny’s ex-boyfriend, Howard’s mum, Raj’s parents via videocall on his laptop).
Episode Plot Format
The main characters and tone of the show are introduced in the opening scene of each episode, and hint at the story to follow.
Each episode has a self-contained story; that is, each episode makes sense on its own, even if a person hasn’t seen the episodes before or after it.
Each episode contributes to long term story/character development.
The plot form varies mildly from one episode to the next.
(Comparison: Inspector Gadget and CSI each have a consistent format for the plot of each episode with little variation of plot form, while Coupling and How I Met Your Mother each have wide variation in plot form among episodes.)
The final episode of each season has a cliffhanger ending involving unanswered questions about the future of Leonard and Penny’s relationship.
Comedy is developed using:
Each character has traits that can be contrasted with the traits of one or more characters; others and themselves. Take the following as a short example:
In Episode 6, Leonard, dressed as a Hobbit, is in a verbal confrontation with Penny’s towering ex-boyfriend, dressed as a caveman. Sheldon, dressed as the Doppler effect, says:
“Let me remind you: while my moral support is absolute, in a physical confrontation I will be less than useless.”
Leonard’s small physical stature is contrasted with Penny’s ex’s tall, muscular stature.
The symbolism of Frodo as a small character who stands up against big obstacles is also contrasted to a typical stereotype of a caveman as intellectually inferior.
Leonard’s compromise between nerd and popular appeal with his Hobbit costume is contrasted with Sheldon’s uncompromising attitude of dressing as the Doppler effect whether people at the party understand it or not.
Sheldon’s mighty intellectual ability is contrasted with his feeble physical ability.
Incongruence can also refer to contrast with the expectations of audience members, rather than things being directly contrasted with one another within the show.
Odd-coupling can be considered an aspect of incongruence, but it specifically refers to very different characters being brought together, providing the fuel for ongoing conflict over their differences.
(Comparison: The Odd Couple in which a neat guy and a messy guy share an apartment, Ned and Stacey in which a man and woman with little in common share an apartment while in a sham marriage.)
Compound Story Predicaments
(Comparison: Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm both feature plots in which a predicament leads to more and more complications, gathering layers of conflict in a ‘snowball effect’.)
An extreme example is Episode 10 in which Leonard and Sheldon hide in the lobby of their building when they hear Penny’s appalling singing coming from upstairs. Penny comes down and invites them to her singing recital, while they pretend to be throwing away the chicken they have just bought. Leonard lies to Penny about having a conference to go to when her recital is on. Later, Sheldon is uncomfortable with how easily he thinks Leonard’s lie might be uncovered… so he comes up with an elaborate lie that Leonard made up the conference to cover for Sheldon who needed Leonard as emotional support for a drug intervention for his troubled cousin. This snowballs to an outrageous situation in which an actor hired by Sheldon, with maverick ideas about how to play his role, is living with them indefinitely as Sheldon’s troubled cousin, and playing on Penny’s sympathy.
Episode 3 has mildly compounded story predicaments at all points throughout the story:
Leonard goes over to Penny’s apartment with mail he has taken as an excuse to talk to her.
Discovering Penny kissing another guy, Leonard is disillusioned and takes up Sheldon’s suggestion that he should ask out his work colleague, Leslie Winkle.
After trying an experimental kiss, Leslie gives a technical evaluating concluding that she has no romantic feelings for Leonard.
Leonard’s disappointment over Leslie’s lack of feelings for him encourages him to ask Penny to dinner. She mistakes Leonard’s invitation for a friendly invite to eat with his group of friends. Rather than clarify the misunderstanding Leonard tries to manipulate ‘dinner with friends’ into a dinner date.
Extremely nervous, Leonard suffers first through Sheldon’s sarcastic indifference to his problem then Sheldon’s farcical attempts to console him through a panic attack, before stumbling through his dinner ‘date.’
On arriving home, when Penny asks if their dinner was meant to be a date, Leonard gives a really awkward response, before blaming that response on a concussion sustained during the dinner.
(Comparison: Roger in American Dad is often involved in comedy based on pretending to be someone else due to his need to hide his identity from others; the main character in Psych fraudulently pretends to be a psychic and builds a career out of solving crimes ‘with his psychic abilities’)
Episode 10 (discussed above) is a prime example of pretense:
Penny walks in and meets what she thinks is Sheldon’s troubled cousin who refused to go to drug rehab. Penny greets him: “Hi Leo. How are you feeling?”
In a dramatic movement, he slow raises his head until his eyes meet hers.
“Let me ask you something Penny. Have you ever woken up in a fleabag motel covered in your own vomit next to a transsexual prostitute?”
“Then don’t you ask me how I’m feeling!”
Then he ‘hides his face in shame’.
This establishes a difficult scenario for Leonard and Sheldon who have to go along with it to avoid Penny discovering the deception.
The first episode is summed up concisely on www.tv.com: “Brilliant physicist roommates Leonard and Sheldon meet their new neighbor Penny, who begins showing them that as much as they know about science, they know little about actual living”. www.tv.com/the-big-bang-theory/pilot/episode/939386/summary.html?tag=ep_guide;summary
Below I have provided a longer summary of the story for episodes 1-2, and shorter summaries for episodes 3-5, as well as the season finale, episode 17, to give an indication of howfar the story has progressed by the end of the season. Each episode is split into 2 acts (separated by a commercial break, when screened on TV).
1) Leonard and Sheldon abort an attempt to sell their semen to a genius sperm bank.
They discover that their new neighbor, Penny, has moved in across the hall and Leonard decides they need to “widen their circle” but Sheldon doesn’t understand why this would be desirable.
Leonard awkwardly invites Penny to have dinner with himself and Sheldon.
Penny comes over.
Sheldon is abrasively honest about revealing Leonard’s attempts to compensate for his embarrassment about his life, and his contempt for Penny’s beliefs.
Penny’s entry level customer service job, superstition and relationship troubles contrast with Leonard and Sheldon’s lives.
Leonard allows Penny to use their shower because hers is not working yet.
Howard and Raj drop by.
Howard is feebly over-confident with women.
Raj is feebly under-confident with women.
Penny asks Leonard for a favour, which he (too) readily agrees to.
2) Leonard and Sheldon head to Penny’s ex-boyfriend’s to collect a TV.
Penny learns that Raj “can’t talk to attractive women.”
Leonard and Sheldon approach Penny’s ex to get the TV, after being shown how to get in the building by girl scouts. They get pantsed and head home empty handed.
Penny gets hit on by Howard, and rejects his advances.
When Leonard and Sheldon walk in the door, Penny offers to buy them dinner to make up for the pantsing.
Sheldon confirms that Leonard is “not done with” Penny.
They all head out for dinner together.
1) Leonard agrees to sign for a package for Penny, in an attempt to please her.
Howard is overly forward with Penny.
Raj is overly backward with Penny.
Sheldon is overly pedantic with all of them.
When the package arrives, it is a large, heavy TV cabinet which Leonard and Sheldon struggle to move up the stairs of their building.
When they get it upstairs, Sheldon is concerned by how untidy Penny’s apartment is.
That night, Sheldon sneaks into Penny’s apartment and cleans it, reluctantly aided by Leonard.
2) Penny feels violated by their intrusion in her apartment and rebukes them.
Leonard makes Sheldon apologise to Penny.
Penny speaks to Raj about the problem, and she mistakes his inability to speak to her for good listening.
Raj tells the others of ‘his talk’ with Penny.
Leonard apologises to penny.
Penny accepts Leonard’s apology.
They all discuss putting together Penny’s TV cabinet, but the guys’ efforts get sidetracked into a plan for a revamped cabinet with a heat sink and airplane grade metal sheeting, while Penny simply puts the cabinet together according to the instructions (things are back to ‘normal’).
1) Discovering that Penny is seeing someone, Leonard asks out Leslie Winkle but when they experiment with a kiss, she has no feelings for Leonard.
2) Leonard asks Penny to dinner, but when she mistakes his invitation for a casual meal with friends he tries to secretly manipulate the situation into a date.
1) When Sheldon gets fired for offending his new boss, he explores what life outside the university has to offer, to the dismay of Leonard who has to put up with a string of Sheldon’s eccentric projects.
2) On Leonard’s request, Sheldon’s mum visits to get Sheldon back on track.
1) Worried that he and Penny will never get together, Leonard ends up getting together with Leslie Winkle.
2) Leonard, after sleeping with Leslie, expects their relationship to continue but she treats it as merely satisfying a fleeting biological need.
On the other hand, Leonard has inadvertently sparked a little interest from Penny when she had mixed feelings over him going out with Leslie.
Episode 17 (season 1 finale)
1) Penny is outraged that her boyfriend Mike has posted details of her sex life on a blog, and Leonard accidentally convinces her to make up with Mike.
2) When Penny’s attempt to make up with Mike goes wrong, Leonard consoles her, and asks her out. She accepts. They both seek Sheldon’s advice on whether they’ve made a good decision to go out.
Go back to the top of this page