Love it or hate it, CBS certainly knows exactly how to prepare, package, and sell its comedy. As it stands, the ratings juggernaut that is 'The Big Bang Theory' continues its television dominance, laughing while beleaguered NBC placed the equally beleaguered 'Community' up against the "geek" sitcom after a lengthy hiatus – even though its continued existence is met with equal amounts of eye-rolling from elitist television watchers and squeals of delight from the millions of viewers the program attracts each week.
Careening into season 5, 'The Big Bang Theory' is met not only with the challenge of keeping the series fresh after hitting the 100-episode mark, but also adding in what would normally be called character development. Since the series brought in Melissa Rauch as Bernadette Rostenkowski and Mayim Bialik as Amy Farah Fowler, the series has actually begun to prove itself quite adept at writing women (sitcom women) and placing them in much the same position as the show itself: pointing out and making fun of the eccentricities and banalities of nerds. Mainly, Bernadette and Amy serve as a way of keeping Penny (Kaley Cuoco) occupied since she no longer serves simply as the hot girl who lives across the hall from two rather socially inept scientist dudes with a love for Star Wars/Trek, comic books (DC, mind you), and video games.
While writing a healthy number of storylines in the name of gender equality is all well and good, 'The Big Bang Theory' is still met with the frequent television conundrum of questioning whether or not the audience will still tune in if the characters or their circumstances are changed. This is also known as the 'Moonlighting' Paradox and the Teri Hatcher/Keri Russell Enigma. Wisely, Lorre and the other writers/producers manage to sway the majority of change away from the series' main draw, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), and place it squarely on the lustful Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and likeable lead, Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) – though, to be fair, Leonard's arc this season is really the 2.0 version of one the audience has already seen. A fact that the writer's sensibly bring to attention by shoving Leonard and Penny into what they call a "beta test" of their rekindled romance.
In keeping with the show's comedic themes – which are mirrored with scientific exactitude by Lorre's other ratings behemoth 'Two and a Half Men' – 'The Big Bang Theory' justifies its search for character growth and relevance by choosing that other lowest common denominator: love. It makes sense, Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and their might-be-gay-Indian-friend Raj (Kunal Nayyar) are intrinsically linked to what they do – as character models, their profession defines every last bit of their one-dimensional personalities. It simply wouldn't do to have Sheldon suddenly faced with the prospect of working a cash register at the 7-Eleven down the street, or to see Leonard trading in high-powered lasers for a flour sifter at the Albertson's bakery. So, after about 10 or so episodes of dawdling, season 5 gets down to business and begins pairing its characters off – and in maintaining the show's affinity for off-handed remarks that teeter on the brink of racism, they keep Raj in the romantic minority for laughs.
Therein lies the trouble many people seem to have with 'The Big Bang Theory' and, to a certain degree, 'Two and a Half Men'. Of course, comedy is subjective, and on occasion – though more precisely in the latter half of season 5 – 'The Big Bang Theory' manages to produce some charming laughs, there is a noticeable difference in the circumstances in which the comedy arises that feels intrinsically different from sitcoms like 'Seinfeld,' 'Friends,' 'Cheers,' or even programs Lorre was a part of like 'Will & Grace' and the often-times wonderful situational comedy of 'Roseanne.' The jokes are, for lack of a better term, layered upon one another like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. There appears to be no rhyme or reason in the characters' responses to one another, or what constitutes the set up for a punch line, as long as the punch line refers to someone's genitals, sex-life (lack or abundance thereof), or social proclivity that sets one nerd apart from the other. That's not to say other sitcoms aren't or weren't guilty of having the majority of their jokes land on the exact same spot, they just appeared to make the characters work harder to reach the punch line.
Perhaps with the rise of the single-camera comedy that (sometimes, not always) chooses a more cerebral approach to getting its laughs, and does so without the aid of a studio audience or canned laughter, the shift in the classic sitcom paradigm has become less focus on the story, and more focus on the event at hand – or pulling the funny from a multitude of events while mostly eschewing the telling of a story. On the other hand, as frequently as it pulls jokes seemingly out of nowhere, 'The Big Bang Theory' isn't afraid to squeeze a single concept for all its worth, as season 5 manages the ultra-rare hat-trick of mentioning one or more characters' gynecological visits three episodes in a row. Now, that's likely due to the fact that the series is intended to be watched episodically – not in big, migraine inducing chunks – but it also speaks volumes as to the level of comedy the series strives to achieve.
If 'Two and a Half Men' can survive the loss of warlock Charlie Sheen, then it stands to reason 'The Big Bang Theory' will be around for many, many more seasons to come. Its persistent existence will almost certainly continue to confound those who sign online petitions to help save 'Community' or demand Dan Harmon runs every single-camera comedy in existence, but as the ratings illustrate, a dumb show about smart people will trump a smart show any day of the week.
Gauging the picture quality of a sitcom is a little like taste testing Styrofoam – it's not exactly intended to appeal to that particular sense. Still, 'The Big Bang Theory' season 5 does come with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec that nicely accentuates the various brightly lit and decorated sets Sheldon and his pals call home and work. The picture is clean, but possibly due to the nature of how it is filmed, mostly free of fine detail on both the characters and their surroundings. Though, as mentioned above, there's evidence to suggest this may not really matter. Studio-shot sitcoms are mostly devoid of anything beyond fundamental cinematography, so an impressive high definition presentation likely wasn't the series' top priority. Moreover, as all 24 episodes are presented on two Blu-ray discs, some of the finer details that may have existed could easily be lost in compression.
On the plus side, though, 'The Big Bang Theory' does manage to avoid that over-clocked look of a Spanish soap opera and, despite its somewhat video-y appearance, is presented in an overall appealing manner that is free of noise or artifacts of any kind. The picture surprisingly manages to convey some depth, but does occasionally look flat when the set is not bombarded with a multitude of colors – primarily from the character's comic book inspired clothing.
Similarly, flesh tones are rendered nicely and the actors never seem to move too far into the red zone, or appear to have too much foundation caked on to avoid reflecting the studio's many lights. While it definitely is a 1080p presentation, the look of 'The Big Bang Theory' never suggests something with the depth of a true HD transfer – which, actually, is just fine in this case.
Though its been given a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, there's little audio beyond the character's rapid-fire dialogue and the studio audiences' coaxed laughter that would tell the listener that. Like the discs' image, it's simply a case of the product therein that in spite of it being given an HD presentation, the sitcom, as a rule, is not prone to utilizing such visual and aural upgrades.
Since the series rarely uses the rear speakers for anything other than the live audience's laughter, there's little to say about how well the show's actual audio is presented. On the plus side, the actor's dialogue is always crisp and distinct – even when being overwhelmed by the various giggles, chortles and guffaws of the eternally impressed studio audience. Since the disc nails the one requirement of a sitcom filmed before live viewers, that's reason to give it a little praise.
On a side note, if you're a fan of the Barenaked Ladies, then you'll likely find the audio track's presentation of their song at the opening of every episode something worth bobbing your head to.
The success of 'The Big Bang Theory' has certainly proven there's still a market for multi-camera sitcoms in this day and age of 'The Office,' 'Community,' and 'Modern Family.' The only thing that's left to do is to do one well. Hopefully, the irony of a show about geniuses being one of television's most dimwitted offerings is not entirely lost on the audience, but with the ratings that this series gets, it's hard to imagine anyone caring. Season 5 of 'The Big Bang Theory' is at once the same old program and a tentative leap into a more interesting dynamic. If the writers can continue to make the relationship between Amy and Penny as interesting, if not more so, than Sheldon and Penny, then there's the chance this series will have plenty of fuel left in the tank for several more laps around the track. As far as Blu-rays go, 'The Big Bang Theory' is a lot like the show itself: it isn't going to really wow anyone, but for those who watch, it's just fine.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.