The Big Bang Theory shot to popularity when “nerd culture” went mainstream

Television ratings aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days of not only everyone watching one show at the same time, but everyone even knowing about the same shows is long gone. There’s so much TV out there that it’s impossible to keep up. The idea that somewhere around 80 or 90 million people tuned in to watch the series finale of Cheers seems absolutely ludicrous, a figure that’s difficult to comprehend in this day and age.

“Ratings juggernaut,” in 2019, is a relative term, especially when it can be hard to determine ratings when you take piracy into account, and the fact that Netflix doesn’t release its viewer numbers. Game Of Thrones was considered a ratings juggernaut when it was averaging around 5 million viewers per episode; initial broadcastsof its final season, airing concurrently with The Big Bang Theory, are being watched by upwards of 12 million viewers. The same was said of the early seasons of The Walking Dead, which drew an impressive 12 million or so per episode. And yet these shows, these prestige dramas and others like them that seemingly define our cultural conversation, can’t come close to competing with CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, which is about to air its series finale after 12 seasons on the air. The show has consistently drawn 18 to 20 million viewers since its sixth season, a number practically unheard of in the last 10 years. How can we account for this popularity? What made a sitcom about a bunch of nerds so immensely popular?

The fact is, there isn’t all that much unique about The Big Bang Theory. It’s a tame sitcom that’s easy to watch for a lot of people. It’s no Black-ish or Fresh Off The Boat, but when considering a show like Modern Family and its rapid descent into complacency, there’s something to be said for The Big Bang Theory managing to not only harness the mainstreaming of nerd culture to become a dominant force in the ratings, but to also find ways to transcend that by rooting its more important character arcs in actual emotional growth. Whether it was Sheldon gradually learning to be a more open, empathetic person or Leonard learning how to be a good partner in a relationship where he’s constantly insecure, the show, in its later years, evolved.

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