The Big Bang Theory ends on Thursday after 12 ridiculed seasons. But don’t let its divisive nature fool you: More people watched the latest episode of the CBS sitcom live than did last week’s Game of Thrones.
It’s over because its biggest star no longer wanted to do it. That initial announcement was widely celebrated in certain parts of the internet; “our long collective nightmare is finally over,” the Guardian wrote back in August.
Indeed the show never inspired a distinct fandom, even when it could fill up the room at San Diego Comic-Con. The series finale snuck up on me and tributes seemed to have only started to trickle in over the past week.
My immense frustration with The Big Bang Theory can be summed up in a single season 2 episode. Penny—the only female character on the show for several seasons who didn’t even have a surname until she married Leonard Hofstadter in the season 9 premiere—finally told off Howard after he’d spent most of the series to date sexually harassing her. She was then forced to apologize to a depressed Howard for hurting his feelings.
My dad loved the shit out of it, though, and that’s leaving me conflicted about the end.
He started watching The Big Bang Theory right in the middle of its run, roughly around the time that it hit syndication. He wasn’t interested in being a completist (binge-watching wasn’t really his thing; he barely used the DVR), but given how frequently The Big Bang Theory ran on TV, he probably saw every episode that aired up to that point.
He added it to his short list of things he watched on TV, which included stuff like CBS procedurals, Phillies games, and the same few movies he’d seen dozens of times and even owned (but instead with commercials). It drove me up the wall that the person who helped form my taste in pop culture, which included a mix of World War II movies, Star Wars, and almost-inappropriate-for-children sitcoms like M*A*S*H and Seinfeld, liked a show I didn’t.
Sure, his taste in television, particularly later in life, was not adventurous. Thanks to his habits of watching things more often than any reasonable person would, I’ve seen the first two Hobbit films more times than I can count. But his Big Bang Theory kick irked me more than anything because I could never quite shake off the feeling that, even though I knew that it was never actually the case, I was being laughed at by proxy.
Why was he laughing at a show that perpetuated the worst kind of nerd gatekeeping? Whenever someone like Penny (and later Bernadette and Amy) took interest in something geeky that the male characters were into, they had to prove themselves worthy to participate in it. While the characters largely grew beyond that attitude, some of the people who saw themselves in Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj even back in the show’s earlier seasons did not. Even when The Big Bang Theory expanded its cast so that it had more women on the show and had the characters grow up and mature to the point where they were pairing up, got married, and started having kids, it could never get rid of its early reputation. On the other hand, he probably just thought it was funny.
Of course, my dad won’t get to watch the end of The Big Bang Theory. He died in 2015, shortly before the end of season 8, after a nearly two-year bout of colon cancer that felt far removed from the battle euphemisms we always use to describe it. No, at the end it looked more like, to me at least, that he was the last man standing against an entire army of undead creatures. During those last couple of years, The Big Bang Theory was a constant presence, and at that point, you tended to tolerate it more. The show was playing in his hospital room the day he died.
My dad never got to see Leonard and Penny get married, Howard and Bernadette having children, or Sheldon and Amy’s marriage in a ceremony officiated by Mark Hamill. Yet I found myself occasionally keeping tabs on The Big Bang Theory and the other shows he still watched, even if I didn’t quite follow what was going on (Person of Interest) or I had fallen seasons behind (Elementary). Even by hate-reading recaps of a show I did not like and had no interest in watching, there was a final lingering connection I could make without having to delve into my own grief.
The end of The Big Bang Theory arrives in the middle of a year where a lot of big properties are Ending As We Know It. Avengers: Endgame marks the end of the current era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Game of Thrones is supposedly the last traditional watercooler show.
I love and appreciate the finality of on-screen endings. Even if I don’t like what I’m seeing or reading in a piece of fiction, it’s comforting in that there is a light at the end of the storytelling tunnel. They’re rarely satisfying, both in fiction and real life, but at least we get to close the book.
But a story that never ends? That stresses me the fuck out, even to the point where I think about my own mortality. If I know that a story just goes on forever without so much as a benchmark of story arcs wrapping, I might hesitate to even start it. (As much as Star Wars grows beyond us, it will always sting that I’ll never reach the end of the galaxy.) With Game of Thrones also concluding this week, endings have been on my mind and The Big Bang Theory, with all of my complicated feelings about the show, has become a difficult goodbye for me to make.
I can at least respect the giant sitcom for actually giving its characters an end. The people who genuinely loved the show have the time to get closure and say goodbye; they might even like how it ends or find out if that broken elevator ever got fixed. Sure, it might’ve taken Jim Parsons wanting out of the show for it to have happened or the show might’ve stayed on for several years past its prime, but it at least got time to figure out where Sheldon, Leonard, Penny, Howard, Raj, Amy, and Bernadette were headed.
When you have an ever-expanding TV landscape where hundreds of shows struggle to just stay on the air every year, that one final victory lap—even on shows that might go out with a whimper instead of a bang—is a comforting luxury.