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When good shows go bad: Big Bang Theory's decline

Oh woe is me. And, possibly, some of you.

For the longest time, Big Bang Theory (weeknights CTV, 7:30 p.m.; new episodes Thursday, CBS, CTV, 8 p.m.) has been a soothing comic balm, the show to tape and watch for a bit of wit before going to bed. Reliably enjoyable, smart and, although formulaic, filled with blistering wit. Then along came a passel of female characters.

It ain't the same. Now it appears that all the nerdy male characters have girlfriends and there are abundant jokes about dating, sex and jealousy. Stupid stuff. Heavens to Betsy, there are even feelings being tossed around. It's like watching Friends!

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The sitcom is the biggest show in Canada, according to CTV, averaging an astonishing 4.01-million viewers each week. That's nice, especially if viewers are enjoying the old episodes that run on weeknights.

Big Bang Theory started small. Two science geeks as roommates and working at the California Institute of Technology – Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons). The third key character was the gal across the hall, Penny, (Kaley Cuoco), a waitress and aspiring actress. Also around were Leonard and Sheldon's pals, the equally nerdy Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), who also work at Caltech. The comedy was rooted in the guys' relations with each other and with Penny. Science jokes and their fear of Penny's blond sexiness and adorability. Her affectionate mocking of them.

Thing went fine, even when Leonard and Penny became a couple. The genuine affection between them was in part explained when Galecki and Cuoco admitted they'd had an off-screen relationship for some time.

Into this mostly male world would occasionally come Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert), a scarily brilliant and sarcastic scientist interested only in the occasional one-night stand. The humour mainly hinged on the guys' nervousness around women, even that of Howard, who effortlessly turned into a wannabe-sleazebag at the slightest opportunity. And at the centre of the dynamic was always the sterling work of Parsons as Sheldon, whose biting disregard for others and ignorance of ordinary human life is the stuff of comic genius.

On last week's episode there was a seismic shift on the show. Sheldon grudgingly admitted to jealousy when Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) went on a date with the geek who runs the comic-book store. Oh no! This follows on Leonard's hooking up with Raj's sister and Howard getting engaged to Bernadette (Melissa Rauch). There were entire scenes that featured only the female characters. And the only funny character in that bunch was Penny.

The show's gone awry. Sheldon Cooper can't possibly have real feelings. Already, comedy about sex and dating, and a plethora of penis jokes, have lowered the quality and tone of Big Bang Theory.

The evolution of Big Bang has not gone unnoticed. The Hollywood Reporter recently talked to several cast members about the show's "female infusion." All lady cast members claimed that the elevation of Amy and Bernadette as characters equal in stature to Penny allowed the show to explore new areas. Rauch said, "At this point, it has evolved into exploring the female relationships as well as it just being a way to explore more story lines for the guys."

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Bialik (herself a real scientist with a PhD who famously appeared on What Not to Wear to solve her nerdy-dressing problems) said of the Sheldon character, "We have to be careful with this character and we can't make him fall prey to the things that normal mortals fall prey to. Howard can but Sheldon can't, we need to be very careful with the nerd hero. Leonard is trying to fit in and wants the pretty girl next door. Sheldon doesn't, so it's this dance we have to do."

Too true about Sheldon. And enough with the dating and Friends-like shenanigans. I have a sinking feeling that this season will end with a wedding, as sitcoms often do, and the future will bring equal amounts of attention to the female trio of Penny, Bernadette and Amy. Equal to the guys, that is.

Dear heavens, no. Here's an idea: Let this season end with all four guys alone again, without girlfriends and only Penny across the hall as a foil for their super-weird super-smarts. That and the voice of Howard's mom is enough female infusion.

ALSO AIRING TONIGHT

Secret Pakistan (CBC NN, 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye) is a controversial BBC documentary that asks whether "Pakistan's intelligence agency has been double-crossing the West since 9/11?" The answer is "yes," says the program, and it offers evidence that Pakistan's government intelligence agency, the ISI, has trained, funded and armed the Taliban in Afghanistan for years. Taliban commanders appear, saying that attacks against NATO soldiers have been facilitated by Pakistani border guards and the ISI. And some members of the Pakistani intelligence service explain why they are obliged to "befriend" the Taliban. When the program aired recently on the BBC, the government of Pakistan expressed its fury and clamed that many of those interviewed cannot be trusted.

Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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