The earliest sitcom I remember loving—I mean really loving—was Good Times, a show about a black family who lived in the Chicago projects, the central feature of which was their struggle to navigate life in poverty. It was an imperfect show: There was a strong message of bootstraps, which simultaneously challenged narratives about the Welfare Queens to whom Ronald Reagan had not yet given a name, and indirectly entrenched judgment of anyone who would accept "a hand-out." But it was an important and challenging show, which did not shy away from discussions of racial and feminist justice. And it loved its characters deeply.
The next sitcom I remember really loving was The Golden Girls, for so many reasons, but chief among them that the show loved its characters. There were jokes at the women's expense, but they were delivered by one another (usually Sophia), and thus was it ever unmistakable these were in-jokes of a loving group. We weren't invited to laugh at them, but with them.
There have been other shows I've loved along the way, some very much. But something about these not quite as lovable shows held me (or obliged me to hold myself) at a distance. I deeply dug The Cosby Show as a child, but there was always a thread of one-upping—between Cliff and Claire, between Cliff and the kids—that put me at unease. Someone was always getting the better of someone else, which never sat precisely right with me. I loved Family Ties, but there was always a weird hostility toward Mallory's girlyness that alienated me.
It is a subtle difference, but I have always been most strongly drawn to the shows that invite me to love their characters because of their flaws, rather than in spite of them.
For all the times Parks and Rec has made my teeth grind with its Jerry bullying, I have known, always, that the show loves Jerry, and wants us to love him—and when the other characters are thoughtless or cruel to him, it is they who are wrong. It is their flaw, their envy, their self-involvement—not anything wrong with the inimitably lovable Jerry.
It is so rare that I love, really love, a sitcom that I feel overwhelmed with a bounty of riches that there are two shows currently airing that I adore: Parks and Rec and New Girl, about which I have written before that "the thing I like most is that it loves its characters. It asks me to root for them, and I do!"
All of which is prelude to this: The Big Bang Theory doesn't like its female characters anymore, and so I don't really like The Big Bang Theory anymore.
I didn't like TBBT the first time I watched it, which was just some random episode in the middle of the series. But then I watched it from the beginning, when it went into syndication, and I liked it a lot. It's never been a show I've loved like the aforementioned shows, but it was a show I enjoyed quite a bit, anyway—and I thought it did a pretty swell job of exposing Nice Guyism for the garbage that it is.
Mostly, I liked Penny.
I really liked this female character, despite her tokenism, who was routinely drawn as a complex human being despite the guys' objectification of her. I liked that she was allowed to be funny, and clever, and have sexual agency, and teach the guys by example how to stand up to bullies.
The show, I thought, liked Penny, too.
And I really liked the additional female leads that were added in time. I liked Bernadette—even though she has a terrible case of Bailey Quarters which compels us to pretend that she's not beautiful because she wears glasses and someone else is supposed to be the sexpot on the show—and I loved Amy Farrah Fowler. (I really like Leslie Winkle whenever she shows up, too.) I liked most of the scenes between the girls, and I was glad Penny wasn't isolated in a tower of Exceptional Womanhood anymore.
But then something changed. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but the show lost its respect for Amy Farrah Fowler. Once a formidable complement to Sheldon Cooper, she has been reduced to an unwanted trophy—he gets a girl (that he doesn't even seem to want) and she has to settle for a shitty relationship because, hey, she's a nerd; it's not like she could do (or deserves?) any better.
And, this season, the show seems to have lost every trace of the love it once had for Penny.
Penny isn't allowed to be good at anything anymore. She can't accomplish this, she can't understand that, she's not even smart enough to take science classes at community college. This is the same character who used to (literally) kick ass on earlier seasons, and now her entire oeuvre consists of drinking wine and making sure Leonard still thinks she's sexy.
There was an episode earlier this season, in which Penny was taking a history course, and couldn't even write a decent paper on her own. Leonard was being a complete asshole about it, and, watching the show, Iain and I were bitterly complaining that the show had rendered Penny incapable of writing a 101-level essay. When at last Penny presented Leonard with a B+ paper, we were so happy—only to be immediately crushed by the reveal that Bernadette and Amy had helped her, and only helped her enough to get a B+, because they wanted it to be "realistic."
Every time Penny trudges by in her waitress uniform, I now cringe. Because it's just a reminder about how the show won't let her succeed. At anything.
Which certainly doesn't make for a better show. I would have found an episode about Penny and Leonard trying to navigate their relationship while she's taken away by a movie role (professional success! yay for Penny!) exponentially more interesting than the last episode, where I instead watched Penny put on sexy glasses to give Leonard a boner to assuage her insecurity after another woman flirted with him.
The fact is, TBBT has officially fallen out of love with Penny. And that makes TBBT pretty damn unwatchable for me.
Take note, sitcom writers: I can't love your characters more than you do.