There are few tears being shed regarding the end of The Big Bang Theory among the pop-culture cognoscenti. While the show has dominated the ratings for years, no self-respecting actual nerd admits to enjoying it. Which is why it’s interesting to note that the nerdy aspects of the show have not been its most compelling, nor its most important, for many seasons.
Perhaps unnoticed by viewers who ditched the show after it hit its initial, heavy-handed stride, the series underwent a major tonal shift in Season 3 when it added two additional women to the cast, Mayim Bialik’s Amy and Melissa Rauch’s Bernadette. While their initial additions were merely as love interests for Sheldon and Howard, their presence enabled almost every main character to find new depth and dimension, and it allowed the show to rise above its reputation as a shallow, one-note repository for physics puns and bad Shatner impressions. (To be fair, there was still plenty of that.)
Once little more than the Smurfette of a male-dominated ensemble, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), in particular, became a richer and more interesting character once there were other women in her orbit. Throughout the first three seasons, the men in the cast regarded her as some sort of alien interloper when they weren’t outright objectifying her, and there was a ceiling to how interesting a character she could become under those limitations. Once Amy and Bernadette became regular fixtures, she was able to drive storylines that were defined by neither her sexual tension with Leonard (Simon Helberg) nor the outright fear she inspired in Raj (Kunal Nayyar), and, to a lesser extent, Howard.
But even as Penny found girlfriends in Amy and Bernadette, the show was careful not to immediately lump them together as instant besties. That bond grew organically over the course of eight seasons. The best and most interesting moments of the show came as these three strikingly different personalities found common ground, clashed, and shifted alliances. In one episode, Penny realized she spent her adolescence bullying girls exactly like her new girl gang, while in another, Amy felt excluded when Bernadette and Penny shopped for Bernadette’s wedding dress without her.
When she first appeared on the show in the Season 3 finale as Sheldon’s blind date, Amy Farrah Fowler brought to life a new character archetype: the girl nerd. Amy was awkward and passionate in entirely different ways from the quartet of male nerds. Her love for playing the harp and writing Little House on the Prairie fan-fiction posed a striking contrast to the Dungeons and Dragons games and Star Trek marathons that formed so many of the men’s punchlines, and in many ways, it made her just as alien to them as Penny.
But the deadpan, orthopedic-shoe-sporting neurobiologist whose coffee-shop order was “tepid water” and who claimed to be online dating as a favor to her mother has undergone drastic changes since her first appearance. Early on, it became clear that Amy’s asocial facade was just that: a facade. Her desire for deeper connections was buried deep as a response to the bullying and exclusion she faced throughout her life. On some level, Amy always wanted a boyfriend, but more importantly, she always wanted to be maid of honor in someone’s wedding, and the process of having these feelings resurrected, validated, and fulfilled was as compelling an arc as anything that happened to a male principal on this show.
It’s true that Amy also brought a softer, more empathetic side out of Sheldon, but their partnership is arguably the least interesting on the show. Amy’s repeated attempts to navigate female friendships, ranging from the cringeworthy to the hilariously over-the-top, formed the heart of her growth arc — and, to a lesser extent, Penny’s as well.
Neither as effortlessly cool as Penny nor as frumpy and awkward as Amy, Bernadette frequently bridged the gap between the two, but she was also very much her own character — a woman in STEM who was stylish and sociable, but with a hair-trigger temper that belied her short stature and squeaky voice. Her overbearing personality veritably shoved Penny into a sales career.
Howard Wolowitz began the series as its most problematic character: a charmless sleazeball whose only close relationship with a woman was with his mother. Once he and Bernadette became a couple, his attitude toward women on the whole had to change, and as a result, his character became more grounded and mature. From Bernadette, Howard learned to see women as people and to adjust his own life to make room for the needs of others, and when she landed a job in Big Pharma and outearned him, he learned humility.
Bernadette and Howard’s union also allowed the show to do a surprisingly adept job of navigating complex and rarely-explored aspects of new parenthood, including the challenges of becoming the first people in their social group to have children and the loss of identity that comes with becoming a parent. Bernadette’s drastic life changes also spurred Penny to conclude she didn’t want children — a decision that the show, to its credit, neither walked back nor chose to pass judgment on.
In the end, The Big Bang Theory never stopped being a show about nerds, but by adding two key women to its cast, it exponentially increased the complexity of the relationships at its heart. At any rate, it’s hard to argue that the show would have endured the way it has if it had remained a tale of four awkward single guys and the hot girl next door. The Big Bang Theory is no longer the show many think it is, and as it closes up shop, the reasons for that evolution should take a big bow.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.