In Defence of Change

It can’t stay like this…

I still love The Big Bang Theory, even after nine seasons. I’m not stupid, I know it isn’t as good, as all-out funny as it was in the earlier seasons, but it still makes me laugh several times a week, and it’s the funniest thing I watch (given that the number of television comedies I watch totals one, that’s not hard to achieve, but among the number of comedies I’ve ever watched, for sheer amount of laughter and the fact that I can watch an episode for the fifth or sixth time and still laugh my head off, I think we can probably place this in the top one percentile).

There are plenty who disagree with me, including – if the website is anything to go by – a considerable portion of the show’s current audience. Their complaints take on a very samey aspect: they blame the girls. They blame Bernadette and Amy for taking the show’s focus away from purely geek humour. They blame the relationships on the show for orienting it more towards Friends and away from science jokes.

Stripping it down to its essential level, they blame Change.

Of course the show has changed. Penny is no longer Leonard’s impossibly out of his class wish-fulfilment blonde, they’ve been an item since mid-season 5 and this season they’ve been married. Howard’s no longer a sex-obsessed weirdo chasing woman who are out of his class – i.e., any woman – he got a pretty girlfriend, she married him and now he’s going to be a father. Raj got over his selective mutism and found that he could talk to women after all – though frequently you wished he didn’t – and now he’s got a steady girlfriend who’s part of the cast when she appears.

Even Sheldon has had a girlfriend since the start of season 4, and he’s not only declared himself to be in love with her but he’s also has sex with her this season past. Only once, it seems, but even so.

Of course The Big Bang Theory has changed. It has a regular cast of seven, it frequently splits its team down into smaller groups, running three plots in a single, 18 minute plus episode. It frequently splits the group into male and female groups (in which I constantly see the echo of Last of the Summer Wine and Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon family books).

Yet a large proportion of the show fans spends its time watching the show and denigrating it because it isn’t the same as it was in season 1. Not a single one of them can seem to entertain the thought that if the show had set its face against change, against growth, against evolution, and had opted to preserve its original set-up in amber, it would probably have been cancelled after about three years maximum because its audience (not to mention its writers) would have died of boredom.

Even sitcoms are about people, recognisable, human people. And people grow, evolve, change.

This reaction takes me back quite a long way, thirty years more or less, to Madness’s fifth album, Keep Moving. Loved the album then, love it still. But listening to it, I couldn’t help but pine a bit for the early Madness, the Madness of the first couple of albums: simple, jaunty, out for nothing but a good time, unsophisticated and fun. I missed having more of those simple, instant melodies that dragged you in by the scruff of the neck and made you bounce up and down.

But I also understood that for Madness to try being like that again would be phony. They’d evolved, they’d grown, their music had taken on a sophistication that would have been alien to them in the summer of 1979, but which was the inevitable result of their having been around from 1979 to 1985. If Keep Moving had been an album by a band that hadn’t learned a thing since One Step Beyond… it wouldn’t have been worth having. It wouldn’t have been worth listening to.

Now, I can understand The Big Bang Theory‘s fans aversion to change on one level. From the beginning, it’s been the geeks’ show. That’s what I recognise in the writing, in the humour: I understand it, it speaks my language. As it changes, as it moves away from sole concentration upon that heart, it leaves behind geeks who can’t change, who can’t get Pennys and Bernadettes, or even Amys, who don’t get any kind of social success for all their intelligence. It stops being for them as it gradually ceases to be solely about them.

Their resentment is, in this degree, understandable.

But I’m seeing it all over again with a different American series, exactly the same. I’ve been watching another few episodes of Person of Interest season 3. The series finale was shown in America on Tuesday night, and I have 38 more episodes to watch in the limbo of avoiding learning anything about what happened.

Season 3 has marked a change to the show. It began with a cast of four: Finch and Reese, Detectives Carter and Fusco. Carter’s story is over: she brought down the corrupt Police organisation, HR, but died in the process. Even before then, the series had added two new cast members, Sameen Shaw, who works for Finch on the same basis as Reese, and Root, a quasi-rival operative similar to Finch, who has a strange relationship with the Machine.

Where I am in the season, there is a corporation rapidly progressing towards switching on a machine very like the Machine, except that it will be controlled by them, instead of the Machine now controlling itself. A war of Artificial Intelligences is on the horizon.

And the number of PoI viewers who are continually complaining that the show isn’t exactly the same as in season 1, that it isn’t merely a ‘case-of-the-week’ game of guns, violence and sharp one-liners, is astonishing. Viewers hate Shaw, hate Root. They want nothing but Reese and Finch (of, and Bear, of course. Bear is an acceptable addition to the cast. Bear is a dog, incidentally).

Me, I’m loving the show’s growth, its continual intelligent exploration of its situation and its world. I’m loving the evolution, the interaction with the different characters. because this is what a show has to do: evolve or stagnate.

But so much of the audience resists that, decries it, howls down the slightest variation from a formula that they first saw and now cannot bear to be separated from. What is it about people that they can’t allow fictional characters to grow like the individuals they are supposed to be (if we are lucky and the writer is good enough) but insist on having them preserved in aspic?

Perhaps there’s a geek overlap? Person of Interest is a sharp, detailed, complex series with a well-developed mythology, and that’s geek territory. Perhaps, on the other hand, some of it is misogyny: girls have infiltrated our game and they’re spoiling it (have you seen these ‘girls’, they’re both flat-out gorgeous?)

I am always on the side of Change, in fiction: prepared, deliberate, logical Change. He not busy being born is busy dying, remember? Bring it on, and devil take those who only want today to be the same as yesterday, who would live out Groundhog Day for the rest of their lives, not realising that if they were ever to do so, that the end of their life would already had occured.


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