CBS Broadcasting, Inc.
When CBS renewed The Big Bang Theory for three seasons recently, it meant that the top rated sitcom is guaranteed to hit a 10th season (the show is closing out its seventh season now). While the certainty might be great for the network and the show's producers, it does beg the question of how the show will manage to stay fresh for that long. Even all-time classic sitcoms like Friends and Cheers struggled to sustain storylines when the season numbers hit double digits.
So, what will Big Bang look like in another three years? Can they find ways to keep things interesting or are they doomed to plod along through multiple seasons of rehashing what we've already seen? Obviously we can't know the outcome, but over the long history of sitcoms there are some lessons that are there to be learned. What do Sheldon and crew need to avoid in order to keep from "jumping the shark"? Let's take a look.
Limit the Break-ups
In some ways, the show has boxed itself into a corner in this regard. While Jim Parsons' Sheldon might be the most popular character, there's little debating the fact that the center of the show is the Leonard-Penny relationship. Just like with Ross and Rachel on Friends, it is the over-arching storyline even when it is seemingly dormant. Over the first six seasons, the show's writers had Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco's characters hook-up and break-up repeatedly. They're currently together and if they were to break up again, it will be really hard to put them back together in any way that doesn't aggravate the audience… at least the portion that was alienated by yet another off again period for the couple. The show's other pairs (Sheldon and Amy, Howard and Bernadette) have an entirely different issue — the female half's sole reason for being there is as part of the couple. For better or worse, the show has to come up with ways to tell stories with the relationships (mostly) intact.
Friends got away with having its characters have children by subsequently finding ways for the babies to disappear after they were born. That show, however, had the advantage of establishing extended families for the characters that lived nearby to help explain who was watching the infants. Big Bang, on the other hand, has done the exact opposite; most of the characters aren't native to the show's Pasadena setting. With the exception of Howard and Bernadette, no other characters on the show can have children that could be explained away (and it's hard to say how plausible the idea of Howard's never-seen mother taking care of an infant is). So, Penny and Leonard can't have a baby that magically ages three years between seasons and becomes a precocious genius. Same thing goes for any young relatives of Sheldon's suddenly arriving from Texas to live with him or Amy's vivacious "forgotten" younger sister showing up.
Tread Carefully With Cast Changes
With the possible exception of Cheers, no other long-running sitcom has done as good of a job of incorporating new characters into the show's mix. Not every fan may like Mayim Bialik's Amy Farrah Fowler, but the character along with Melissa Rauch's Bernadette has opened up a slew of possibilities for the show's writers. At this point, however, there is far less wiggle room. Introducing another new character, after so much time has been invested in the core group, would be a hard sell. Conversely, having a key character depart would ruin the chemistry that the show has worked so hard to establish. It's quite possible that someone will leave over the next three seasons and it will be a challenge to deal with that in a way that doesn't cause a chunk of the audience to leave along with the character. Big Bang's creator Chuck Lorre may have milked additional seasons out of his hit Two and a Half Men after Charlie Sheen was replaced by Ashton Kutcher, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that liked the show better after the change. Of course, having a character depart is still better than going the Bewitched/Rosanne route and bringing in another actor to play the same role.
Avoid Very Special Episodes
How I Met Your Mother is the rare sitcom that can get away with dealing with issues like losing a parent without destroying the show's rhythm. Big Bang Theory isn't HIMYM (or Family Ties or All in the Family for that matter). The show isn't designed to handle heavy topics in any real way. There can't be an episode where depressed comic book store owner Stuart actually decides to end things or Kunal Nayyar's Raj gets hit by a truck and ends up in a coma or Penny awaits test results after her doctor "found something." Once that happens, the show will have gone down a path that it probably can't come back from.
It will be a challenge for the Big Bang team to craft episodes that feel new without resorting to any of the desperation plays that have doomed so many other sitcoms. If the show wants to join the short ranks of shows that have put together a solid decade of viable episodes, however, it will have to rise to that challenge.