LOS ANGELES — In 2006, TV critics swooned over “30 Rock,” part of a new breed of comedy that dared to fly without a laugh track and whose ranks included “Arrested Development,” “The Office” and “Everybody Hates Chris.”
Then a misfit nerd crashed the party. “The Big Bang Theory” was crafted in the style of 1950s groundbreaker “I Love Lucy,” with the requisite studio-audience tapings and recorded guffaws intact. Even some of those making the CBS comedy that debuted in 2007 questioned its chances, said Jim Parsons, who stars as Sheldon Cooper, one of the show’s brilliant and socially inept scientists.
As the enduringly popular series prepares to bow out tonight with an hour-long finale, the question is raised anew: Will viewers, awash in such creatively bold and sophisticated players as “Atlanta” and “Veep,” accept another traditional sitcom? Discounting the resurrection of “Will & Grace” and “Roseanne”-turned “The Connors,” can the old-school formula score the new hits it needs to survive?
Who better to ask than Chuck Lorre, who created “The Big Bang Theory” with Bill Prady and whose mastery of the genre has produced winners including “Two and a Half Men” and “Mom,” but also makes Netflix’s contemporary-style “The Kominsky Method.” The Hollywood veteran hedges his reply — “I’ve been around long enough to know that a prognosis is a really wonderful way to carve into stone how stupid you are. Or arrogant” — then admits to faith in the format known as a “multi-cam,” for the multiple cameras used in tapings.
“I still believe that shooting a show in front of an audience is a wonderful way to tell a story,” Lorre said. “I don’t think the audience watches (‘The Big Bang Theory’) and counts cameras. They watch the show because they love the characters and it delivers on the comedy.”
There’s support for Lorre’s optimism, said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of TV and popular culture.
“Many people talk about the studio audience sitcom being something right out of Colonial Williamsburg, as way past its prime,” Thompson said. “Whenever anybody would make that argument, the first thing I would say is ‘The Big Bang Theory’ has been sitting at top or near the top of the ratings,” even against the strengthening headwinds of streaming platforms including YouTube and Netflix.
The series’ third-to-last episode on May 5 was the most-watched program on broadcast or cable TV with 12.5 million viewers , pushing aside HBO’s behemoth “Game of Thrones,” which wraps its eight-season run May 19.
There’s also the sheer weight of history on the multi-cam’s side. It’s descended from radio comedies and their roster of stars, including the Nelson family in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and Ethel Waters in “Beulah,” who were among the first to add pictures to their punchlines — although it took Desi Arnaz, the “I Love Lucy” producer who starred opposite wife Lucille Ball, to popularize filming sitcoms with three (now four) cameras, in part for efficiency.
“If you have something worthwhile, I don’t think it matters whether it’s single-camera, four-camera, 18 cameras or if it’s a flip book,” Lorre said. “If it’s really good, it’s going to find an audience. Maybe that’s naive or overly optimistic. But I have to proceed on that basis.”