Even before I became interested in the television industry as a potential career, I still wondered why some TV shows succeed while others fail. It’s generally easier to explain why a show falls flat (bad writing, shallow characters, etc.) than why one thrives.
Recently I started analyzing various shows that have been successful across all the major networks, and I became particularly fixated on Fox’s “Bones” and CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.” The former has managed to stay on the air for six years and is reportedly on the verge of being renewed for a seventh, while the latter is one of the biggest new hit comedies.
While the environments of these two shows are vastly different, I believe the reasons for their success are essentially the same. And it all comes down to their characters.
The general formula for TV shows and movies is to establish a character that does not fit in his or her surrounding environment. Whether it is comedy or drama, all stories are built around conflict. Introducing a group of people with one obvious black sheep provides inherent conflict.
In many cases, this black sheep does not fit because he or she is the only idiosyncratic oddball of the bunch. But in both Bones and TBBT, the black sheep of the group is the only person who ISN’T an idiosyncratic oddball. In Bones, it’s Booth (David Boreanaz). In TBBT, it’s Penny (Kelly Cuoco).
In their respective environments, Booth and Penny are basically the epitome of the perfect person. And yet they are forced into a group of misfits; Booth by his profession, and Penny by her living arrangement.
This concept works because it’s impossible to feel bad for the “cool” character. They may be the odd man out of the group, but you barely notice because your attention is called to how great they are. There is inherent comedy in seeing someone everyone wants to be around stuck with people nobody wants to be around.
If the situations were reversed, it wouldn’t work. Too many writers are tempted to stick one crazy weirdo in a group of otherwise normal people. But in that scenario, the oddball becomes a source of pity and discomfort, not comedy.
The natural human reaction is to feel bad when you see someone who not only does not fit into his own world, but also doesn’t fit into the world in general. Writers could milk that pity for a short time, but eventually the premise would grate on the average viewer.
That is why Bones and The Big Bang Theory have achieved so much success; the one “different” character is the one you want to be like, whether you want to admit it or not. So you subconsciously relate to that one character, finding the antics of everyone else charming.
I could continue to go on with the specific similarities between these two shows, from the will they/won’t they tension of two people from vastly different backgrounds to the fact that the “cool” character starts to feel attached to the lovable weirdos around them. But the specific details aren’t really important, since the shows will naturally evolve in much the same pattern because they are based around such similar characters.