This week's Movie Monday selection is the original pilot for The Big Bang Theory!
Sure, The Big Bang Theory isn't a movie, but after seeing the original, unaired pilot for the long-running TV series I thought it would be fun to talk about. Rarely has a hit show been spawned from such humble beginnings.
The original Big Bang Theory featured the show's two main characters, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), but other than that the show is unrecognizable. Instead of next-door neighbor Penny (played on the series by Kaley Cuoco), here the boys meet a beautiful woman named Katie (Amanda Walsh) who has just been dumped by her boyfriend and is, for the moment, homeless. Leonard and Sheldon, as awkward as ever around women, nevertheless offer to let Katie stay with them, an offer she accepts.
Katie's hard-drinking, hard-living style throws the guys' world upside-down, also upsetting one of Leonard's colleagues, a female geek named Gilda (Iris Bahr). Gilda doesn't take too well to this Alpha Female in her midst, and tries her best to stand her ground, declaring Leonard as "hers."
After an argument between Leonard and Katie, she storms out, heading off to work at a cosmetics counter, leaving her homeless yet again. But Leonard shows up to apologize, with Katie seeing that Leonard is a nice guy. During their traditional take out dinner, the boys find Katie has returned, planning on living with them for the foreseeable future. The show ends with Katie taking Leonard, Sheldon, and Gilda dancing, where their geeky strut causes a bit of a scene. The End.
I didn't like The Big Bang Theory initially. I watched an episode or two of the first season, and the show's humor seemed forced and too loud and I gave up on it. But when my Significant Other wanted to try it out a year or two later, I gave it another shot and found that the show grew on me. I still thought the first season was the weakest, but over time I thought the characters developed in interesting ways, and we both got hooked.
In contrast, the characters on display in the pilot are basically the same guys, but with some crucial differences. The show spends some considerable time talking about Sheldon's sexual preferences, something virtually alien to the character as we now know him (Sheldon's utter lack of interest in sex makes him, to me, a refreshing change from the usual unrepentant horndogs that most TV men are written as). In addition, the jokes are generally a little cruder and darker than what would follow. And speaking of "dark", the show itself is a lot darker--its as if they didn't have enough money for proper lighting, so every scene in the main apartment set looks like a bulb or two has gone out.
The characters only seen in the pilot, Katie and Gilda, are clearly the building blocks for series regulars Penny and Leslie (played by Galecki's Roseanne co-star Sara Gilbert). It's obvious that Katie, as written, is much too grating and coarse to work as a weekly character. Its hard to know whether to blame the writing or the actor, but there's a general sunniness to actress Kaley Cuoco that Walsh here doesn't have, and IMO it nearly sinks the whole enterprise.
Usually when a network screens a pilot and doesn't like what it sees, it dumps the show and that's the end of it. But obviously CBS saw something it liked, and it ordered up a new, revamped pilot. Show creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady rewrote the show, replacing Katie with Penny, dumping Gilda, and essentially replacing her with Howard and Raj. That changed the show's comedic balance in drastic ways--some of the jokes from the original pilot are in the second pilot, but they're gentler and overall brighter and happier.
Seeing an unaired pilot like this is always a weird experience, since you're seeing characters you are so familiar with, yet here there are looking and acting completely different (I had a similar experience reading some of the post-movie-and-TV series M*A*S*H novels, where the characters have virtually no resemblance to the ones I came to love so much).
One other weird experience watching this show reminds me of how cruel the acting business can be--a working actor must think when they land a major network TV show pilot, they've won the lottery. Katie Walsh has a number of credits post-BBT, but it's nothing close to the riches and fame afforded to Kaley Cuoco, who has now had six straight years of high-rated TV fame (to say nothing of syndication money, which is a veritable fountain of cash for a TV series). I can't imagine how painful it might be to see The Big Bang Theory pop up on your TV almost every day and know you were so close.
Anyway, the original BBT pilot is available on YouTube and other online sources; if you're a fan of the show you'll probably enjoy seeing this, it's like getting a peek into one of the alternate dimensions Sheldon is always theorizing about!