Stairway to Heaven: Urban Space and The Big Bang Theory
At the beginning of Stan Brakhage’s experimental American film, Reflections on Black (1955), a mysterious somnambulist ascends the steps of a New York City walk-up apartment building. Inside, he climbs the stairs, passing three apartments. Inside of each, a melodrama transpires, which he seems to have a second sight ability to witness. Brakhage figures this mystical power by scratching the film stock where his eyes should be. The hallway of the apartment building is thus a privileged space in Reflections on Black, where the somnambulist witnesses dark secrets and intimate suffering. Such a description fits the narrational apparatus of The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007-present) surprisingly well. Chuck Lorre’s sitcom concerns two Cal Tech physicists—Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons)—who live in a Pasadena apartment building. In the pilot episode, a beautiful aspiring actress, Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves into the apartment across the hallway from them. Over the course of the next five seasons, Leonard and Penny fall in love and endure an on again, off again relationship.
The Big Bang Theory‘s use of the hallway in between Penny’s and Leonard’s apartment is a significant advance in the aesthetics of the American sitcom. As David Barker explains in his seminal essay, “Television Production Aesthetics,” the traditional sitcom set features an “x-axis set” that emphasizes the flat interiority of the American suburban home. From I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1959) to All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979) to The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984-1992) and Roseanne (ABC, 1988-1997), and indeed hundreds of other sitcoms, a shallow living room set, flanked by the front door on the right, and the kitchen on the left, provided the stock space around which the banalities of American family life played out. Indeed, the set inside Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, while in the tradition of the deeper “z-axis set” of M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-1983) and Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993) and other quality television, nonetheless emphasizes these traditional aesthetics. Most of the scenes in The Big Bang Theory take place around the couch in the physicists’ living room, with the front door of the apartment to the left, and the kitchen and the two men’s bedrooms to the back and right of the set.
However, a startling number of scenes in this particular sitcom take place in the hallway of the apartment building. This is a significant departure from prior sitcom aesthetic practices. Think, for example, of the celebrated “Job Switching” episode of I Love Lucy (September 15, 1952). The entirety of Act I of the episode occurs in the living room, as Lucy and Ricky argue over money. Fred and Ethel enter the apartment, through the front door to the rear and right of the set. However, we never actually see the hallway space, nor do we have any idea what the neighbors’ apartment looks like. The traditional American sitcom set is a purely privatized, interiorized space in which the external world’s entry into the lives of the characters is carefully controlled via the sphincters that are the front door, and the television set placed squarely in the center of the living room set.
In television history, a celebrated transformation of the traditional domestic situation comedies of the 1950s was the increasing presence by the 1960s of the workplace. At first, in shows like Bewitched (ABC, 1964-1972) and The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966), the domestic space alternated with a job site, whose aesthetic look mimicked the living room. For Rob Petrie, it was his writers’ room at The Alan Brady Show. For Darren Stephens, it was the suite of offices at the advertising agency, McMahon and Tate. By the 1970s, the rise of the “Quality Television” situation comedy, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977) began to de-emphasize the domestic space, proposing that the workplace was the actual site of intimacy, where real family bonding, not related to biology, but earnest caring for other people could take place. Thus, Mary Richards existed at the WJM newsroom within a kind of loving family, with the paternal Mr. Grant, the brotherly Murray, and the crazy uncle Ted Baxter. Her home was often lonely, only enlivened intermittently by her gal pals, Rhonda and Phyllis.
The Big Bang Theory continues this tradition quite directly. The show alternates between Sheldon and his friends at his apartment, and at their workplace, the Physics Department at Cal Tech, generally the lunchroom set up like the z-axis set in the living room at home. However, unlike I Love Lucy, there is an intermediary space that vies as the third dominant space of this sitcom universe, the hallway at the apartment building. This is a space that is neither public nor private, where much of the conflict in the show is worked out. It echoes quite profoundly the stairwell in Reflections on Black, where the somnambulist enters from the mean public streets of New York City, witnessing through his messianic visions the most private goings-on inside the apartments themselves.
The Big Bang Theory plays with this notion of the semi-private space of the “public” areas of the apartment building, places we would not imagine as apt descriptions of the cellular isolation of lives in contemporary Los Angeles. And yet, the show obsessively stages repeated actions in the stairwell and hallway spaces, moreso, I think, than any sitcom in the history of American television. The show deliberately calls attention to these mechanisms. In the pilot episode, we notice that the elevator is broken, and the characters must walk up multiple flights of stairs in order to get from their cars at street level to where they live. And yet, the elevator has not been fixed for well over one hundred episodes! Furthermore, the show seems to revel in exposing the simplicity of set decoration on a sitcom. As the ascending characters turn from one level on the stairs to the next, the same set is obviously merely re-dressed to make it appear the characters have made some vertical progress.
The pilot episode theorizes some of the most interesting features of these staircase scenes. In the very first teaser sequence, we meet Leonard and Sheldon who have decided to sell their sperm at a sperm bank. Very quickly, they realize they are in way over their heads, and they flee the encounter with the receptionist at the office. The next thing we see, Leonard and Sheldon are walking up the stairs inside their apartment building. At the second floor landing, Sheldon asks, “Do you want to hear an interesting thing about stairs?” He says if the height of one of the stairs is off by two millimeters, the person will trip. Sheldon explains that he did an experiment on his stairway in his parents’ house when he was a kid: his father broke his clavicle as a result. Back in Los Angeles, at the floor where their apartment is located, Leonard sees Penny in shorts for the first time. Leonard and Penny exchange curious glances.
Thus, from the very start, the show theorizes the importance of stairs. Not only are they places where the painfully shy and socially awkward Leonard can meet a pretty girl, they are also places of potential catastrophe, the subject of childhood experiments by Sheldon Cooper. The Big Bang Theory, following in the avant-garde traditions of Stan Brakhage, foregrounds the act of ascending the stairs of an apartment building, not only as an exploration of space, but also as an interrogation of the ways in which the modernity of the skyscraper keeps us from moving on up.
– Walter Metz
Barker, David. “Television Production Aesthetics.” Television: The Critical View. Ed. Horace Newcomb. 7th Ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.