The Long Haul — Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

kaley pilot

Kaley Cuoco as Penny in The Big Bang Theory (2007 – 2019)

Before Penny, there was Katie. Well ahead of the time The Big Bang Theory became the modern rarity that is a broadcast network series capable of enticing several million people to click to it on a regular basis, it was a failed pilot, rejected for the 2006-2007 television season. In the original iteration, Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki still played scientist roommates whose staid, somewhat insular existence is upended by the arrival of an attractive young woman. A wreck found crying outside their apartment building, Katie (Amanda Walsh) is streetwise and caustic, a party girl who might be enduring a spell of bad luck, but who also operates with a level of confidence that almost comes across as bullying behavior. Written by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the clear intent is to develop the type of friction that can lead to endless possibilities for comedic storytelling, but the balance is all wrong.

The show was rejiggered and a new pilot shot the following year, this time adding a couple friends for the roommates and, more importantly, softening the outlook and demeanor of the woman who is introduced to the main characters’ lives, setting the series in motion. There was still a reliance on a contrasting lack of refined knowledge held by the newcomer, and the creators still seemed to have only the vaguest idea of who this character might be beyond a figure that set the various socially awkward gents’ libidos aflutter. But there was also an easy charm and an evident unschooled intelligence immediately at play in the role, which exemplified the better show The Big Bang Theory was in this second try. The critical recasting of the female lead pointed to further improvements to come, indicating the overlooked secret of the show’s monumental success. Parson won the Emmys, and Galecki and later addition Mayim Bialik were the other regular cast members who received acting nominations from the Television Academy, but it’s the performance of Kaley Cuoco as Penny that truly made the show work as well as it did.

While wildly popular, The Big Bang Theory also stirred up a lot of animosity, mostly from people who saw nasty mockery in the depiction of, for lack of a better term, nerd culture. To my eyes — which have spent a decent amount of time scanning comic books and other associated fare — the show always seemed to take an affectionate if gently jibing approach to the geekier culture favored by the characters. And I can further attest that the jokes were far more accurate than the usual detached snark equating comics and science fiction with hopeless arrested development. Even so, the detractors weren’t entirely without justification, especially early the show’s run, when Penny’s bafflement at the pile-ups of arcane information positioned her as a stand-in from viewers who were only just beginning, for example, to become acquainted with the concept of a Marvel Cinematic Universe. Critically, though, Cuoco played the character’s struggles to interface with her new friend group with more sweet uncertainty than eye-rolling contempt. The appreciation she felt for these people was evident and pure.

What best illustrates the value of Cuoco’s performance is how much better The Big Bang Theory got as it expanded the number of female supporting characters, providing Penny with a more varied cadre of companions. To a large degree, Amy (Bialik) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) were introduced to the show as love interests for male characters, but they flourished because of the naturalness of the friendship developed with Penny. The Big Bang Theory had elements of a workplace sitcom and was sometimes driven by the same romantic relationship questioning that has been injected into the veins of practically every network comedy since at least Cheers, but it was first and foremost about people simply hanging out. And Penny, more than any other character, was the hub of the wheel, drawing everyone together in a convincing fashion.

None of this would have worked if Cuoco didn’t deliver the most grounded performance in the show. All the other characters had some amount of wackiness to them, and initially Penny skewed to a similar easy shorthand, maintaining vestiges of the wild child of her rough draft predecessor. The recently aired finale hinged its emotional climax on the growth of Parsons’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper, but it’s Penny who grew up most realistically across the show’s twelve seasons, settling into a recognizable version of adulthood, marked by the kind of compromise that can feel initially disappointing before revealing itself as a relief. Cuoco was only twenty-one years old when The Big Bang Theory premiered, and the progression through which she carried Penny reads as a proper rendering of easing away from spirited youth to a different state of being that preserves a useful gleefulness and open-hearted camaraderie while finding firmer ground.

In the broad strokes of The Big Bang Theory, Cuoco added a vibrant humanity that kept the show from straying too close to the cartoonish, which remained a perilous risk throughout the run of the show. When Sheldon’s collection of antagonistic traits sometimes teetered near caricature, it was the clear fondness Cuoco’s Penny retained for him that carried the narrative through. Penny never seemed a mismatch among these markedly different people, mostly because she exhibited an intuitive grasp that they were, like her, people in need who didn’t quite know how to express it.

There’s probably no more pivotal moment in the whole length of the series than the scene in the season two episode when Penny gives Sheldon an especially well-chosen Christmas gift. There’s kindness and happy generosity of spirit to her gesture, and she also has a slightly amused confusion at the heightened level of his reaction. The wonderful cap to the scene is Penny’s overjoyed pleasure as Sheldon clumsily pushes past his own aversions to give her a hug of thanks. Whatever antics and comic conflicts were at play, The Big Bang Theory prevailed because it was primarily about people who simply liked each other, and that progressed to be the familial love that defines a group of close friends. It’s Cuoco’s performance that provided the path to that fine outcome.

kaley finale

Previously….

—Keri Russell in The Americans
—Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

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