The Big Bang Theory is successful. It's been in the top 10 in ratings for almost a decade, topping the list of most-watched shows for the past two seasons (and will probably close 2018-19 on top, too). It has won 10 Emmys and been nominated for dozens more. It has made scads of money for CBS and Warner Bros., the studio that produces the series. It will end its 12-season run as the longest-running multi-camera sitcom ever.
But it's not cool.
There are a number of symptoms that go into this diagnosis. The show represents a kind of old school, resolutely unhip, laugh track-driven form of comedy that fans of more challenging, cutting edge, or otherwise "cool" television programming finds dull. It's on CBS, which is the most-watched network in the nation for 11 years running — and which has the largest number of viewers in the 25-54 age demographic. As Stephen Colbert joked during the network's upfronts presentation on Wednesday, the rating success maybe means elderly people have just left the television in the basement on for years.
But the most telling sign of the uncoolness of The Big Bang Theory is that kids don't make memes about it.
Memes are the currency among the young and online. If you're not fluent in memes, you're out of the loop. And if you don't get memed, you're just not relevant. The biggest Big Bang Theory meme community on Reddit is r/bingbongthereom, which is a place where people who don't like the show make fun of it. The memes usually riff on"bazinga," the long-abandoned catchphrase that's the only quote from the show that non-fans know. The Big Bang Theory has never been particularly quotable, which has hurt its memeability. The Bing Bong memes use intentionally stupid irony that's the opposite of The Big Bang Theory's sense of humor, which is intentionally stupid in earnest, at least according to the meme-makers. People don't make Big Bang Theory memes out of fandom, they make them sarcastically.
Compare that to Friends and The Office, shows that numerically are as popular as The Big Bang Theory (presumably, but we don't know for sure because streaming services like Netflix don't release viewer data) but get much more love online.* The Office's fan subreddit r/DunderMifflin is constantly updated (like multiple times an hour, it's overwhelming) by fans making memes and obsessing over the show, which ended in 2013 but has found a second life on Netflix. Friends is even older, but it's on Netflix, so people watch it. Netflix is cool. The Big Bang Theory is not on Netflix (or Hulu), which means young people don't watch it. It's on CBS All Access, which, anecdotally, hasn't made inroads with younger audiences. (TV Guide and CBS All Access are both parts of CBS Interactive, so know that I'm risking making things awkward in my office with this piece.)
Why is Friends cool when The Big Bang Theory is not, despite being so genetically similar? Simple: the actors are hotter, the jokes are funnier, and the characters are more aspirational. No one wants to relate to creepy Howard Wolowitz or dowdy Farah Fowler, you know? As much as pop culture has tried to make us think nerds are cool, you'll never see Michael B. Jordan in full Naruto cosplay despite how much he loves anime. Also, Friends is on Netflix, which automatically makes it cooler.
Anyway, back to memes. In order for The Big Bang Theory to be the subject of Gen Z teen pop songs like The Office, teenagers will have to watch it and decide it's worth making memes about. Then and only then will it be cool. But that's probably not going to happen, because the kids aren't into it. An informal poll, conducted by a TV Guide source, of students at a Manhattan all-girls' middle school — that is, the next generation of cool kids — found that most of them had never watched The Big Bang Theory because they don't watch linear television. If it's not on Netflix or YouTube, it doesn't exist. The top score among kids who had seen it was "7/10."
"It's like Friends but not as funny," one girl noted.
Is "high school students make memes about it" a limited definition of cool? Yes. Is it an accurate one? Yes. The internet has made everything measurable, even elusive and intangible concepts like "cool." But does being cool really even matter to The Big Bang Theory? No. Being cool doesn't pay the bills, but $900,000 an episode sure does. Plus, it made millions and millions of people laugh for over a decade, and you know what? That's pretty cool.
(*Popularity has little bearing on whether a TV show is cool or not. Killing Eve is not very popular, but it's very cool. The Walking Dead is very popular, but it's not cool. Game of Thrones is so popular that it's both cool and uncool. If you don't get what I'm saying, you just don't get "cool," sorry.)
The Big Bang Theory's series finale airs Thursday, May 16 at 8/7c.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)