We’re regularly told that the breakdown of modern society is accelerating because families no long sit down at the dinner table and eat together. Personally I suspect there may be one or two other reasons for the breakdown of modern society (if indeed it even is breaking down), but even so in a world of shifting uncertainties, it’s good to know there’s a place where communal eating still survives, and that’s in the modern American sitcom.
Screenwriters have always had trouble finding a natural way to get characters in the same place at the same time. Life is easy enough for writers of The Office or Mash - the people go to work or to war every day, constant interactions are guaranteed. And actually it always seemed to me that Cheers struggled in this aspect: most people don’t go to the same bar every single day and meet up with exactly the same people, and if they do they’re kind of sad losers, and personally I don’t ever want to go to a bar where everybody (or actually anybody) knows my name, but that’s my own problem, obviously.
Even families as lovably dysfunctional as the Simpsons and the Connors (as in Roseanne) nevertheless spent an improbable amount of time sitting at the table, interacting, trading barbs, creating laughs. There may be scope for a sitcom in which everyone eats alone in his or her room and communicates only by email or text, but I suspect the audience isn’t quite ready for that yet.
In fact we’re also told that the traditional sitcom is breaking down even quicker that modern society, but Chuck Lorre’s Big Bang Theory seems to have brought the genre back from the dead, although who knows for how long. And food plays an extraordinarily large role in The Big Bang Theory. The characters are endlessly eating together, whether sharing take out in Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, the canteen at work or the Cheesecake Factory where Penny works.
Just look at the episode titles for Pete’s sake, The Pork Chop Indeterminacy, The Peanut Reaction, The Dumpling Paradox, The Hamburger Postulate, The Big Bran Hypothesis: these are just from season one.
Of course Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons) is the majestic comedy creation of the series, obsessive about everything, and not least about food, worrying about his Hamburger Tuesday versus his Big Boy Thursday, the dubious definition of Soup Plantation (“You can’t grow soup”), worrying about whether “mobster sauce” is a menu misprint or not.
And of course, as with all the greatest comedy, Sheldon is only ever a couple of degrees away from complete tragedy. A drunken and dead father and a Christian fundamentalist mother only up the ante.
In The Electric Can-Opener Fluctuation he briefly moves to Texas to live his mother, and the situation is just heartbreaking, because he’s so polite to his mother, meekly thanking her for the food she serves him: she even cuts a smiley face into his grilled cheese sandwich.
There is always something odd and uncomfortable about adult men eating with their mothers, especially once dad has gone (I speak from plenty of experience). The men always become children again. In the Big Bang Theory Sheldon grudgingly agrees to say grace, his mother’s version of course, though Sheldon obviously knows it by heart and is required to complete his mother’s lines.
Mrs Cooper: Here you go, Shelly.
Sheldon: Thanks, Mom.
Mrs Cooper: Hold your horses, young man. Here in Texas, we pray before we eat.
Sheldon: Aw, Mom.
Mrs Cooper: This is not California, land of the heathen. Gimme. By His hand we are all…
Mrs Cooper: Give us, Lord, our daily…
Mrs Cooper: Please know that we are truly…
Mrs Cooper: For every cup and every…
Mrs Cooper: Amen. Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Sheldon: My objection was based on considerations other than difficulty.
Mrs Cooper: Whatever. Jesus still loves you.
It’s funny and absurd of course, but the fact that he joins unwilling but lovingly is somehow just exquisitely tender and absolutely heartbreaking.