Lynette Rice
September 11, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Big Bang Theory
9:30PM — CBS — Returning Comedy — Premieres Sept. 21

In any other setting, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco could pass as Hollywood’s newest It Couple. Relaxing on a cozy couch during a rehearsal of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, Galecki quietly gazes down at his torn jeans and white wing-tip shoes, while Cuoco — effortlessly sexy in a V-neck tee and low-slung slacks — is glued to her Kindle. She stops only to scratch Galecki’s back. Abruptly, a director yells action. Just like that, Galecki and Cuoco lose their cool to become one of the most mismatched romantic duos on TV. Leonard is an experimental physicist at Caltech, Penny is a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory — and the only way the two can really relax around each other is if they guzzle a bottle of wine first. Naturally, the scene ends with Leonard vomiting in Penny’s toilet. ”It’s okay,” he manages to croak while hovering over the commode. ”A little mouthwash and I’m gonna rock your world!” Penny responds by vomiting in the sink.

Love scenes don’t get any more awkward, but that kind of weirdness is what makes Bang so popular among its 10 million fans. Now entering its third season, the sitcom has transformed from a cute comedy about eggheads and their hottie neighbor into an addictive ensemble piece that could be this decade’s answer to Friends — thanks to its nimble dialogue, perfect casting, and relatable characters. ”Toward the end of the first season, the audience was laughing before the joke,” recalls Jim Parsons, who plays the fussy Sheldon Cooper, Leonard’s roommate. ”They knew where we were going and they still laughed. It was wonderful.”

Much of the comedy gold is mined when Leonard and Sheldon hang out with their equally brainy friends: Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) is a mechanical engineer who deludes himself into thinking he’s a swinging single, while Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) is an astrophysicist who requires liquid courage to chat with chicks. But it’s the relationship between Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny that’s at the show’s core. The setup is predictable enough — Leonard fell for Penny in the 2007 pilot, and the duo finally do the dirty in the third-season premiere — but it’s the way Sheldon relates to their romance that adds zing. In the Sept. 28 episode, for example, Sheldon cluelessly lets it slip to Penny and the guys that Leonard was dissatisfied with the couple’s first romp in the hay. Needless to say, she’s mortified. ”One of the fun things about putting them together is that it bothers Sheldon,” explains exec producer Bill Prady. ”Anything that upsets the ecosystem in his world seems to turn out good scripts.”

Now Hollywood, viewers, and even CBS, for that matter, are giving the show its due. While Bang finished its first season at No. 67 in total viewers, today it’s the third-most-popular comedy. This season, CBS has moved it into a choice time slot after the No. 1 comedy, Two and a Half Men (a.k.a. the other hit from Bang co-creator Chuck Lorre). More good news came this summer, when Parsons nabbed an Emmy nod in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy category. The actor, who announced the nominations with Grey’s Anatomy star Chandra Wilson, says finding out about the honor on live TV ”was awkward. I read it on the TelePrompTer. It felt like it was a little bit of a lie.” His castmates are less humble about the recognition for their costar, whose dialogue often involves tongue-twisting physics jargon. ”The hours he has to put in [to master] the things he has to say — and he does it in two takes!” says Nayyar. ”The guy is the Godfather.”

That was readily apparent at July’s Comic-Con gathering in San Diego, where thousands of fans packed the Big Bang panel and peppered Parsons with questions. Among them: Will Sheldon ever hook up with Penny? Though the creators appreciated the raucous reception, they’re loath to give their jittery genius a love life. ”There seems to be a desire for him to be like the rest of us, and my response is, Why?” says Lorre. ”Why can’t he walk down a road that doesn’t involve romantic relationships as a choice?” For her part, Cuoco’s not entirely opposed to the pairing. ”It would be a funny nightmare sequence,” she says.

For now, however, Sheldon seems more interested in outsmarting his friends than stealing his best friend’s girl. Back at rehearsal, he’s so busy trying to convince Howard and Raj that a noisy insect in his apartment is a snowy tree cricket that he fails to notice a sexually frustrated Leonard sitting nearby. ”I can throw a rock in the room and find three better friends,” laments Leonard, as the boys run off to consult an entomologist.

Off the set, Galecki is glad the writers are amping up the Penny-Leonard nerdmance. ”I love that we’re not waiting until the numbers dwindle,” he says. ”We’re not even waiting until sweeps!” But the writers are mum on how the relationship evolves. ”There’s no plan,” admits Lorre. ”This isn’t Lost. We have no idea where we’re going.” Wherever it is, we trust Sheldon and company to boldly go where no nerds have gone before.

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