In the interest of full disclosure, I had seen two complete episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” before attending Thursday’s panel discussion as part of PaleyFest 09; however, in the same interest, the panel was more than enough to convince me to rectify this particular injustice as soon as possible.

Most of the reason for this lies in Jim Parsons, whose Sheldon is pretty unanimously considered the show’s breakout character and who made a big splash as comic relief throughout both the early screening of the next new episode of the series, “The Vegas Renormalization,” and the panel discussion. Discussing the show’s key dynamic, co-creator Chuck Lorre was pretty clear on one of the writers’ key missions.

“Well, let’s see if Jim can do that,” Lorre cites as one of their mantras, and the show often bears signs that it is in Sheldon that the show finds its rhythm, so to speak. Co-Creator Bill Prady based parts of the show on his own experience as a computer programmer, and his story about a genius programmer who couldn’t calculate a tip due to the sheer volume of potential variables dependent on social interactions feels more closely tied to Sheldon than any of the rest of the show’s characters.

Parsons, perhaps not surprisingly, also draws a lot from his own experience in capturing the genius of the character: he was the unanimous choice of all panelists when asked which actor is most like their character, for example. Similarly, his story of getting the job was defined not only by the process of auditioning but also a rather humorous case of mistaken identity with the name of the show’s producer.

“I thought it was [game show host] Chuck Woolery,” Parsons admitted to the audience to laughter only intensified when he noted that he only wished he was lying. “I didn’t know he wrote,” Parsons adds with the straight face which gives Sheldon’s lines that extra level of humor.

One of the things that Lorre notes makes Sheldon unique is his rather strange connection to one of the show’s key themes.

“Sheldon is in love with science,” Lorre says, to fewer laughs than you might expect, when asked about whether or not Sheldon would be getting a non-discipline love interest sometime in the future. That he has opted out of the traditional system of romance makes the character unique in Lorre’s eyes, and he’s likely correct: his love for science, which the show makes work thanks to a science advisor and a special “definitions and pronunciations” page at the start of each script, has gained the show enough credibility that it is, to the best of Prady’s knowledge, the only sitcom to ever be reviewed by Science magazine.

All of this is not to say that the show is only worthwhile for Sheldon, or that Parsons was the only highlight during the panel. Yes, Parsons was often the cause of the panel’s comic highlights, but none of it would have worked without the palpable chemistry the group of five possess.

Johnny Galecki, whose Leonard is the more sociable and therefore less interesting of the two leads, was perhaps the quietest amongst the main cast, but a clip from Roseanne aired before the panel and brought out the reunion this is for he and Lorre. Kunal Nayyar, whose character was a late addition to the project after its first pilot was rejected, got to assert his authority by revealing to the rest of the cast that he was responsible for both his character’s first and middle (revealed in the episode screened to the panel) names.

Kaley Cuoco, who plays Penny, was a treat throughout the panel, even if Penny occasionally feels more like a catalyst than a character (although the panel believes this is beginning to change, and made a fairly compelling argument for this fact). She was constantly gobsmacked to be getting praise, especially from a young female fan who viewed her as a role model, who made Cuoco more than a little misty-eyed, and Parsons was constantly chiding her about it, resulting in some very humorous banter which echoed the episode screened, where the dynamic duo of Shelny (or Peldon, if you prefer, Parsons and Cuoco haven’t decided yet) were prominently featured.

Simon Helberg is perhaps the best known of the supporting cast amongst some fan circles thanks to his appearance as Moist in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” but Howard Wolowitz is his own sort of phenomenon. The character is based on another of Prady’s college acquaintances, who only had two rules which have become the code of Wolowitz.

“Proposition every woman, and have no standards,” Prady says with a laugh, prompting Simon to shrug and take responsibility for his character’s actions. In the episode screened, Wolowitz’s emotions take center stage as the gang treks to Las Vegas, but at the same time the story feels extremely small. This, however, appears to be part of the show’s design.

“There hasn’t been one episode where Chuck hasn’t asked ‘could this story be smaller,’” Prady told the audience. Telling small stories appears to be the show’s mandate: moderator Cynthia Littleton noted how the show has become a success “without guest stars of histrionics,” a dig at shows like “30 Rock” or “How I Met Your Mother” which have resorted to these efforts in order to gain viewers. And considering that CBS just renewed the series for two more seasons, the strategy appears to be working.

At the same time, though, the panel raised some key questions about where the show goes from here: Lorre seems to be entirely fine with the status quo, and while he didn’t shut down any of the suggestions for the future (such as investigating the college years, or continuing the show’s investigation of the characters’ families) he didn’t seem to have any sort of vision either. And his cast, although all extremely happy and “like a family,” raised some own questions with their comments.

“We’ve talked about how these guys have no chance for personal growth,” Nayyar noted, illustrating one of the challenges of the show’s format: as its humor is predicated on the interactions of these socially inept geniuses with the outside world, any substantial change is impossible without changing the series dynamic. And since the cast appears to be gelling extremely well, and CBS is happy with the result, the impetus for personal growth on a series level seems to be absent.

As a result, the show’s future remains an unknown quantity, with plenty of variables involved: on the one hand the cast was extremely humorous, interacting on a level which shows how two seasons have brought them together, and Prady in particular has a real connection to these characters and what makes them unique. On the other hand, the episode screened was, beyond the charming Sheldon and Penny story, filled with cliches and lacked a true resolution.

As noted above, I’m still new to the series, but I’ve read and seen enough to know that the show is both simultaneously in great shape and at an uncertain crossroads: by all accounts the two season order hasn’t given Lorre or Prady pause, but at the same time one would hope that a show still in its second season hasn’t finished evolving, and that the upward trajectory from the pilot I abandoned in 2007 to more recent episodes won’t flatline once the show gets renewed.

In the meantime, though, the panel proved one thing for certain: Jim Parsons is an extremely funny individual, and any and all accolades involved with such a position should be in his future.

Bits and Pieces

*** Perhaps the funniest story, which I would definitely consider tracking down if you have the chance, was the tale of how the cast rented and captained a boat before San Diego Comic-Con last year, much to Lorre’s horror. The story was pretty funny in and of itself, but hearing how Parsons became Sheldon in the sheer insanity of it all made it all the funnier.

**** Parsons was similarly great when, after an audience member asked which character would solve a murder mystery first, he responded with “Duh” before anyone else could speak. In the end, it was decided that Penny would solve it: Leonard would be to scared, Sheldon would overanalyze, Wolowitz would hit on the widow, and Raj couldn’t interview suspects, leaving Penny to point out that it was probably the person holding the gun.

*** After two evening’s with Joss Whedon, it was refreshing (but not surprising, considering that CBS owes Lorre their soul for the success of “Two and a Half Men”) to hear someone say that there are absolutely no conflicts with the network over the show’s high intelligence. Now if only they’d have some conflict over his other show’s lack of intelligence, but I digress.

*** On that note, however, usually these panels feature the audience cheering loudly for a producer’s other projects: here, “Two and a Half Men” got only pleasant applause, and only the second time around after the silence for the first mention made us all feel really awkward.

*** One final anecdote: the show’s science supervisor, UCLA Professor David Salzberg, made an important note after taking on the job. He noted that, when on a plane, “if you have a script, women will talk to you.”

You can read more from Myles at his Cultural Learnings blog.