‘The Big Bang Theory’: Was Penny’s Drinking a Problem?

What happens when a pretty blond moves in next door to a couple of physicists? Well, according to The Big Bang Theory, she befriends them and eventually falls in love with one of them. Penny, whose last name is never disclosed, was the glue that managed to bind the show together for 12 seasons, but fans of the acclaimed series have long wondered whether the drinking she did on the series constituted a problem? So, was Penny an alcoholic?

Was Penny an alcoholic?

Penny’s drinking wasn’t seen as a problem for the first few seasons of The Big Bang Theory, but as the show garnered a larger following, more and more fans began to point out that they believed Penny might have been an alcoholic. Reddit fans have discussed the possibility multiple times, noting that Penny often uses alcohol to escape reality and that she’s had notable instances of blacking out. Does that make her an alcoholic, though?

According to The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a person is diagnosed with an alcohol abuse disorder if they meet two of twelve criteria during the same 12-month period. The criteria for alcohol abuse disorder generally focuses on whether or not drinking has caused a problem in an individual’s life, or if they experience cravings and desires for alcohol. Penny, while she certainly enjoyed booze to escape, doesn’t appear to fit the criteria for an actual disorder, based on what is seen in the show.

Penny’s drinking didn’t interfere with her ability to work. It did not prevent her from engaging in activities she enjoyed, and she didn’t seem to place herself in dangerous situations. Penny also didn’t appear to experience cravings or withdrawal symptoms when she didn’t drink, nor did she ever appear to have difficulty when not imbibing. Overall, Penny was a heavier drinker than some, but it doesn’t look as though she was a problem drinker or headed toward alcoholism.

Penny’s drinking seems to level out eventually

While some fans insist that Penny had a drinking problem when you look at latter seasons, you can tell that she’s matured, and her drinking appears to level out substantially, especially as she heads into a more serious relationship with Leonard. She also ages significantly from the start of the show to the series finale.

Beverly Hofstadter(Christine Baranski), Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco)
Beverly Hofstadter(Christine Baranski), Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco)| Michael Yarish/CBS via Getty Images

It’s important to remember that when the series premiers, Penny is supposed to be 22 years old when she moves in across the hall from Sheldon and Leonard. She is freshly single, and relatively young, meaning her drinking and partying would likely be at its height. During the show’s earliest seasons, Penny appears to drink with friends while out dancing, but as she ages, she seems to spend more time drinking in her apartment, either alone, or with Bernadette and Amy. Penny may drink more than average, but it’s hard to call her drinking, at least towards the tail-end of the series, problematic.  

Some fans think her drinking was stepped back significantly after writers noticed fans talking about it. If that’s the case, it would suggest show creators never intended to cast Penny as a problem drinker. Since she is, in fact, a fictional character, it can be assumed she was not an alcoholic. If that was the intention, the writers probably would have included that information in the series, at some point.

Its possible writers were trying to give her a darker spin

Penny, portrayed by Kaley Cuoco, wasn’t originally written as the bubbly blond that fans grew to know and love. In fact, Cuoco was never supposed to play her in the first place. When the original pilot was shot, Penny’s character didn’t exist. Instead, a next-door neighbor named Katie was supposed to be played by Amanda Walsh.

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Katie was far darker than Penny, and clearly had more street smarts than the loveably Penny. The unaired pilot shows her being far edgier than the eventual Penny. The character of Katie was wiped from the series when the concept didn’t test well. To replace the neighbor, Cuoco was brought back in, but instead of dark and edgy, she was advised to play the role as sweet and a bit naive. She did just that, and the character of Penny was born. It’s possible that the writers tried to slip a bit of edge back into he role by portraying Penny as a bit of a problem drinker.