S4E9: Oh, inconsistency. Why must you plague one of my favorite shows?
Once again, I’m frustrated with The Big Bang Theory — a feeling I’ve had for much of this season. Although it offered one of my favorite Sheldon moments in the show’s history, last night’s episode was disappointing.
We opened with the guys hanging out, going through all their comic books, waiting for pizza. And in this moment, we get a few funny jokes about superheroes in the Marvel Universe (“Wolverine’s never shown the slightest interest in helping others prevent prostate cancer.”). But, I’d like to take this moment to note one of the things I think is getting lazy about BBT, and that’s the “nerd jokes.” Is it just me, or has this season felt like they’re doing a lot more generic nerd things? I know the guys have always had “Halo night” or “comic book store night,” but this season, the nerd jokes don’t feel like jokes at all; they feel like stereotypes (like last week’s adventure to Raiders of the Lost Ark). And whenever the show relies on that type of humor — the whole, “hey look, these guys are nerds, laugh at them!” aspect — I think it hurts it overall. Instead of being characters that viewers can actually identify with, we’re stuck with archetypes that have no depth or redeeming factors. And when characters are flat like that, especially in a multi-camera sitcom, it’s not just unlikable, but it’s annoying.
Anyway, turns out, this whole comic book scene was just a setup for the ep’s main storyline — and that’s another Leonard and Penny plot. Penny’s dad is in town (played quite well by Keith Carradine, by the way), and we learn that Penny lied to her father about her relationship with Leonard. Turns out, Leonard is the only guy Penny’s ever dated that he approves of, so since he’s in town, she told him that she and Leonard are back together. So she begs Leonard to help her out and act like her boyfriend. So obviously, because Leonard is a lonely geek, he gladly accepts.
And I like the way that the writers and Johnny Galecki play this decision. Leonard not only agrees to help Penny out, but sees this as an opportunity to finally have the upper hand in their relationship, something he’s never had. Yeah, he does kiss her quite a bit, which treads awfully close to being extremely creepy, but overall he shows how he finally has some control over this weird, twisted, circular relationship he has with Penny. Plus, it was nice to see Galecki finally do something with his character beyond just setting up jokes for Sheldon.
But at the same time, and BBT writers should listen to this point, no matter how hard the show tries, Leonard and Penny will never be Ross and Rachel. This isn’t to say I don’t think that they can have a relationship that the audience cares about, I’m just a little sick of it. The fact is, people watch the BBT for the humor — or in my case, for humor centering on Sheldon — but we don’t really care about the relationships. At least not enough to justify Leonard and Penny breaking up and getting back together every season. Once was fine, twice was enough and now, since the writers are constantly imposing the same narrative on us just to take it away again it’s turned into a “boy who cried wolf” situation. Anytime Leonard and Penny even toy around with this idea I get so sick of it I just wish they’d shut up and commit to one direction.
I should also note that this episode’s story was one of the few times this season (perhaps the only time, I can’t quite remember) that the entire episode didn’t awkwardly focus solely on Sheldon. And for that, I’m thankful. BBT is successful as an ensemble show. Yes, Sheldon is by far my favorite part, but without the rest of the crew his jokes don’t work and aren’t quite as funny. When the writers take time to allow the entire cast to have an input, it makes all the punchlines better.
Also, I probably shouldn’t ignore the B-plot this week. Raj and Howard are hanging out with Bernadette, waiting to discover a planet, when Raj gets all sad that he doesn’t have a girlfriend. And all of his moping around (and drinking wine) results in him leaning in to kiss Bernadette, only to have Howard push her out of the way, and the two kiss. This moment was kind of funny but I don’t think it needed the whole slow-motion thing to amp up the humor. In fact, I think it would’ve been funnier if they didn’t focus on the gag so much.
But regardless, I’m happy to see the writers develop Raj a little bit more. His character has always been slightly ignored, and I’ve always thought, outside of Sheldon, he has some of the funniest one liners. I hope they venture down this road more often.
As the story progressed, Penny’s dad eventually found out that the two weren’t dating, and he was quite upset that his daughter didn’t feel like she could trust him. And then he sends Penny to her room and he performs a quick turn on Leonard, begging him to not give up on his daughter because he’s sick of all the other low-life’s who “wear their hat backwards.” And so, Leonard leaves the apartment to go back home.
Now here’s the funny part. Earlier in the episode, Sheldon caught a glimpse of Leonard and Penny kissing. So, naturally, he decided to rework the famous “roommate agreement” to make sure that Penny spending the night wouldn’t affect him negatively. So when Leonard returns to the apartment, being “dumped” by Penny again, Sheldon comes out from his room. He was up all night finishing the “Penny-specific section of the roommate agreement” — a stack of 100 or so papers — and tells Leonard he needs his signature. Leonard delivers the bad news of the “break-up,” and Sheldon, frustrated, throws all the papers in the air. “Do you even think about other people, Leonard?” he says. “Do you?” And I must say, I got belly laughs from this part — specifically when the paper stuck to Jim Parsons‘ cheek and he remained completely poised as the studio audience (and I) lost it.
It’s in these moments of belly laughter that I remember why I love multi-camera sitcoms like BBT. I know, on the whole, they aren’t considered to be smart like single-camera shows like, say, Community or Arrested Development. But what they do have that those other shows lack is a theatrical element. Any time you bring theater into the equation there’s a chance for accidents to happen — accidents like the paper hilariously sticking to Parsons’ face after he threw them in the air. In a single-camera, studio audience-free show, a moment like that would probably be cut, because without the combination of the loud laughter and the poise of the actor, the humor isn’t quite there.
Some folks may call relying on a studio audience reaction for humor is cheap (I’m looking at you, colleague Sam Morgan) and those same people might say that if BBT didn’t have to pause for that laughter, they could fit more jokes in during those moments. And although that may very well be true, I’ve always thought multi-camera sitcoms relied more on the talent of the actors versus the wit of the writing. That’s why, on the whole, I’m cool with BBT using a plot line we’ve seen before (like this week’s), as long as it delivers on the theatrical, over-the-top, acting end (like Sheldon’s moment).
But, now the question is, was the ending joke with Sheldon a big enough payoff for the rest of a lackluster episode? I don’t think so, and that’s the main problem with BBT this season. In the past, it hadn’t had as much trouble finding humor in parts of the show outside of Sheldon. But now, because of the heavy reliance on stereotypical nerd jokes, we’re lacking balance. And no balance means no consistency. And that’s never, ever good.