The Big Bang Theory – “The Pants Alternative”

“The Pants Alternative”

March 22nd, 2010

I’ve complained a lot in the past that the show often boils down to Sheldon vs. Everyone else, a dynamic which makes Sheldon seem more unlikeable than the audience wants him to be and which makes all of the other characters seem more unpleasant than they need to be. And so when “The Pants Alternative” starts with Sheldon getting an ego-boosting award, I was concerned that the episode would be about how Sheldon’s award would drive a wedge between this group of friends and create some new conflicts.

Instead, the show surprised me, as Sheldon’s friends come together to help him overcome his fear of public speaking. What follows is a set of loosely connected scenes that work pretty well as spotlights for Jim Parsons’ comic talents, proving that he can legitimately have a great scene with every character on this show. However, while those scenes might work, the big conclusion ends up taking the character too far, giving into the broad and meaningless as opposed to building the character’s self-confidence in any way. By turning a potential moment of progress into a moment of humiliation, “The Pants Alternative” undermines some of its early goodwill and emerges an average, rather than exemplary, episode.

When the idea of Sheldon being assisted by his C-Men was first introduced, or at least once we got past the cheap joke, it was clear that this was going to be a good setup for Jim Parsons. By separating him with other characters, it pretty much guarantees that he will be the major player in each scene, which is something that he is very much able to use to his advantage. By creating scenes where Sheldon interacts with Raj, Penny and Leonard on a one-to-one basis, the show can create different types of humour surrounding the character without having to create different episodes for it, which isn’t exactly complex comedy writing but it makes for some great performance potential.

My favourite of the three scenes was probably his meditation session with Raj: it was the least effective at the end of the day, sure, but I thought that the scene had a nice rapport to it. The journey into Sim City’s Sheldonopolis, and Sheldon’s constant undermining of Raj’s attempts to guide the meditation session were just plain old clicking – Sheldon wasn’t being mean or dismissive of someone trying to help him, he was simply taking complete control over the situation. The same setup worked pretty well in his therapy session with Leonard, as they quickly switched roles in what was a clever turn of events. I don’t really have a lot of analysis of those two scenes: they played into the best aspects of Sheldon’s character and at the same time let Raj and Leonard delve into some of their funniest traits (Raj’s inability to be taken seriously, Leonard’s Mommy issues). In fact, the one disappointment of the sequence of scenes was that Sheldon pairing up with Penny proved fairly ineffective: clothes shopping made for some fun visual gags, but it didn’t give Cuoco much to do and that’s a bit of a shame.

However, things were going well up until the point where the speech actually begins, at which point the show throws all subtlety out the window in favour of a big scene of embarrassment. Now, just to be clear, I think there’s a place for a scene like this, in that Sheldon could have easily ended up giving an embarrassing speech or telling bad jokes (perhaps at Howard’s urging, if you wanted to give him a role in the episode) and things might have worked out fine. But it wasn’t clear why Sheldon had to be drunk to give the speech, or why Sheldon being drunk was particularly funny. Yes, Sheldon drunk is hilarious due to Jim Parsons’ comic talents, but it seemed like a cheap gag where a clever gag would have been more effective. The idea that Sheldon needs alcohol to be embarrassing just doesn’t click with me, and while these sorts of broad gags are a sitcom staple – take, for example, Barney Stinson’s appearance on the Price is Right on How I Met Your Mother – there comes a point where the cliche takes over and the character is lost.

As a result, the scene that most bugged me was the coda, in which Sheldon’s embarrassment is put on YouTube for the world to see. While it’s funny to see Sheldon’s antics, and I don’t blame Leonard and Penny for wanting to milk this while it lasts, there isn’t a single moment of redemption. I would have been perfectly fine if Sheldon had actually been happy about his performance, in that he didn’t faint on stage and he has gotten over his fear of public speaking – he got his award, he gave his speech, and now he can carry on like nothing ever happened (fitting since in the show’s universe, this will be forgotten by the time next week rolls around). However, instead we end on the same note as we did in the previous scene, Sheldon embarrassed. There’s no moment where we’re shown that perhaps he learned something from this experience, or some sense of how he is going to deal with this; instead, it’s one last chance to laugh at Sheldon’s misfortune.

There’s no question that this will be considered as a potential Emmy submission for Jim Parsons, and I’d even go so far as to suggest it was written as one. He’s in the entire episode, he has scenes where his socially awkward character takes part in social situations, and Parsons is really great throughout, even in those scenes which I thought took things too far. However, the problem is that there’s no heart in the episode: Sheldon’s friends end up getting him drunk instead of helping him, and they choose to emphasize his embarrassment over the conquering of his fears (albeit with the help of alcohol). When Barney didn’t tell Bob Barker that he was his son on the Price is Right, the show takes a moment to have Barney show some sense of humanity before then undercutting it with a clever joke: here, Sheldon IS the joke as opposed to the character making jokes. I would have taken a well-placed Bazinga and an attempt to look on the bright side if only it made it seem like Sheldon was as capable of turning around this embarrassment as he was capable of turning around his one-on-ones with Raj and Leonard.

Instead, we’re left with another episode that takes things to a broad place where any subtlety that could have potentially come from the storyline is pretty well wiped away. “The Pants Alternative” is funny, and features a great comic performance, but it left a bad taste in my mouth that I don’t think Emmy voters will take to as the writers might want them to.

Cultural Observations

  • Sheldon’s journey through Sheldonopolis felt very reminiscent of Dwight on The Office, especially the idea that he would only give himself a 15% discount at Shel-Mart; it makes me realize how much the laugh track makes Sheldon seem less ridiculous than Dwight, who says similar things (like his salary at his bed and breakfast he co-owns with Satan) to a cynical and sarcastic audience within the office environment.
  • I thought the “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Uranus” jokes made Sheldon out to be too juvenile, while the earlier comedy fit really well. I thought “Taken for Granite” was quite funny, and I have to wonder how not a single person but Raj laughed at that joke and a few others.
  • The Avatar joke in the cold open seemed all sorts of lazy: I think Avatar is too popular for the gang to be discussing, as everyone (not just geeks) think about stuff like that, which makes it seem like something this group of geeks would have gotten over by now.
  • Maybe it’s just the TV I was watching on, but everyone seemed to have gotten disastrous spray tans before this episode or something.
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4 Comments

Filed under The Big Bang Theory

4 responses to “The Big Bang Theory – “The Pants Alternative”

  1. Yvonne

    I agree with you on all this–the show’s descent into “mocking” humor continues to be its Achilles’ heel. (Also, the “embarrassment on Youtube” bit was done in Season 1 already).

  2. Tausif Khan

    By creating scenes where Sheldon interacts with Raj, Sheldon and Leonard on a one-to-one basis

    I think he interacts with Raj, Penny and Leonard. Does he get an individual scene with Howard?

    I do like that Howard’s usually offensive behavior is being used properly as a foil for Sheldon though.

  3. Evamarie

    I agree. I also spent most of the scene going “Why has no one taken away the microphone?” I know, I know “for comedy”, but it went way too far.

    I know it’s a sitcom, but I’m getting tired of the complete reset each episode. They reset more to the level of the Simpsons, and beyond other sitcoms. Even That 70’s Show more character growth and continuity.

    At the risk of beating a dead horse – Penny didn’t know X-Men? Wouldn’t she at least have watched for the guy who played Wolverine?

  4. One nitpick: it is well established that the X-Men were *not* named for Professor Charles Xavier (at least in the marvel universe… Pretty sure Stan Lee had some intentions).

    The ‘X’ in X-Men is for the X-gene. The gene that is the source if their mutations. Sheldon should know this.

    Sidenote: Two Green Lantern related shirts two weeks in a row is definitely intentional :)

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