“The Lunar Excitation”
May 24th, 2010
“What’s life without whimsy?”
In the age of Ausiello (a dark age if I’ve ever heard of one), there are no more surprises: we’ve known for months that Sheldon would be “getting a love interest” in the form of Mayim Bialik, so any of the sudden shock at the events of “The Lunar Excitation” never really materializes. We’ve had months to think about how the show was going to negotiate Sheldon experiencing something vaguely approaching a romantic connection after having made the argument that the character is “in love with science,” so it’s not like we didn’t know this was coming.
The question for me was just how they would maneuver Sheldon into this situation, and how they would either maneuver him out of it or transition into a new facet of his personality. Ultimately, the final two questions are going to have to wait until next season, but I quite liked “The Lunar Excitation” in terms of how it got Sheldon to the point of being willing to (sort of) put himself out there (quasi-)romantically. It’s not, perhaps, the complex investigation of Sheldon’s social interactions which speaks to his greater neuroses that some part of me desires, but when you consider what this storyline could have become I think we have to consider ourselves lucky: Jim Parsons remains funny, Sheldon’s character is never compromised, and the series resists “duping” Sheldon into becoming a part of the charade.
“The Lunar Excitation” actually does quite well with both of its storylines, delivering a nice parting note for Penny and Leonard which leaves their relationship in a more complicated place than I had imagined heading into the summer. The finale also had a certain energy to it, with the sense of whimsy which was absent in the show during some of its third season episodes restored. It’s a whimsy which bodes well for the fourth season, even if I do have some questions about just how this is all going to play out in September considering the events in the episode.
And frankly, I’m just glad that I’ve got something to chew on with the show, considering its propensity to tie things off in a neat bow.
I don’t want to make it sound like the show is suddenly setting up highly serialized cliffhangers or anything of that nature: I don’t think anything major is about to happen after Sheldon gets Amy her tepid water, nor is Leonard’s situation with Penny volatile in any fashion. Rather, the two situations are just more complex than we’re used to seeing, meant to have us raising our eyebrows at whether Sheldon considers Amy a soul mate or a comrade, and wondering about the long-term ramifications of Penny’s ill-advised drunken booty call. We have questions that we’re going to want to have answered, which isn’t something that usually happens with the show and that I’m quite pleased to see.
In terms of Leonard and Penny, what works about the story is that it doesn’t put either character in a different place: Leonard remains in love with Penny, and Penny remains very much not ready for love, so their hookup means everything to Leonard and nothing to Penny beyond an attempt to recover from Zack’s stupidity. Zack is the part of the story that doesn’t work, an easy shortcut to the “real” story which never feels particular clever (in that Zack is just a bit too stupid, making the gang’s jokes at his expense a bit rote). However, once it gets to where it wants to go, I like what the story does: I was expecting the show to revert the two back to friends with an awkward romantic past, but the booty call makes it clear that there’s enough complicated feelings floating around here that this isn’t just going to be a return to the status quo. And while I know that there are plenty of people out there who are terrified of the idea of Leonard and Penny back together, I think this sort of complex emotional state could actually be the building blocks for a legitimate relationship if they play their cards right. We’d actually see them working through their emotions and issues, perhaps giving us evidence of why they work as a couple by drawing on their tension. When we got tension within their relationship, it felt like contrived sitcom arguments: here, it feels a bit more inspired as they wage war without that expectation, and there was an energy in their antagonism they didn’t achieve in a state of “happiness.”
I’ll admit that I started off doubting the Sheldon story in this episode: I came into it worried they would turn it into tomfoolery, and Raj and Howard’s early indications that putting him on a dating site would be an “experiment” had me distinctly worried. However, after starting the episode with a number of really funny runs (including his refusal to believe in orange juice or toaster claims while fully believing the claims of a butter substitute), Jim Parsons is absolutely let loose once the show wisely lets Sheldon in on the joke, or what would be better described as the “plan.” It turns out that Howard and Raj filled out the survey as he would fill out the survey, which doesn’t keep Sheldon from responding to their plan in a very Sheldon-like way (“I would snort in derision and throw my hands in the air, exhausted by your constant tomfoolery”) but which does keep him from becoming visibly angry. Sure, Sheldon has to be blackmailed with a dirty sock in his apartment before he agrees to the gambit, but it creates an ideal scenario: they clearly define it as an experiment regarding the validity of online matchmaking rather than Sheldon’s social interactions, and he attends both due to the legitimate appeal to his scientific curiosity and his fear of unwashed hosery. It’s a very Sheldon-like way to get into that situation, and more importantly it was laugh-out-loud funny in a way that is distinctive to this character. There was a sharpness to the jokes, right down to the moment where we actually meet Amy and they find themselves to be male and female versions of the same person.
I will go on record now as saying that I think Amy is a red herring. I think Ausiello’s pre-hype has us thinking in a romantic context, but nothing we see in the scene indicates any type of intense romantic connection. However, I think this is a pretty substantial step for Sheldon regardless of whether Amy becomes a romantic connection or just a friend: the simple idea of Sheldon interacting with another human being on a friendly level who isn’t already his friend would be considered a breakthrough, and I think it would be a nice extension of the strides he has made with Penny over the past few seasons. What makes Sheldon “special” is that he doesn’t fit into traditional notions of human relationships, which is what makes his friendship with Penny so valuable to the series, and I don’t think the show would be willing to lose that by depicting Sheldon in a traditional relationship. Instead, I think it’s perfectly logical and still interesting for his character if he and Amy strike up a friendship, giving Sheldon someone outside of the inner circle to interact with who perhaps respects him more than the other characters.
I don’t mean to suggest that Sheldon should never evolve to the point of having a romantic relationship: like Barney on How I Met Your Mother, I think the writers will eventually get to the point where they reach the limits of the character’s current worldview and they will likely push Sheldon into new frontiers when the show heads into its fifth or sixth seasons. However, I think the show has earned the ability (through Parsons’ great performance) to take things slow with the character: Penny and Sheldon’s connection didn’t immediately emerge in the first season beyond Cuoco and Parsons’ comic chemistry, so these sorts of changes are going to take time. As much as I enjoy serialization in my comedies, the benefit of a standalone sitcom structure is that we can spend some time living with Sheldon and seeing small moments of growth more than huge character shifts. While “The Lunar Excitation” wants to excite us into thinking that we’ve seen a huge turning point in Sheldon’s life, the collision of forces which were never meant to collide, the more likely result is that we’re seeing something that Sheldon might not have done three years ago, and something he might not do again for another two years.
By surrounding that moment with some clever and in some cases complex material, and giving Parsons plenty of great material to play with, The Big Bang Theory ends its third season with a confident posture which avoids wrapping things up neatly or upending any of the developments we experienced this season. That it remains light-hearted and funny throughout it all is helpful, sending the season off on one of its stronger notes.
- I loved some of the little beats we got in the episode: the Cold Open didn’t really connect for me (Good Wife jokes were strained), Zack may have been annoying, but when it became about these friends hanging out I thought there were some nice moments. I liked the short beat where Howards suggests Raj ask Leonard what’s wrong – there’s no punchline to the joke other than Leonard’s unresponsiveness leading Raj to suggest that Howard think of a better suggestion next time. Those two are a fun comic pair, but they’re so often defined by stereotypes that we don’t get to see them play off each other: here they were allowed to be people more than stereotypes, and it felt less strained as a result.
- I remain concerned about the idea of Bazinga having gone from a term used to note sarcasm or a joke to now serving as a name for the jokes which Sheldon tells. “That was a Bazinga” is just a really strange conflation of the term – if the stupid catchphrase is going to stick around, I demand semantical consistency!
- Similar to the above Raj comment, I liked Leonard throwing his liquor bottle down into the elevator and using the time it took to reach the bottom to calculate the distance. It was drunken geekiness at its finest, and a great little beat.
- It is now our duty as a civilization to introduce prevening into common vernacular. Get it done, folks.
- Haughty and Derision are two of my favourite words, so putting them together is another win for Sheldon.