Season Premiere: The Big Bang Theory – “The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation”

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“The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation”

September 21st, 2009

There are things about The Big Bang Theory that I would consider outstanding. Jim Parsons, without question, is one of them. And on occasion the nerd driven humour, when not operating in spite of the central nerds but rather celebrating them, is legitimately charming. But when the show ended last season, it was not even close to outstanding, settling for a solid “average” on a whole thanks to a mean streak that I honestly don’t understand. While the Television Critics’ Association quite illogically named it “Outstanding Comedy Series,” the show frustrated me even in its second season by turning on its star, Sheldon, in a split second. The finale, as everyone packed up to go to the Arctic, was filled with the other characters (who are supposed to be Sheldon’s friends) desiring to kill themselves as opposed to spending three months confined with Dr. Cooper.

And as it returns from the break, the show remains off course for my personal tastes, taking a step towards an ill-fated relationship between Leonard and Penny and (more dangerously) continuing to subject Sheldon to the kind of treatment usually reserved for lepers. The episode has Leonard, in particular, treat Sheldon in a reprehensible fashion and as a nuisance keeping him from hooking up with Penny, and while this results in some fun material for Jim Parsons and some always charming Penny/Sheldon scenes, it also brings out the worst in the show’s other characters and is resolved without once holding Leonard responsible for his terrible behaviour.

It’s just another example of why, for all my love for Jim Parsons and particular scenes featuring Jim Parsons, this is ultimately a show that in its focus for the future is out to anger me as much as humanly possible.

I want to make clear that I thought the second season of the show was an improvement on the first, demonstrating a great sense of Parsons’ strength and delivering a better feeling of honouring rather than insulting their nerd behaviour. The problem at the end of the season was that all of this melts away when the show becomes about long-term story arcs. When the show just takes its characters and lets them run free, such as pairing a sick Sheldon with Penny while everyone else is out of town (referenced here with the “Soft Kitty” song), it’s a fun and enjoyable series that demonstrates the talent of its actors and the basic but successful writing style of its production team.

But when the show becomes about Penny and Leonard’s relationship, or about a trip to the Arctic Circle, the show turns into something quite different. All of a sudden, instead of relishing nerd culture it becomes about the relativity of Sheldon’s nerdhood compared with Leonard’s. I can understand the impulse, as Sheldon is an entertaining character when he’s pouting or depressed or especially when in a vengeance-seeking mood (something he is legitimately terrible, but hilarious, at), but in doing so they effectively turn every other character but Penny into a raving megalomaniac. Leonard not only led the mutiny against Sheldon, falsifying results so as to make living with him easier, but when he returns he is so busy trying to score with Penny that he never apologized effectively, and actually gets frustrated when Sheldon’s legitimately emotional response (albeit presented in Sheldon terms) disrupts his attempts to have sex. Leonard became a shockingly unlikable character in that moment, something which does very little to convince me that pairing him with Penny (who is sweet and kind even when being sarcastic or frustrated) is in any way a good idea.

And for a second at the end of the episode, it seemed as if they were heading in the right direction: returning Sheldon to his childhood home and ushering in a returning Laurie Metcalf as Sheldon’s mother offered a few nice lines, and Leonard finally abandoned his sexual fantasies to get Sheldon back. However, he did it begrudgingly, and at the end of the day it is his mother’s purposeful bible-thumping (a painfully bad line about evolution, in particular) that convinces Sheldon to get up and leave. There is no semblance of an apology from Leonard, no sense that they’re going to help him make it all right, and nothing at all which would convince me that this show has anything close to a beating heart. The only heart we saw was from Penny, who considering Leonard’s behaviour should have kicked him to the curb and rushed to Texas to comfort Sheldon (in an entirely platonic fashion – sorry, shippers, but I’m advocating only for her to be his only decent friend, nothing more).

And while I was glad for the return of Metcalf, who is as good as ever, the episode never really delivered with the laughs either. The beard/facial hair joke when on for a few scenes too long, the return of lisp-riddled Barry Kripke was just as unwelcome as his first appearance (which at least had killer robots to numb the effect of his humorless one-joke characterization), and the only runner that really connected with me was the “That’s what I added the tator/ensian.” The show worked well with the Vulcan hearing jokes and the Comic-Con/Star Trek references because it always does, but they were so minor in the overall episode that I can’t help but find little to no redemptive qualities on a large scale.

Perhaps the one positive is that the show admits in the final scene what we knew all alone: it’s weird between Leonard and Penny once they do have sex. So, then, why are we being subjected to the same storyline all over again? On a night when How I Met Your Mother dealt with a complicated “Will they, won’t they?” situation by simultaneously mining it for comedy while cementing its ability to work in the long term, The Big Bang Theory keeps going back to this well and yet never actually getting anywhere. Distance made the heart grow fonder for Penny (which I don’t get, but to each their own), so I’d almost rather they had actually make them functional as a couple: instead, the show is so afraid of actually growing that it just plays the same card all over again, taking us back to the same place we were a season ago.

I’ll be honest: I don’t like that place. Leonard is unlikable, Sheldon is unnecessarily an outcast, and Howard is as pointless and one-note as ever. For a show that at times seemed like it was grasping for something legitimately great last year, it has come out with a premiere which defines nearly everything I dislike about the show and not provided enough Laurie Metcalf or Sheldon/Penny bonding to mask it.

Cultural Observations

  • Of course Howard would keep a moustache. And buy a red cowboy hat. And speak in a Texan accent. I like Simon Helberg, but I just do not get Howard at all.
  • Raj, meanwhile, remains terrified of girls, but for once the regression of his character made for a nice line from Laurie Metcalf about 3rd world demons.
  • Metcalf even killed when off-camera, like with “No, I’m not sassing you with eskimo talk.” I now desire a Christine Baranski cameo so she can talk some sense into her son for a chance.
  • As always, Parsons nails every moment: whether his tragic pain at realizing Penny just quoted an unseen Star Trek movie at him or “Daddy’s home!” as he returns to his cherished seat, he keeps knocking it out of the park and hopefully heading towards another Emmy nomination.
  • I also always welcome the return of the “Knock Knock, Penny” joke, although they’ll never quite repeat the finale’s clever response from Penny.
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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Season Premiere: The Big Bang Theory – “The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation”

  1. I think, to a degree, you’re looking for BBT to be something that it’s not going to be. I, too, think the show can get pretty overrated, but I think that it’s less interested in character growth and change (which happens only incrementally on even the best traditional sitcoms) and more in character dynamics, which may be in flux every so often, but are more likely to rigidly snap back to a certain base line. Everybody cares about Sheldon, yes, but they’re also all often irritated by him.

    • I think the problem, though, is that the show still wants to follow the traditional premiere/finale ongoing storylines expectations without actually doing anything with them. It makes for frustrating episodes like this one where the characters aren’t allowed to interact normally, and instead operate in regards to Sheldon’s apparently awful behaviour in the Arctic that we have to take the show’s word for since they never show us.

      When the show is just about letting the characters interact, that’s one thing: but they contrive things so heavily for the finale/premiere situations that you can’t help but be frustrated when things wrap up too neatly and without consequence even if you’re laughing pleasantly again two weeks later when it’s all smoothed over.

      If it was consistently one or the other, I’d be more understanding, but it’s the false pretences which (to me) are not just the show being something I don’t like, but being something poorly constructed and planned out as well.

  2. Neoteny

    Hi, I think you are right on with your opinion. The characters may not like Sheldon’s behavior all the time, but they all respect that Sheldon is far superior to any of them, in their chosen science minded profession. They all share that geek code of being geeks, so they all have annoyances, but they all have each other.
    I don’t understand this episode, and I can’t imagine a way for the characters to recover. Leonard sabotaged the science work they were doing … if it were a show about doctors, would anyone laugh if one doctor purposely and consistently sabotaged the health of a patient, just to keep the annoying doctor busy with that patient?
    In this episode, sweet Penny throws herself, without question, at a hairy, smelly, just traveled Leonard, despite Leonard’s behavior that should have repelled and caused Penny to rethink whatever kind of person she imagined Leonard to be.
    How can Sheldon ever trust any of them again? They undermined THE point of Sheldon’s whole existence. Imagine if Sheldon developed the Napkin DNA and they choked the life out of Sheldon’s Leonard Nimoy clone baby, because it had an annoying habit of crying in the middle of the night … what is the difference? What could possibly happen to allow Sheldon to trust any of them again, or truly believe any of them care about scientific understanding in the same way that he does? Penny is the only person who offered him decency and respect.
    That whole business with his mother sucked ass … if he were the moma’s boy, then he would be sensitive to his mother’s mistaken belief in god and want to prove the truth to her … the mother, having raised such a son, wouldn’t try to destroy her son’s life pursuit by stating that all Sheldon’s thoughtful consideration is simply an “opinion”, and as such, there is no real truth for Sheldon to decipher out of all the thoughts in his head.
    I would feel really good if next week, Leonard wakes up on the plane flying them all home, and this episode was just a dream about getting Penny while also getting rid of Sheldon.

  3. Neoteny

    Of course, I don’t expect that to be the case … and maybe the Mother only spoke to provoke Sheldon to return … making the comment when Sheldon agreed to return, that her prayers were answered.

    Doesn’t that make for a situation where nobody, except Penny, actually has unspoken respect Sheldon? If so, then doesn’t that make for a dramatically altered show dynamic? If they would hurt him so badly, why would they continue to live with him, except perhaps to destroy him again? If next week Sheldon acts like this is all behind him, or like it was bad, but he can forgive it, or like he would obviously be hurt, yet he doesn’t let it show … won’t that just be sad to watch week after week?
    If such is the case, won’t that add to the Sheldon’s character, moving it a bit away from delightfully quirky, and more towards deranged crazy kook?

  4. NPComp

    Huh? No way is Sheldon supposed to be a likable character, he is funny to watch but he is a grade A jerk. Just think back to the time Penny was trying to console him and he started taking shots at her for no reason. After his annoying behaviour and the way sheldon has made everyone’s life a living hell I’m not surprised that they don’t all love him. I find his character hillarious but not one bit likable… similar to walowitz.

    • Sheldon tears people down. No arguments there.

      My issue is that the response from everyone else isn’t to tell him how annoying he is (that would be acceptable – nay, welcome), or to tear him down, but the sabotage his potentially career making research. I’m not suggesting that they had no right to turn on Sheldon, but to then refuse to apologize and still consider him a blight indicates that they were not wrong to go so far as to challenge his livelihood.

    • Takineko

      Sheldon is forgivable [by the audience and his friends] only because half the time he’s being a jerk he has no idea. He’s just stating facts. But when it’s pointed out to him he always apologizes and attempts to change how he interacts.

      The audience loves him. Adores him. And sometimes when the other characters are getting too annoyed with him, too short with him, for prolonged periods, it’s hard to watch for those of us who really love him.

      I’ve had a friend similar to him. Yes it can be frustrating, but I loved her dearly and I’d never treat Sheldon this way.

  5. Takineko

    I agree with you on everything except I enjoy Howard and Raj. Howard is very much a one note character, and I do wish I could see a little growth there, but darn it if he isn’t perfect for comedy relief when you need someone to spout a one-liner.

    Raj was excellent in this episode. He had great lines.

    If they completely ignore the fact that Sheldon still hasn’t been properly apologized to in the next episode.. I don’t know, maybe it was all a dream…

  6. Leonard and the others preserved the actual results of their research, which was apparently inconclusive. Their intention was not to sabotage the science, since they were always going to tell Sheldon once they got back. The problem was that Sheldon emailed everyone to announce his success before the others could do so. The lie was a temporary fix to make Sheldon easier to live with.

    Of course you could argue that had Sheldon known the research was not yielding results, he might have ben able to make corrections or adjustments to make it more fruitful. I suppose we are meant to take it that the guys were doing everything right and Sheldon was wrongly blaming them for messing things up just because he wasn’t getting the results he wanted.

    • Tess

      “Leonard and the others preserved the actual results of their research, which was apparently inconclusive. Their intention was not to sabotage the science, since they were always going to tell Sheldon once they got back. The problem was that Sheldon emailed everyone to announce his success before the others could do so. The lie was a temporary fix to make Sheldon easier to live with.”

      Exactly what I was going to say. Sheldon was brought down by his own ego. He shouldn’t have jumped the gun and announced to the world that he had the answers to one of the biggest debates in modern physics, especially before having the chance to look over his data.

      As for Penny and Leonard: Penny knows as well as anyone how impossible Sheldon can be. I never would have thought she’d be disgusted by Leonard and the others doing what they did. In fact, she more than anyone could understand why they did what they did.

  7. Pingback: Nerding it up for The Big Bang Theory

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