“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.
- 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.