The Big Bang Theory – “The Pirate Solution”

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“The Pirate Solution”

October 12th, 2009

Usually, my reviews of The Big Bang Theory end up devolving into my frustration with the show’s treatment of Sheldon (a subject that many disagree with) and the ill-advised nature of Leonard and Penny’s relationship (which pretty much everyone agrees with, outside of a vocal minority), but “The Pirate Solution” is a rare occasion where I get to focus my analysis elsewhere.

I often feel that the show is held back by is adherence to the sitcom tradition of a fundamental lack of character development, focusing instead on character interaction. There are episodes where I totally buy into the value of this, accepting that although it holds the show back it nonetheless can result in some really fun comedy. However, there are episodes like “The Pirate Solution” which focus their attention on a character and in the process remind us that while some have turned into full-featured individuals others have, well, not.

Raj Koothrappali is a character who, like Penny, is a good foil for nearly every other character, but when you isolate him on his own things become starkly simple. Kunal Nayyar is an engaging actor, but the problem with Raj is that his lack of development is proving detrimental. When the show designates a Raj episode, it means the show recycles cliched India jokes and once again has Raj’s inability to speak to women prove detrimental. I won’t argue that this isn’t entertaining, as I think the Raj parts of this episode were charming; however, I think that there’s a point here where I wonder why Raj needs to be reduced to these stereotypes, and at what point his evolution would only improve the show’s dynamics.

Through the joys of Twitter, I was able to interact with the episode myself: I raised the question of why Raj still needs alcohol to speak to woman in terms of the show’s dynamics, and then the episode delivers a scene where that is the lone reason that he fails the interview for another job at the university. I still, ultimately, find this really problematic. It implies that the only way Raj can be a functioning human being is if there are no women in the room or he’s drunk, which is fun once (or perhaps thrice) but is wearing off its welcome.

Really, Raj is at his best when he’s interacting with Sheldon in the episode’s best sequence, as an intense Physics session set to “Eye of the Tiger” brings out a side of Raj that is smart but emotional. I really like Raj when he’s interacting with the whole group, but with Penny around more often the show is forced to have him sit quietly whispering. I like those sequences in terms of he and Wolowitz getting to make private jokes, but there comes a point where I’d like to see Raj and Penny have a storyline where he isn’t drunk, and for Raj to be able to be less hindered by this particular story device.

I think it’s an issue, for me, of the show looking far more repetitive than it really should. While the show is about character interactions, when both Wolowitz and Raj are so blindly simply defined episodes like this can feel interchangeable with others. When HIMYM did a similar deportation episode with Robin, they included a few stereotypical Canadian jokes but mixed them with great comic setpieces like Robin’s audition for the Lotto gig, as well as Barney’s video resume scheme. Here, however, Raj’s lines are nothing but a bunch of cliched Indian jokes (There’s a lot of people! He’ll miss beef! Etc.!), and the comic setpiece related to the storyline is just a retread of previous “Raj needs alcohol around women.” There’s a point where continuity gives way to a lack of ideas, and I think Raj’s character is reaching that point (and that Wolowitz passed it a while ago, but that’s neither here nor there).

The episode got some good comedy out of Raj’s condition, at the end of the day, but the only moment that really connected was the confusion over whether Raj could talk if Penny is out of the room but clearly listening at the door. The other moments are the same kind of comedy, the same sorts of moments that we’ve seen before and will probably see again. I want the show to do more than that with Raj, and I just feel his stock character trait is more limiting than Sheldon’s, and equally as limiting as Wolowitz (Leonard and Penny are effectively straight men/women by comparison, although that’s only when Penny’s in a relationship with Leonard – otherwise, she’s her own beast). I’m fine with Raj being awkward around Penny, or generally awkward, but I think the show would be better off overall if they gave up on the solid but repetitive gags and allowed the character to grow into something fundamentally the same but capable of more diversity.

As for the rest of the episode, Sheldon was the highlight and everything else kind of fell flat. That’s because, with Sheldon and Raj having quite a fun little storyline that even got a coda that humanized the former, this left Leonard and Penny with Wolowitz, which is just not a good combination for the show. Outside of the connectivity with Raj (Wolowitz waiting outside the door like Penny), it was a total dud for me.

Cultural Observations

  • As Dan Fienberg noted on Twitter, the show got a rare cultural reference wrong: it’s Mogwai that you can’t get wet, once they’re Gremlins you’re S.O.L.
  • Also, as Erika notes, Raj’s phobia of women implies that he’s never had to work with a woman in an academic setting before, a fact which seems enormously male-centric and thus perfect for a Chuck Lorre show.
  • Sheldon was on fire in that extended cold open, including the quite fantastic “Pirate Solution” runner as well as his quick-witted answer of “The Parade” to Penny’s Thanksgiving question.
  • I don’t particularly like when they write Sheldon to be culturally insensitive, but for “I swear to cow” it was totally worth it.
  • I think that Sheldon’s horribly played “practical jokes” is a fun running gag, but I think they’re trying too hard to give him “catchphrases” or anything similar: I think the joy of Sheldon is how he can turn any situation into a chance for him to act Sheldon-y, and doing it in the same fashion every time is kind of unnecessary (see also: the three knock thing).
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