“The Guitarist Amplication”
November 9th, 2009
I want to play devil’s advocate and imagine, for a moment, what actually works about Leonard and Penny’s relationship. See, I don’t think that there is a fundamental incompatibility between these two characters so much as there is a fundamental inconsistency within both characters which often collides in ways that are less than entertaining. When Penny is intelligent and charming, and when Leonard is nervous but earnest, the couple is entirely inoffensive, within the realm of belief if not really setting the televisual world on fire.
However, when their worst character traits are amplified, their relationship is the worst sort of chemical reaction. “The Guitarist Amplification” decides to depict the couple’s first fight, and thus runs into two key problems. The first is that in order to create the fight the show exaggerates Leonard’s worst qualities, making him equal parts clueless and massively insecure. The second is that the show, by never quite dialing in on the relationship enough to make the audience care about it, wants us to root for something that we’re likely not rooting for. The result is a fight that is more annoying than it is funny, and an episode where the writers are almost entirely aware that the only value the show is getting out of this fight is how Sheldon responds to it.
Which isn’t a terrible strategy for the show, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not going to convince me this relationship is going to work.
There’s a stunning moment in this episode where Sheldon, as Raj and Howard are fighting over a cooking class incident, breaks down. The episode has established that he doesn’t deal well with confrontation and fighting, and in that moment we discover why: it’s because his parents fought when he was younger, and it has scarred him significantly. Jim Parsons absolutely destroys the recreation of one of his parents’ fights, switching between impressions of Sheldon’s mother and father and proving damn funny doing it. The episode is not actually about Leonard and Penny’s fight so much as it is about Sheldon’s response to it, as he events games and makes snow cones and gets out of cars and creates nests in comic book shops in order to escape the conflict.
In terms of the show’s strength, which is sometimes only Sheldon, it’s not a bad strategy. The episode becomes a collection of scenes which are either expressly about Sheldon, like the explosion in the comic book store, or are about Sheldon’s relationship with other characters, like his discussion with Penny at the Cheesecake Factory. The show has moved away from scenes featuring just Sheldon and Penny as of late, and I thought it worked well. I think that Kaley Cuoco is at her best when playing off of Sheldon, and her return to the table after realizing that Sheldon suggested she had her own problems in the relationship was a nice piece of broad comedy that she doesn’t get to play sometimes. Sheldon is just a really engaging foil for the show, and placing his phobia of arguments in the presence of Raj and his parents, and Howard and his Mother, were small beats that didn’t do for anything more than watching Jim Parsons squirm his way out of awkward situations and a chance to revisit parts of the show that are usually quite reliable.
However, the problem with the entire storyline is that we want to escape the fighting between Leonard and Penny just as much as Sheldon does, and to some degree the show felt the same way. The focus on Sheldon shows that the writers are no more interested in the fight than Sheldon is, and it shows in the fundamental lack of logical reasoning behind it. The cold open escalates from a potential squabble to an outright shouting match so fast that it implies this relationship has always been that unstable, which doesn’t jive with what we’ve seen to this point. Also, perhaps most problematically, Leonard was being insecure to the point of being both a jerk and an ass (synonyms or no, he earned two descriptors) while Penny was being petulant if not quite as frustrating (since she was helping a friend in a well-intentioned fashion, albeit while remaining blind to the potential problems). What was fascinating about the entire scenario is that, in the end, the only reason that Leonard didn’t suggest Justin sleep on his couch, or that an ultimatum be made, is that the show needed the fight to continue for the Sheldon story to work. The episode also struggled with the ending because it seemed as if Leonard and Penny reconciled when they shifted into a parental role for a child-like Sheldon, which reduces his character and compromises theirs in ways I don’t think the show really wants to deal with.
If this is how they plan on using this relationship, it’s never going to feel like a natural part of the show, and I really don’t foresee it ever integrating into the context of the series. I understand that the fight in question gave us what was a really nice little Sheldon storyline that gave Jim Parsons a lot of great material, which means that I shouldn’t be complaining perhaps as much as I am, but the way it was depicted shows that the writers either don’t understand that it’s not working or, perhaps more dangerously, don’t care if it’s not working. They might be shrugging their shoulders and deciding that it’s a way for them to tell a few different types of stories, which is true but which shows the unnatural machinations behind the pairing as opposed to drawing on any sort of emotional baseline. It reveals the storyline as a plot without a pulse, being kept alive effectively for the purpose of propping up the parts of the show that are working more consistently.
And, such, we return to the million dollar question: if the only reason the storyline exists is because of its impact on characters who are not actually in the relationship, at one point is the storyline more of a drain on the show’s comedy than it is an element of its success? I think this is an episode which shows that the writers are already to the point of using, rather than developing, the story, which says to me that it’s about time that this couple (and not the couple on the other CBS Monday comedy I watch) get back together as friends.
- Reasons I love Twitter, as per usual: Jaime Weinman makes a comment about how Raj and Howard’s relationship often seems to go beyond bromance to something domestic and dependent, but how there doesn’t seem to be a fandom for that particular pairing (as far as he can tell). Then, moments later, the show plays the joke about Raj’s parents considering Howard the closest thing to a daughter-in-law they have – television is listening, Jaime.
- I was disappointed that Stewart, who was so confident with Penny before, reverted to a hormonal teenager around her in this episode.
- I would totally buy a copy of Research Lab: the physics are theoretical, but the fun is real! Hey, that sort of works for Leonard and Penny too: the chemistry is theoretical, but the pain is real!
- The Black Eyed Peas joke was an unfortunate extension of the idea that the real reason Leonard isn’t good enough for Penny is that he doesn’t know the different between a food product and a pop band – that couldn’t have been less relevant in this storyline.
- I like how they put Justin’s guitar next to the couch in the coda, just in case we didn’t put together that it was Justin. I’ll admit, though, that based on the show’s track record I expected them to give us no sense of resolution, so the coda serving as a finale rather than a joke was a welcome change (even if it seemed like Leonard and Penny’s fight ended as quickly as it started).