The Big Bang Theory – “The Gorilla Experiment” or “The Athens Recurrence”

“The Gorilla Experiment” or “The Athens Recurrence”

December 7th, 2009

I wasn’t blogging about The Big Bang Theory when the show began, so I’ve never really commented on its titling structure. Each episode becomes a theory, which is totally logical and has resulted in some titles that make episodes seem momentous and potentially life-changing (even if they rarely are). Something like “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis,” though, really captures what makes that episode work, and especially captures Sheldon’s character and the value the show places on him.

That’s interesting with “The Athens Recurrence” (Edit: which apparently was a title that got changed to “The Gorilla Experiment,” which makes this paragraph either irrelevant OR potentially indicative of why it was changed) is that it simultaneously points out how recurrence is both an overwhelmingly positive thing in this universe (which is almost always improved when supporting characters recur and provide a sense of seriality) and a persistent problem (in that the same storylines keep recurring without any real sense that the show is changing). And while I’ve accepted that the former isn’t going to happen, and that the latter is inherent to the show’s setup, there are some times when the show pushes my button by teasing the former but ultimately accepting the latter.

If I had to place this episode within that paradigm, it’s ultimately a wash. I like that we’re seeing a recurring character like Bernadette sticking around, but at the same time the storyline ends up being distinctly unpleasant. And while I thought Sheldon and Penny’s storyline was as charming as their interactions always are, there was an inherent long-term question (basically, why Penny still feels insecure about her intelligence in her relationship with Leonard, and how it feels to have him so quickly latch onto Bernadette) that gets entirely glossed over. It made for an episode that’s great as a logline, but was actually more of a mixed bag than I would have expected.

I’ve often been criticized for being too easy on Sheldon, as some have argued (sometimes successfully) that my love for the character wrongly becomes love for the person, who at times is legitimately mean and in some cases justifiably spurned by his friends. However, I think that bugs me about Leonard in this episode is that he was pretty terrible to Howard and yet wasn’t a fun character in the least. When Sheldon’s mean, there is at least our perverse entertainment from observing his hilarious antics. When it’s Leonard who fails to realize that Howard (who has never had a girlfriend) would be concerned about Leonard striking up a friendship with his girlfriend, and it’s Leonard who sends her a text message that clearly outs Howard as insecure and jealous, I find no enjoyment whatsoever. In fact, I actively dislike the character, which is something beyond the ambivalence that I usually feel for the guy.

It’s not that Howard is perfect, as before he got a girlfriend I’d have gladly allowed any character to ridicule him or “textblock” him at every turn. However, he’s finally found some sort of a chance at happiness, and I find Bernadette to be a charming addition to his life and the cast. However, for Leonard not to see that Howard is extremely happy to be in a relationship, and to not be able to read the signs of Howard struggling to stay afloat in his new relationship, plays with one of the show’s most problematic paradoxes: for a show about really smart people, sometimes they act extremely dumb. And it’s one thing when it’s them getting caught up in geeky activities or something similar, where everyone has their off moments. However, Leonard is no Sheldon when it comes to reading social situations, and to have him act that ignorant (and in some ways as mean-spirited as Sheldon, such as when he stands there being snippy during their heartwarming conversation) only made the character that much less appealing.

I’m not of the mind that Penny and Leonard are entirely devoid of chemistry, but the show’s biggest problem is that we have been given no reason to root for their relationship. And, even in this episode, Leonard completely ignores his relationship with Penny when considering his friendship with Bernadette – at no moment does he stop to consider what this could appear to be, and we’re missing that scene where Leonard learns a lesson or where something of meaning comes from his behaviour. At least with Sheldon, there is a sense that his social inhibitions keep him from learning from his mistakes, but Leonard was just being stubborn and ignorant, and there’s nothing funny or entertaining about that.

And to be entirely fair to the show, it’s not like Penny’s efforts to save the relationship (by learning about physics so that she could, like Bernadette, discuss Leonard’s project) are any more romantic. There’s an underlying message that Penny is doing this because she has no chemistry with Leonard (nothing to talk about, no way for her to be part of his life), and yet the show largely ignores it to turn this into an issue more of pride than of love. She is tired of feeling stupid, and she goes to Sheldon hoping for a quick fix to what is a much deeper problem that learning a few sentences about Leonard’s project being reductive of existing research is not going to solve. The fact that the episode never has them reconcile, or even acknowledge that they were in a fight for the entire episode, makes it all feel the relationship only exists so that the characters have reasons to participate in storylines with other characters.

And yes, I complain less when that storyline becomes “Project Gorilla,” and features both Jim Parsons hilariously failing to teach physics and Kaley Cuoco humorously failing to understand physics. The show can’t go wrong with this recurring pair in terms of comic elements, and their lectures were easily the highlight of the episode. However, there’s still this sense that the scenes are hiding something deeper, avoiding the actual ramifications of their lesson (that Penny doesn’t feel connected to Leonard) and then never really putting them together. I like that the lessons change neither Sheldon (who is still a terrible teacher, and who only teaches Penny something that degrades Leonard’s research) nor Penny (who undermines her physics discussion with the only thing she remembered from the lecture, that fig newtons were named after a town in Massachusetts and not Newton the scientist), but I don’t like that Penny’s act seems to have no impact on Leonard and is literally just played as a joke. It’s not ultimately a laughing matter.

When there’s jokes at the beginning of an episode, like Penny’s hilarious rundown of the reasons that Sheldon sits where he does on the couch (to the letter), they’re cute and clever. However, when you get to the end of the episode, you want to feel like the jokes have built up to some sort of a conclusion. And while I’ve accepted that each season won’t have that impact, I at least expect individual stories to feel like they reach a climax and get some sort of “acknowledgement denouement” that forces the character to think for just a second about what happened in the episode. I might have my issues with shows that tack on a cheesy moral onto the final scenes (See: Modern Family), but at least it shows some sense that the characters remember the twenty minutes of tonight’s episodes if not the 50 episodes that aired previously.

Cultural Observations

  • The show could have spent an entire episode on Sheldon dealing with two girls being in the apartment, which isn’t new (it happened with Stephanie/Penny) but always brings out some of Sheldon’s best qualities.
  • However, sorry show – Bazinga is not happening. Drop it and move on.
  • The show is becoming a major place for geek product placement: Nintendo puts Mario Kart out there (with the footage and everything), and apparently ThinkGEEK sent the show one of its Tantaun Sleeping sleeping bags, likely in order to try to get it onto the show.
  • I know it was inevitable, but I really could have gone without Howard’s mother being part of his relationship with Bernadette. It was cute when it was just Howard being awkward and always introducing her as “My Girlfriend, Bernadette,” but it became less engaging when his shrill mother entered into the picture.


Filed under The Big Bang Theory

3 responses to “The Big Bang Theory – “The Gorilla Experiment” or “The Athens Recurrence”

  1. On the topic of product placement: I was very happy to see the star sapphire lantern corps shirt on Sheldon near the end.

  2. Does *anyone* think the mother is funny? Anyone besides the writers, I mean.

  3. e

    I enjoyed your critique of the show and this eposode in particular. I do like the show but I agree with you about its faults. my favorite bits are the Sheldon and Penny stuff. they are really the center of the show, having a sort of chemistry of their own. i feel that the Sheldon character in the first season was more “normal” than later on. my favorite thing about the show overall is the science.
    thank you for your post. 🙂

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