“The Maternal Congruence”
December 14th, 2009
When running through the Big Bang Theory’s first and second seasons, there is no question that Christine Baranski’s appearance as Leonard’s mother was a highlight for me. I like Baranski in general, and I thought that the idea that Leonard grew up with this level of psycho-analysis was a nice bit of back story for his character, and seeing her interact with Leonard, Penny and perhaps more importantly Sheldon (who she clearly connects with more than her own son) was a lot of fun.
However, these kinds of characters don’t always work when you bring them back again. With the novelty factor gone, the jokes can become stale even if the actress is as good as Baranski (or as good as Elaine Stritch, whose Colleen Donaghy has seen diminishing returns on 30 Rock with every appearance). And parts of “The Maternal Congruence” act as if Beverly Hofstadter’s return is funny because it unearths the same jokes, like Penny’s father issues or Raj and Howard’s latent homosexual feelings, which is the sort of repetition that does the show no favours.
The episode seems smart, however, in how it plays up the ramifications of Sheldon and Beverly’s relationship, allowing it to evolve beyond a single observation (that Sheldon is more like Leonard’s Mother than Leonard) to its psychological impact, allowing Leonard to actually get angry rather than just annoyed with the way his mother treats him. But as opposed to stretching its characters to allow the ramifications of their relationship to really come to the surface, the episode goes down an entirely different path, getting everyone drunk and making fools of themselves to provide a raucous conclusion.
Like many good guest stars, Baranski elevates the material, but forgive me if I can’t help but have a case of Big Bang Theory Weltschmerz: I look at the ideal episode in my head, and then at what we’re actually given, and I can’t help but be a bit saddened (especially considering how the show ended its Christmas episode last year).
What’s interesting about the episode is that it felt so resistant on building on any past events, or even referring to them in passing. I understand that this isn’t a serialized show, but considering how eventful “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” was you would think that we would get an extension of last season’s gift-giving discussion as opposed to the generic “Sheldon vs. Christmas” material we got here. I’d rather the show develop running gags, or at least nostalgically tip its hat to previous gags, than just doing the same type of joke slightly differently as if the previous joke never existed. There can still be continuity without feeling as if you need to have seen previous episodes to get a particular joke, and having Penny act so ignorant to Sheldon’s views on Christmas when just last week she was able to recite his entire logic for sitting in a particular spot seemed almost insulting. Yes, Newtonmas was a nice touch, but that the show pretended a very similar conversation hadn’t happened before was bizarre – not even a “what is it going to be this year?” from someone?
The show’s main storyline wasn’t insulting, per se, but it again teased me by appearing as if it was heading down a more interesting path. There’s always been an interesting parallel between Sheldon, who grew up in a “normal” household and became weird, and Leonard, who grew up in a “weird” household and emerged comparatively normal, and Leonard’s mother tends to bring this to the surface. And there’s a point, where Leonard discovers that Sheldon and his mother have been having video chats and exchanging notes on papers, that indicates the show might want to look further into why Sheldon and Leonard are compatible as friends (that Leonard sees in Sheldon some part of his upbringing, and that Sheldon in some way likes to have someone around who reminds him of home even if only why he loathed his time there). I was hoping for a moment of humanity from Leonard, and perhaps a moment of Barney Stinson-esque emotion from Sheldon (wherein an emotional reveal is made, and then immediately undercut by an insult on Leonard intelligence, or something similar).
But the episode, and the show, isn’t interested in moments like that, and instead the show largely plays Sheldon for comic effect as Penny and Beverly head out to get sloshed. And at that point the show embraces the “you pee yourself when you’re drunk” jokes and becomes a great comic showcase for Christine Baranski but an entirely irrelevant storyline for these characters: Leonard gets his chance to stand up to his mother, but considering she was drunk at the time it doesn’t actually affect their relationship in the least. It implies that Leonard can only stand up to his mother when she’s drunk, which is kind of even more sad for his character. Baranski drunk and undressing bus boys with her eyes was funny, don’t get me wrong, and putting her with Kaley Cuoco allowed us to see a little bit deeper into Penny’s assertiveness with Leonard as well. And yet, because everyone turned into a drunkfest, nothing got accomplished, and considering the types of deep psychological trauma that Beverly keeps pointing out that seems like a missed opportunity here.
As for the scene that got the big reaction from the audience, as Beverly decides to throw caution to the wind and plant a big wet one on Sheldon, I’m aggressively unmoved. I think it undermines the great ending to her last appearance, when they spoke as if they were going to have sex but then ended up belting out a tune in Rock Band – I liked that their relationship was entirely intellectual, and I liked that what made Leonard jealous wasn’t that they had some sort of intense bond but rather that Sheldon is more of a son to her than he will ever be. To introduce romantic feelings, even those which only emerge when intoxicated, turns a more subtle sort of character interaction into a cliche sitcom plot, devolving the character into a drunk Cougar. And if they’re going to go that route, which Baranski certainly proved capable of selling, I’d rather they not involve Sheldon. And if they do involve Sheldon, I’d rather they let us see the immediate aftermath rather than jumping to the morning after, as depriving us of “What does Sheldon do when kissed?” makes the scene nothing but an attempt to add shock value.
Often I wonder how much more I would enjoy The Big Bang Theory if it was an online series, where I had no expectations of it living up to my expectations for half-hour comedies and each episode could be like the opening scene, where Sheldon logically connects with the Grinch and cheers for the Sun in Frosty the Snowman. When the show makes those sorts of succinct character observations, it is clever and engaging. However, here they ignored more succinct character observations in favour of a brash and uncomplicated story, and compared to what the show managed on Christmas last year it was unorganized and a bit of a mess.
But, regardless, it’s the last episode of the season, so I’ll end by wishing the regular readers of these Big Bang Theory reviews a most Merry Newtonmas!
- I was really disappointed with the overall Sheldon content in the episode: I get that separating off Penny with Beverly gives them their chance to talk over whether she and Leonard should be dating (I wouldn’t call Beverly’s comments an endorsement, really), but leaving Sheldon with Leonard and Leonard alone seemed to bring out the worst parts of his character, and I just didn’t find him as enjoyable as I have elsewhere.
- I have to give them credit for some good use of the cars for staging, however – both car rides were well-scripted and blocked, and offering nice bookends to Beverly’s visit.
- I really hope that we do eventually one day get to meet Leonard’s father – I’d love to see that he’s devolved after his divorce and turned into a complete slacker, or something similar, just for a change.
- Liked the Grinch callback with Beverly’s warming heart in the midst of the chaotic climax, and especially Penny’s “That’s the Del Taco” dose of reality – the setup wasn’t entirely inelegant, just wasn’t focused where I wanted it to be.