January 11th, 2010
On a night with the third episode of Chuck’s third season and How I Met Your Mother’s 100th episode, I won’t tell a lie: I forgot about the Big Bang Theory.
Admittedly, I have my ups and downs with the show, but there’s something about it that is more comfortable than eventful, so I got lost in the hype surrounding the night’s other episodes. But “The Psychic Vortex” was eventful in quite a few ways, and while it did nothing to change the current state of the series’ long-term storylines (and in fact did less than some episodes earlier this season to downplay its most problematic relationship) it managed to find some fun moments amidst two separate stories…even if it found 90% of them in the one involving Sheldon.
That’s one constant of the show I didn’t forget, and unfortunately the episode unearths a few other constant frustrations that have plagued my time with the show over the past few seasons. While this episode wasn’t criminally unfunny, it did do disservice to enough characters that I once again feel like the show is one giant missed opportunity saved by Jim Parsons – not a terrible premise for a show, but not one that lives up to its full potential.
I’m always complaining that I want the Big Bang Theory’s characters to become more than one-to-two-dimensional archetypes, and this episode presents an interesting treatise on that idea. On the one hand, the show demonstrates that Raj and Sheldon are characters capable of being quite versatile, as we buy Raj as a sad and lonely guy who’s seeing his other sexually-minded friends with girlfriends, and we enjoy Sheldon playing the Wingman (once bribed with comic merchandise, which was a really fun way to force him into the story). However, on the other hand, the episode doesn’t really acknowledge how meaningful this is for Raj, instead finding Sheldon’s clueless interactions with his ideal woman more engaging. As far as I saw (I might be wrong) we never saw Raj drinking during their second date, so the episode elided any attempt to actually address his fear of women. While this could have been an episode where Raj actually overcame his fear and made a breakthrough, instead it’s an episode where Sheldon makes a hilarious Hulk voice and visits Flatland.
I’m not complaining about how fun Jim Parsons was in this episode, as I thought Sheldon stretching to the role of Wingman was just the kind of story that works great with a character that elevates every other character on the show (Parsons is, in fact, the show’s go-to comic wingman). However, these kinds of episodes feel like they’re burying the lead: this should have been a Raj story but became a Sheldon story based on the degree to which his antics dominated the episode, and once again the show toys with fleshing out Raj’s character only to fall back into old habits. I’m ultimately fine with the storyline since it offered some great laughs, but if the show is actually interested in Raj’s feelings or emotions the idea that a sip of alcohol is a magic potion would completely take away his anxiety is standing in their way. It’s an idea is as far-fetched as any psychic or crystal Leonard could annoyingly discredit, and it’s keeping Raj trapped in a static position as an underdeveloped character in this show’s universe.
As for the other half of the storyline, I have similar problems but without a caveat as convenient as Jim Parsons’ genius. The idea that Leonard and Penny get into a fight was unpleasant when we first visited it, but that story was rescued by effectively becoming about Sheldon’s childhood traumas instead. Here, however, the fight is over something whether or not psychics are real, which is the absolute least interesting concept for these two people to fight about. I can think of, seriously, a good two dozen things that these two characters could fight over that might actually result in compelling sitcom storylines, and yet they chose one which does both characters a disservice. Leonard, especially, seems petty and cruel for being unable to reconcile his girlfriend believing in psychics (as if she’s a Nazi or something), and Penny is done no favours by the fact that she seems more bitter than actually emotionally hurt.
My frustrations with the story were confirmed by the conclusion, which sells this as a mere bump in the road: Leonard’s problem is that he didn’t try hard enough to understand Penny’s beliefs (in psychics, let’s remind ourselves), and so he agrees to visit her psychic to make everything better. There’s an actual storyline about characters, and not how differing views of psychics are responsible for breaking up 0.4 relationships a year, but the show actively avoids it. Penny went to the psychic in order to try to gain guidance in her career, and yet Leonard laughed at her optimism: maybe she doesn’t really believe in psychics so much as she believes in hope, and in believing that she could some day make it big. But there’s no room in the episode for Penny to have any deeper meaning behind her beliefs, nor for Leonard to resolve this story by understanding why she might believe in psychics as opposed to simply making a gesture that will conveniently make it so this story never happened. Leonard and Penny have enough issues in their relationship that Leonard should have forgiven Penny because he understands that their relationship goes beyond their beliefs, not just because Wolowitz convinces him he can’t be picky or else it’s just going to be him and ol’ righty from that point forward.
Now, I want to be clear that the episode wasn’t by any means terrible, and the show did some character gymnastics in order to inject some life into Leonard and Penny through Wolowitz somehow becoming the voice of reason (and comedy, with his “Eighth Base, etc.” runner). But even then, what vortex do we live in where Wolowitz is ever the voice of reason? The point still remains that Leonard is a poorly defined character to the point where I wasn’t sure exactly what beliefs and values he was trying to keep sacred by resisting Penny’s beliefs, and depicting him as less aware than Howard seems like a stretch (even if it helped sustain the show’s comedy through those sequences).
The show will always be populated by thinly drawn characters, but it will also continue to place them into scenarios that could be meaningful. Penny could have broken down and given Leonard an emotional reason why she chooses to believe prophecies provided to her by book-writing Psychics, and Raj could have discovered he doesn’t need alcohol so long as he has Sheldon as a Wingman (and then, with Sheldon abandoning him, discovering he doesn’t need it at all). I hate to always harp on missed opportunities, but so long as the show keeps playing with these types of ideas I can’t help but notice that there’s a far better show lurking under the surface.
Even if a show with Sheldon in Hulk hands sounds like it couldn’t possibly be improved upon.
- There was an extended joke about Sheldon not wanting to attend any event which celebrates an article of clothing, which suited (I went there) the evening perfectly considering How I Met Your Mother’s extended musical love letter to the suit earlier in the night. I wonder if that was a coincidence.
- I’m fine with the show not spending too much time on the sexual politics of Sheldon’s interactions with his female equivalent (who loves the Green Lantern and has Victorian era social mores-inspired interpretations of Flatland) – Sheldon’s lack of interest in the opposite sex has been established enough that we knew where the story was headed, and Parsons nailed the landing throughout.
- Again, the episode got the little details right, from Sheldon’s great “I’m a Wingman!” while playing Rock Band to Sheldon learning Finnish to Sheldon…basically, everything with Sheldon.
- Slumdog Astrophysicist really was a great line from Raj, even if I’m not sure why Danicka McKellar’s character was so quick to jump him thereafter.