“The Excelsior Acquisition”
March 1st, 2010
Sheldon Cooper is much more intelligent than he is smart.
What’s so strange about this character is that for all of his unquestionable intelligence, he is rarely smart about how he uses it: his lack of knowledge of social conventions means that he is often blinded to how cruel he is acting, which means that the character can often seem extraordinarily harsh. The show has struggled with a number of balance issues throughout its run, but when it comes to Sheldon the real question comes down to this: at what point would Sheldon’s intelligence outweigh his stubbornness or self-centeredness and force him to take a step back and consider what it is he is about to do or say?
I would argue that it is one thing for Sheldon to make a rash decision in search of a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, and I think it’s quite another for Sheldon to be willing to go to jail over insulting a Traffic Court judge. I understand that Sheldon will sometimes make mistakes, and that sometimes he will pick strange battles, but there’s a point where the character makes decisions not because they’re realistic but because they will make for better comedy.
And while I’d normally be fine with this if the comedy really delivered, the few jokes that the show managed to get out of the storyline weren’t enough to justify the borderline idiocy that Sheldon seemed to exhibit in order for it to happen.
I don’t want to be that guy who always points out that the characters on a pretty broad comedy show aren’t believable, but there are points where I question how ignorant some of these characters really are. For example, early in the episode Penny has no idea who Stan Lee is, which seems like something that would have come up even if only because she was tired about the guys getting into arguments about Stan Lee. Yes, in the context of the show itself we haven’t seen Penny interact with Stan Lee in any conversations (at least to my knowledge), but part of the joy of the sitcom is the idea that between each episode these character are living their lives, and I refuse to believe that Stan Lee’s name never came up and that Penny made no effort whatsoever to at least remember his profession if not the names of every alliterative character in the Marvel universe.
My point, I guess, is that Penny should know more than she needed to in order to sell the joke, just as Sheldon would later in the episode lose any sense of foresight in his decision to actively piss of the judge and get put in jail. When Penny calls Leonard, she tells him that Sheldon was thrown into jail for doing “the same crap that he always does except to a judge.” And I think that this is a shrewd observation that the show never adequately investigates: why, precisely, was Sheldon so concerned about this traffic ticket? Yes, he overprepared, and yes he wants to avoid having a criminal record, but why wouldn’t Sheldon be thinking ahead to the terrifying urinals in the process of his testimony? I understand Sheldon saying something to belittle the judge in an effort to place himself above the process, and I even understand his reluctance to apologize for the truth. However, I don’t understand why the simple thought of being put in jail didn’t have him on his knees begging forgiveness so that he could avoid the dirty unclean environment.
Now, if the story had been that the ticket in some way kept him from gaining entrance into some sort of program (perhaps he needed a clean driving record to get into a Space training program or something, I don’t know), then I can see where his motivation would lie. However, outside of getting to do the “That’s my seat” joke (which made me laugh, I’m not made of stone here), what did sending Sheldon to prison really accomplish outside of making him seem pretty categorically stupid? They played around with Sheldon not wanting to be punished for a heroic act, but they were so focused on the comic side of his situation (which, up until his rash decision that placed him into contempt, was doing quite nicely by isolating Penny and Sheldon in nice comic setpieces like the rehearsal) that they never played up that perhaps it was emotional on Sheldon’s part. Instead, the episode seemed to indicate that Sheldon was simply so conceited that he forgot to stop himself to keep from going to jail: for someone who gets bothered with out of order flags, I can’t help but feel that shows a lack of foresight which really sells the character short.
By comparison, the conclusion to the episode makes perfect sense: of course Sheldon would fail to see Stan Lee’s sarcasm and enter his home to watch the Lakers game, and of course he would wear his restraining order as a badge of pride rather than a sign of insanity. In that case, it was “worth it”: this is one of Sheldon’s heroes, so he’s willing to stretch the law and accept odd circumstances because of how important it is. I just didn’t buy that Sheldon was that concerned about the miscarriage of justice being perpetrated by a Traffic Court judge, at least not enough to go to jail over it, especially when the episode showed a logical situation where Sheldon would go to those extremes later in the episode.
I actually think the episode came together alright overall. Yes, I’m annoyed that Stewart has been reduced to a sad man who shares tuna with stray cats, and I’m sort of annoyed that Raj’s inability to speak in front of Penny has now been supported (rather than broken down) by a sound effects t-shirt, but I liked seeing Penny bargaining to help out Sheldon, and I thought Raj’s t-shirt was a gag that hit more than it missed (the Jeopardy and Law & Order themes were cheesy but really made me laugh). But there comes a point when the comic potential of Sheldon showing absolutely no awareness of his situation (like how he treated Yeardley Smith’s temp agency employee a few episodes ago) is not worth the effect it has on our perception of the character: I don’t understand why Sheldon would be willing to go to jail over that ticket, and while I don’t need the show to be “realistic” I at least need the characters to feel like real people.
And, while there were some funny moments scattered throughout the episode, it sort of failed that test for me.
- It didn’t quite fit into the above, but just to be clear: the Rehearsal scene (in particular Sheldon’s dialogue he wrote for Penny) was a real comic highlight, the kind of scene that works so well in isolation that you wish the episode had of stopped there. I understand that Sheldon was too “into” the trial, so he was angry when the judge refused to listen to his arguments, but his obsession with the law came out of nowhere and didn’t really manifest itself in his insults later on. But this scene? Funny.
- Big episode for Kunal Nayyar, who got a lot of material both in terms of the shirt and in terms of his obsession with alliterative character names in the Marvel universe.
- Sheldon’s unopened paycheques totally fit with his money-collecting habits from earlier in the series, and his reasoning (that most of the things he wants to buy haven’t been invented yet) was pure Sheldon in the best possible way.
- As for Stan Lee’s cameo, I thought the Fantastic Four bathrobe was a nice touch, even if Lee himself isn’t, you know, an actor. I think I prefer his wordless cameos in Marvel movies.