“The Wheaton Recurrence”
April 12th, 2010
There are two things that the Big Bang Theory isn’t particularly good at, and they include handling serious dramatic situations within its comic tone and the integration of guest stars beyond their initial appearance. The show has always shied away from any sort of realistic emotional tensions in favour of a cheap joke, and characters like Christine Baranski’s Dr. Hofstadter were novel upon their first appearance and felt like a big ol’ sitcom cliche in their next.
“The Wheaton Recurrence” does little to change either of these facts, even if one could argue that there was positive momentum on the emotions front. There’s a difference, ultimately, between actually dealing with emotions and featuring emotions in a major storyline: while this episode forces Penny and Leonard to consider the state of their relationship, it’s something the show should have done a long time ago, and something that we should have seen some evidence of in earlier episodes. Nothing about their revelations feels particularly natural, and the lack of either a rising action or a proper denouement makes any sort of “event” in the episode seems like a wasted opportunity.
Which, I guess, is preferable to a waste of time.
If we were judging this episode based only on Sheldon, it’s be a winner. Not only was Jim Parsons a lot of fun during the Wheaton side of things (which I’ll get to in a paragraph or so), but the character was also very self-aware and motivated. He knew what he wanted to do (get Penny to go bowling so that they would be able to beat Wil Wheaton), and he knew what was standing in the way (the awkwardness surrounding the “I Love You/Thank You Incident), and so he did his research, found a solution, and worked towards that solution in a way which was funny without being ignorant or spiteful. It’s one thing for Sheldon to be selfish, but it’s another for his selfishness to emerge as a reign of terror, and here he was actually being quite sweet (even while comparing Penny to Cathy and Garfield and eavesdropping on their conversations). Yes, it was all so he could get revenge on a science fiction actor in a bowling match, but seeing Sheldon trying to get Leonard and Penny to make up – even if only in a temporary, swept under the rug sort of way – sort of made me actually want to root for them as a couple (emphasis on almost).
The problem is that the show has done nothing to make us invested in Leonard and Penny as a couple, or more importantly in Leonard and Penny as human beings. In the case of Penny, this is actually a fairly interesting story, and I think Kaley Cuoco did a fine job of handling the one bit of dramatic acting she was really given: she isn’t sure if she loves Leonard, and she definitely isn’t half as sure as he is, and so she has to decide whether or not she’s ever going to get to that point. The problem is that we’ve never really been entirely clear on why Penny is in this relationship in the first place, so it’s hard to necessarily understand of empathize with this position. The “I Love You/Thank You” formula is extremely common, but usually there’s some sense that we should know what the characters are thinking, or more importantly that the characters themselves seem aware of what’s going on. Instead, the show had Wil Wheaton lay it out for both the audience and for Penny, as opposed to letting Penny come to that conclusion on her own. Sure, Wheaton as the orchestrator of their demise makes for a fun moment with Sheldon, but it rings false (or perhaps disappointing true) that the couple the show forced together is broken up by a recurring guest star as opposed to anything close to a real, organic stopping point.
I don’t think the problem with Leonard and Penny as a couple had anything to do with Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco’s chemistry: if it were part of a more interesting relationship, their little post-coital flirtation might have seemed fun as opposed to awkward, and their conclusion could have felt tragic as opposed to contrived. The problem is that these events lack any sort of real context, any sort of connection to past events or even to audience interests. I think it’s possible that some people were attached to the idea of Leonard and Penny together, but only that shallow and ill-defined “geek pines after attractive neighbour” that the show started with as opposed to their actual relationship. It’s like if How I Met Your Mother had sort of just put Ted and Robin together because it was what the “Pilot” seemed to indicate, and then just took their relationship for granted until they eventually decided to break them up; instead, that show told a story, with various different narrative arcs and a sense of purpose and emotion that the Big Bang Theory just isn’t built for.
It is, of course, built for geek-centric humour, so I’m sure the twitter-verse was very excited to see Wil Wheaton return. And while I think Wheaton plays this role well (especially when he starts toying with Sheldon), this felt like the exact opposite of the last story. When the show did it before, it seemed like a really clever real-life parody: here, it was the show trying to turn something into a running gag without actually having any sort of new story ideas or particularly clever new dialogue to sell any sense of evolution. It’s one thing for the characters not to evolve, but you at least expect that the writers (all four of them) would have been able to find a way to make Wheaton’s appearance memorable beyond memory recall and Jim Parsons’ general quality.
There were some things in this episode that, out of context, worked: it was good to see Leonard being a douchebag for an actual reason, and it was good to see some extended discussion of which animals/insects could be made gigantic for the sake of riding. The show remains fun, and even when it devolves into a string of jokes with little or no connection to characters (like Raj and Howard’s long run trying to figure out what happened between Leonard and Penny) there’s usually something there to make me crack a smile (short stacks did it here, I think). The show remains fun, and I certainly think there’s plenty on which to recommend the show.
The problem is that when it tries to delve into emotional territory, or when it tries to recreate past magic just months after the original episode aired, the show just doesn’t feel effective or fresh in any way. Its ability to tap into geek culture becomes its over-reliance with tapping into geek culture, and its old-school, non-serial approach to sitcoms becomes a one-dimensional relationship that tries desperately to achieve a three-dimensional ending to no avail. When the show just shoots for funny comedy, it can deliver something really enjoyable within its limitations; when it tries a bit too hard, and pushes things a bit too far, its ambition always falls well short of what’s necessary to make me believe the show can actually take things to the next level.
And that, unfortunately, is a fairly recurring response to the series.
- I understand that it’s a busy time of year, but the fact that there was no website at WilWheatonSucks.com (or .net or .org) is just a huge missed opportunity – they have to buy the URLs to use them, so why not put up something? The show has a great fanbase, so why not do something for them other than live-tweeting the episode and spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet?
- That was a bit of a burn, but I did find Bill Prady’s live-tweeting to be fascinating as someone who was watching the episode live – he confirmed that Leonard and Penny are breaking up “for now,” which I guess leaves the door open for them to be this show’s Barney and Robin (note: as much as Barney and Robin’s relationship on HIMYM was bungled by the writers in my view, it was realitically bungled).
- I was really hoping that Wil Wheaton’s story about his girlfriend stringing him along was going to end with some sort of allusion to Whoopi Goldberg to justify Howard’s joke earlier, but alas.
- Since I’ve mentioned it in the past, how is it that Penny doesn’t know anything about the X-Men one week but can quote Empire Strikes Back the next? I also demand an answer to how the guys have suddenly moved from Wii Bowling to real bowling so efficiently.
- The Wesley Crushers was a clever idea that I think got overplayed: yes, it’s funny when Sheldon keeps saying it slightly differently and insisting that it is entirely different, but it’s funny if he does it twice: it took too long to get to Wheaton’s arrival and Sheldon’s moment of defeat.
- I really hope the laundry room doesn’t become the “serious discussion” place for the show – I don’t know why I’m so averse to this idea, but I am.
- It’s hard to take the episode’s emotional conclusion seriously with that “button” (as Jaime Weinman put it) with the guys in women’s superhero costumes, but I laughed, so I guess that’s good?