Season Premiere: The Big Bang Theory – “The Robotic Manipulation”

“The Robotic Manipulation”

September 23rd, 2010

My relationship with The Big Bang Theory is more or less entirely critical: while I do have an affection for Sheldon as a character, and was very pleased to see Jim Parsons pick up an Emmy for his performance, the fact remains that this show bothers me. It is a solid show, often quite entertaining, but it always feels as if the show is undermining itself – I want it to be better than it is, and I want it to take risks that it has up to this point seemed uninterested in making.

There are elements to “The Robotic Implication,” primarily within the epoynmous subplot, which indicates that I will not become an outright fan of this show in the near future, but the central storyline (and what seems to be the series’ primary interest moving forward) is much more enjoyable. While I will always have issues with cheap storylines that feel ripped out of American Pie, so long as the heart of the show remains as prominent as it did here I will be given a reason to keep tuning in.

Let’s get it out of the way: Wolowitz having his robot arm pleasure him is an unfortunate circumstance in every possible way, the kind of storyline which just does nothing for me. While the use of the robot arm is quite compelling initially, a fun sight gag that works well with these characters, the sophomoric element is just too much for me. I kept hoping that it would reveal that Howard was talking about something other than his penis, that the show was setting it up for a smarter joke when we first saw Howard’s predicament. And yet there it was, a robot arm on a penis – throw in more of Howard’s obnoxious mother than I can handle, and a conclusion which is only valuable for its reference to the always charming Winnie the Pooh, and you have a storyline that does a disservice to the series.

And yet, the other side of the episode really did work quite wonderfully. It’s ridiculous that Penny went four months without knowing that Sheldon had been texting, tweeting and emailing with Amy Farrah Fowler, but it buys us a smartly drawn situation. I don’t need this show to be believable – I don’t care if a robot hand can pleasure someone, I just don’t want to see it period – or anything, so I’m willing to buy Penny joining Sheldon and Amy on their first date if only because Kaley Cuoco is great at playing against Jim Parsons and, it turns out, Mayim Bialik as well. It allows them to milk the “Amy is the Female Sheldon” side of this story for all it’s worth: we get the callback to Sheldon’s concern over the check engine light, and Penny’s efforts to fill the awkward silences are bet with the same disinterest from both parties.

I think the show could have technically had Sheldon go on a date on his own (or at least have let he and Amy eat dinner alone, with Penny forced to sit in the car). However, it was clear that they wanted to give Sheldon and Amy an innocent victim for their scientific take on life, and I think this strategy worked: Cuoco sold Penny’s growing discomfort, and it allowed Sheldon and Amy to bond over a shared experience. Their connection is always going to remain fairly vague in its definitions: as Sheldon points out, she is not his girlfriend, and their relationship is so inherently practical that romance never even comes close to becoming part of the equation. And yet their connection works comically speaking, or at least it worked here, so Bialik is welcome (and likely) to return in the future even if the immediate plans of procreating using a petri dish have been put on the backburner.

Luckily, the chances of the “Robot Arm vs. Penis” storyline recurring are pretty slim (although the coda returning to the gag scared me), and the part of the episode that worked is the part that might recur in the future. There’s no signs here that there will be any considerable movement with Sheldon’s personality that could make him more comfortable in social situations, but his “first date” managed to be distinctly Sheldon while also showing some signs of progress. This is not a show interested in dramatic change, especially when ratings are so good and the audiences are responding so well to Sheldon as a character, but the fact that this pretty substantial moment in Sheldon’s life didn’t feel out of place says good things about where the show might be heading in the future.

A future which hopefully features infinitely less robot handjob storylines.

Cultural Observations

  • I’ll accept the ridiculousness of Penny being ignorant to Amy’s existence for four months only if it was intended as a way to demonstrate that Penny and Leonard remain somewhat distant in the wake of their breakup – any other explanation is ridiculous.
  • It’s a cheap gag, and one that was pretty clearly choreographed, but Kaley Cuoco still gives good spit take.
  • As Jaime Weinman pointed out on Twitter, some meta-discussion about the door knocking (which has been bugging me for a while now), as well as the show’s very own internal portmanteau in “Shamy” (which I sort of look at as a shout-out to the shippers).
  • I like Simon Helberg as much as the next person, but can someone explain to me why Wolowitz is on this show? Hopefully Bernadette’s return does something to make the character relevant again.
  • Curious to see the ratings tomorrow morning, especially to see if the show was actually garnering much of a “too lazy to change channels after Two and a Half Men” audience. I expect it’ll lose viewers, but stay pretty consistent in the demo compared with last year’s averages.


Filed under The Big Bang Theory

2 responses to “Season Premiere: The Big Bang Theory – “The Robotic Manipulation”

  1. Evamarie

    I agree! I wasn’t a fan of the robot-penis gag, the gag idea itself was dumb. I do think it was funny, though. If that makes sense. I thought that the actors worked really well with this. I always think of the guy that plays Howard as the unsung hero of the actors on this show. Everyone focuses on Jim Parsons, who is amazing, but Simon Helberg is also quite amazing. His material just isn’t as good.

  2. KG

    While I agree that the robot arm storyline was sophomoric, the acting in that half of the episode was far superior to the acting in the Shamy storyline. I thought the acting in the Shamy storyline was excruciatingly awful, with Mayim Bialik being the worst offender. To me, it felt like Kaley, Jim and Mayim were acting rather than just being immersed in their characters, and it made it very uncomfortable to watch. Even Jim Parsons was not on his A game in that storyline. I did not enjoy this episode as much as I normally enjoy BBT.

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