The Big Bang Theory: "The 21-Second Excitation"
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The Big Bang Theory: "The 21-Second Excitation"

I know this is heresy in some Big Bang Theory fan circles, but I rather like Amy Farrah Fowler. To be more precise, I like the idea of that character, the idea of a female counterpart to Sheldon who's somehow simultaneously less socialized than he is. I like the way Mayim Bialik plays her. I usually like the way the writers write her (though there are moments when the writing doesn't work). I like the idea of using her to leave room for Sheldon to get a bit ... softer, if you will. Long-running TV shows tend to sand down the rough edges of their more prickly characters, until all of the characters in the ensemble are together in a mushy middle. It's natural for these things to happen, for everyone to get cuddlier, because the audience demands it, to some degree. But it could also be disastrous on a show with as small of an ensemble as The Big Bang Theory has.

I don't know if I liked "The 21-Second Excitation" as much as an episode of television as I liked it for what it might represent for the show going forward. Both Bialik and Melissa Rauch are credited as regulars now. While they're not going to be in every episode (nor should they be), the show is clearly thrilled to have them in its arsenal, particularly since it opens up the number of different kinds of scenes the show can do. I've talked this season about how the show's character relationships have grown slightly stale and predictable, but this episode, despite being split along the most predictable lines in the book—gender lines—had something in it that felt fresh and interesting. Penny now has female cohorts to bounce off of. The guys can go off on their own, and the show won't have to strain to include Penny. When it's clear that she's still got feelings for Leonard, the show has a place to go to that doesn't just involve Sheldon overhearing Penny saying so and then having to keep the secret.

Bear in mind that "Excitation" wasn't a perfect episode. It felt like the writers were pushing toward crass a little too often here, what with the jokes about how Amy just doesn't understand appropriate girl talk (and brings up her cervix) or the jokes about Howard peeing down his leg. It's not that these jokes are out of character or anything, but they do push a little too far into my least favorite kind of joke on the show, which is the, "Ha, ha, ha, look at the nerds and look at how little they understand human interaction" joke. Add on to that a healthy dose of crass humor, and it created an environment where a lot of these jokes just seemed to be there to push the envelope for the sake of doing so. None of this wholly imbalanced the episode, but I was cringing more often at the proceedings than I usually do during The Big Bang Theory. (For some, this may be a mark of excellence, so watch as you will.)

And yet I found something so enjoyable in the central IDEA of the episode that I didn't mind. The guys are going to see Raiders of the Lost Ark at a local theater, which has gotten its hands on a big-screen print with an extra 21 seconds of footage. For guys like our main characters, this is the Holy Grail, even if it's only 21 seconds. (They've seen the movie enough times to know where the new footage comes into play, presumably.) For Penny, the idea seems rather stupid, so she's going to stick to her plans to hang out with Bernadette and do girly things. Fine enough. Amy's going to accompany the boys to the screening, but when Bernadette comes by the table to talk to Howard (since the boys are eating at the only restaurant in town, the Cheesecake Factory), she mentions her plans with Penny. Amy, lacking any experiences of this sort in her formative years, asks—nay, demands—to be included in this little adventure, and we're left with our dueling plots. Amy will shake up the cozy evening in of Penny and Bernadette, and Sheldon will excoriate the guys for getting to the theater too late, thus dooming them to not being able to see the film.

It should be stated that the bits with the guys waiting in line don't work quite as well perhaps because the footage appears to have been actually shot on location. The actors on Big Bang Theory draw so much energy from the live studio audience that it can sometimes hurt the proceedings to pull them out of their normal environment. Add that to the fact that this is all being shot outdoors on the backlot somewhere, and you have a recipe for something that feels vaguely off. The acting style on a multi-camera sitcom is necessarily presentational: The actors are playing to the people in the studio audience, and, thus, to us at home, and that means they play more broadly than they would in a different production. But these sequences are shot in a more typical single-camera fashion, which makes some of the acting feel just slightly strange. It wasn't enough to bother me over-much, but I certainly did NOTICE it. (I suppose it's possible the show sprung for an elaborate sidewalk set as one of the swing sets that week, but it seems unlikely, particularly with the logistical problems of the theater patrons spilling out of the theater after the guys at the end.) Still, there were plenty of laughs here, and I liked that this was less a Sheldon story and more an ensemble story, even with Sheldon's arch-nemesis, Wil Wheaton, returning.

It was the other storyline that was more intriguing to me. You can definitely feel the writers trying to figure out the rhythms of writing for these three characters, but I like that they're pushing themselves like this. (The show's a big enough hit that they certainly don't have to.) Amy's LIKE Sheldon, but she's not just a female version of the character. She's blunter, and she seems to have even less social experience than Sheldon did at the series' beginning. (Amy apparently lacks a Leonard, though it would be fascinating to meet her Leonard if she had one.) Bernadette, meanwhile, is a very sweet girl who isn't dim, per se, since she's very smart, but is certainly someone who just wants everyone to have a nice time and is willing to go along with a situation that's rapidly spiraling out of control. She's like Georgette from The Mary Tyler Moore Show if Georgette were pursuing a doctorate. I like this combination of characters. I liked the scene where the guys were hanging out with Amy, and Bernadette dropped in. I liked the opening scene where it was just the guys and Penny, like old times. In short, I'm glad that The Big Bang Theory tried something new this week. I may be overrating this episode based on that fact, but I know that this episode at least made me laugh more than any other this season. And that, ultimately, is a good thing.

Stray observations:

  • I don't understand Penny's antipathy toward Raiders. Every good geeky guy knows that's the movie you can show to just about any girl and have them enjoy it. It's not especially sci-fi or fantasy heavy, and it features Harrison Ford at his most attractive and charming, plus a romantic subplot that's legitimately romantic. It's a curious choice to center the episode on, but I'll overlook it because I love that piece of music from the movie so damn much.
  • I'm not sure how I feel about the merry-go-round nature of the Leonard and Penny relationship at this point. On the one hand, it at least gives Leonard a better reason to be on the show than just being the cranky guy who cranks about everything. On the other hand, it was pretty boring when the show tried it last season.
  • I keep thinking this Amy thing is going to be one of those short-term character arcs, but seeing Bialik's name in the opening credits makes me think maybe she'll be around for a while. Again, as a big, hit show that can't cost too much, Big Bang probably had the money to splurge on a couple of new regulars, and I think they made the right choices from their ensemble of recurring players. The show needed more women.
  • "I find zombies dancing in choreographed synchronicity implausible. And also it's really scary."
  • "I'm eight for 26 this month."
  • "I'm guessing 21 seconds had something to do with that, too."
  • "Worst of all, he saw Star Trek: Nemesis." "But how were our seats?" "Excellent." "I rest my case."
  • "I believe I'll gain acceptance by arbitrarily siding with your friends from time to time."
  • "I think it's a front for human trafficking, but they do a really good job!"
  • "Even at Star Trek conventions, they only let him in if he helps set up!"
  • "No, just the one, but it's really long."
  • "I'm not sure how this is scored, but I believe we may have won."
  • "We're looking for Sheldon, not Marmaduke."
  • "The Internet suggests that slumber party guests often engage in harmless experimentation with lesbianism."

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