The construction of the gag: Sheldon is feeling low. Things he said caused Howard to not get a job he was very much looking forward to. To try to puzzle out his feelings, he goes to the local Cheesecake Factory, where his friend, Penny, is working behind the bar (and looking especially propped up—hope that leg feels better, Kaley!). The two talk briefly about what he's done, and he asks how to feel better, to which she suggests alcohol. The man in distress agrees, but he doesn't really know which drink would be best and, thus, produces an iPhone to consider his options. He settles on a Rosewater Rickey, but Penny will only pour him a shot of what appears to be Scotch (and don't quote me on that; I don't know my liquor). He downs the shot, and after a second or so, it comes right back up, into the glass, dribbling out of his mouth.
After a minute or so of more conversation, Sheldon requires another shot of liquid courage. So he picks up the shot—remember, containing entirely his backwash—and downs it again. But, nope, it's still not gonna happen, so it goes back INTO the glass. And then, at the last, when he determines the only way to make all of this fit back together is to program Howard, he downs the shot, then marches off, out of frame left ... right before marching right back in and spitting the shot back into the glass one last time. Given the studio audience's shocked, grossed-out reaction, I have to assume Jim Parsons was actually DOING this (though I suppose some sort of trickery could have been involved), and it's just a marvelously constructed gag, always lurking in the back of your head throughout the scene. Will Sheldon drink the shot for once and for all? Or will this just keep getting weirder? It's physical comedy as punctuation mark, and that may be why it gets funnier with every shot spat back up.
In a way, this scene illustrates the essential struggle of The Big Bang Theory this season. Parsons is such a gifted actor, and the writers are so good at coming up with little bits of business for him to perform (as well as pitch-perfect lines for him to deliver) that they increasingly seem uninterested in giving anyone else something to do, unless it somehow relates to Sheldon. There's plenty of opportunity in this episode for stories featuring the characters galore, but it eventually retreats to a fairly safe story about how Sheldon tries to assuage his guilt. The rest of the show is just a series of comic sketches involving these characters, and while that's not bad, the relentless focus on Sheldon to the exclusion of all else and the wackier tone of this season increasingly makes the show feel like a cheaply produced cartoon spinoff of itself, meant to air on Saturday mornings and called Sheldon and the Big Bang Gang.
I liked "The Apology Insufficiency" more than last week's episode, but it still struck me as placing its focus in all of the wrong places. The first act is mostly taken up by the guys being visited by an FBI agent played by Eliza Dushku. She's asking them what they know about Howard's past, as he's applied for a security clearance to work on a space laser. So far, so good. This is a pretty classic setup for an episode—the outsider has to interview all of the focus character's friends to learn more about that character, but the friends are ambivalent about their friend, at best, until one of them slips up and says something he shouldn't—and The Big Bang Theory follows it to a T. (Everybody Loves Raymond did a much better version of this basic storyline in "Lucky Suit.") Inevitably, problems arise.
First of all, Dushku is not exactly what you'd call the world's most gifted comic actress. (She's not exactly the world's most gifted dramatic actress, either, but at least in that arena, she's got some spunk that can carry her over the rough patches.) To the show's credit, it doesn't try to give her a lot of funny dialogue, but so much of a show like this relies on repartee that bringing in Dushku gives these scenes a slightly wooden feeling. Compare, for instance, the scene that starts with Sheldon and Leonard bantering and then turns into the agent interviewing Sheldon. Even though both halves of that scene are basically Parsons ranting about stuff while his scene partner looks on, the half with Leonard is funnier precisely because Johnny Galecki is invested in the moment and reacting amusingly. Dushku just kind of sits there and stares primly at Parsons as he does his thing.
And here's the thing: A hot FBI agent who goes around to all of Howard's friends and tries to talk to them about the guy is a pretty good setup for comedy. Had the show used Katee Sackhoff here, instead of as the object of Howard's fantasies (since Sackhoff can do comedy), it might have worked better. But the scenes all feel abrupt, as though they're just getting started when they end. For example, Raj's search for liquor, that he might talk to the agent, needs at least a few more bits of physical business to really attain its maximum potential. He grabs one bottle—empty! —but then immediately goes to grab the rum cake before the joke has even properly built. The rum cake could be a fun punchline, but the show steps on it too quickly. Notice how little this builds, compared to the "Sheldon drinking" gag outlined above. They can't ALL be constructed as well as that one, but this one didn't feel like it was trying. (This scene, in general, is an argument that Kunal Nayyar should be getting so much more to do on this show. He nails every line he's handed, and he even makes the played out "Raj can't talk to women" gag funnier than it should be.)
Or take Leonard hitting on the agent. He's already established that he's going to talk to women with confidence, which mostly involves him whipping off his glasses and behaving ridiculously (though that's a GOOD thing on a sitcom). When he does so on the agent, it's fairly obvious that she'll reveal she's married or taken or a lesbian (really, take your pick), but the show doesn't do anything with this, instead falling back on the exact same joke from the teaser—Leonard acts ridiculously—and then following it up with the agent revealing she's married almost immediately. There's no space here for a build, yet again, and that cheats the audience out of everything the scene could be.
And why does the show cut so much of this short? Well, that's because it wants to turn this into yet another storyline where Sheldon disappoints one of his friends and has to deal with these weird things we humans call "emotions." This is always a reliable laugh generator—and it elicits several laughs tonight—but it's also a device the show has turned to so much over the course of the series and just in this season that it's providing diminishing returns, particularly when you consider that this is yet another storyline that could have examined a relationship the show has done very little with in the relationship of Sheldon to Howard. The Big Bang Theory hasn't become a bad show, not really, but the behavior of its characters feels cartoonier, and the story construction is even sloppier this year. There's plenty of time to turn things around, since the jokes are still reliably funny and the performers are still game, but everybody needs to settle down, just a little bit.
- Welcome back, Kaley Cuoco, even if you have to be seated all of the time. Hiding your broken leg could be the show's own version of How I Met Your Mother having to hide two pregnancies at once!
- And everything is resolved, too patly, by Sheldon offering Howard his spot and Howard realizing just how much he means to Sheldon. And then, of course, Sheldon takes the spot right back. (Cue the stock animation of the gang all shaking their heads outside the Big Bang Mobile, saying, "Oh, Sheldon!")
- To be fair, that Gorn was nice.
- "If we're changing topics, I believe I have dibs with the capybara, a rodent the size of a baby hippo."
- "Feast on your disappointment, much as the capybara feasts on its own waste."
- "My country tis of thee. Da da da ... LIBERTY. It's really great."
- "... and changed the name of a certain level-80 warlock from Sheldore to Smelldore?"
- "No, Gorn, no! That's where I sit."
- "I don't like the Olive Garden. They treat me like family."
- "Fortunately, thanks to computer-savvy alcoholics, there's an app for that."
- "No matter how much you apologize, you can't go back and un-dry hump someone's boyfriend."