The biggest concern I've always had about The Big Bang Theory is that Sheldon will eventually turn into Urkel. He's the show's breakout character, by far, and the temptation to take him in a more and more over-the-top direction must be huge for the writers. I don't think this show would give Sheldon a time machine or anything. It's more grounded in realism than that, but it could have Sheldon making more realistic inventions or playing an even more heightened version of an already heightened character. He's got the catchphrases and the stylized performance and the tendency to head toward really, really big when the laughs aren't there with just a standard reading. Obviously, I wouldn't want to watch this show without Sheldon, but I think the second he starts building himself robot pals, I'm probably out.
That said, "The Cruciferious Vegetable Amplification" walks right up to that line, casually sticks a toe over it, and actually gets funnier once the robot wanders out of Sheldon's bedroom. Everything up until that point has felt just a little too broad, from Jim Parsons' performance, which isn't as modulated as it usually is, to the typical insults the others toss at Sheldon to the fart jokes. The temptation for shows in tough time slots (as this one is) is to double down on what's worked in the past and push it even further. In this episode, Big Bang is probably guilty of that just a little bit. But then, for the second week in a row, a major subplot revolves around a weird robot that one of the guys has built. At first, it feels jarring that this is actually happening, but by the time Leonard is driving the Sheldon-bot to work, it somehow feels completely natural. Of course Sheldon would ensconce himself in his bedroom. Of course he would build a robot to interact with everybody else.
The episode description for "Cruciferious Vegetable" has to be one of the strangest in television history. Sheldon has realized he'll only live another 60 years or so, which means he'll just miss the Singularity and the point in time when he can make himself immortal by putting a digital version of himself inside of a computer. He's sad he doesn't get to become a robot, in other words, even as his friends make fun of him for being disappointed about this (Penny suggests he's a robot already). Based on his research, Sheldon decides to improve his diet (by eating the aforementioned cruciferious vegetables, which include brussel sprouts) and exercising, which involves jogging with Penny, though he falls when he tries to jog down the stairs. It's at this point that he realizes that the most likely way for a man his age to die is in an accident ... so he builds the Sheldon-bot, which will be his primary way to interact with the world.
Now, the reason this doesn't cross the invisible Urkel line is because the device isn't actually a thinking robotic replacement of Sheldon. It's a screen that will display Sheldon's head while he's safe in his bedroom, but it also allows him to see what's going on and interact with other people, if not with the world (he needs Raj - who's a "lamb" - to open his office door). I suspect a device such as this could be built by someone as smart as Sheldon. I suspect it wouldn't run this smoothly, but, hey, it's a TV comedy, and we don't need to worry about the Sheldon-bot logging on to a wireless network in every location he visits so Sheldon can talk to people.
By far the best part of this storyline comes when Sheldon is riding in the car with Leonard to work. It's a long, inspired scene where Parsons and Johnny Galecki's chemistry was used to its fullest extent. In particular, I love the idea that Sheldon's filled his virtual presence device with everything from quiz shows to footage of people dancing to "Greensleeves" (the better for him to play the recorder while they dance). This is just a well-written scene with some funny dialogue punctuated by inspired physical comedy bits by the two actors. It made me feel like the whole Sheldon-bot device could work better than it initially seemed like it would, and it kept the whole crazy idea grounded in a sort of reality. Urkel was never a terribly realistic character, but within a couple of seasons of his introduction, he had become a complete cartoon. Big Bang keeps its characters rooted in realistic emotions, and though the device Sheldon had built felt Urkel-esque, the emotions of the storyline mostly played fair.
As always, the episode didn't really have any idea of how to end. Steve Wozniak showed up at the Cheesecake Factory, while Sheldon was there in virtual form. Wozniak being one of Sheldon's heroes, he longed to have the guy autograph his old Apple computer (didn't catch the model; don't stone me!), but, of course, when he ran out of the apartment and tried to run down the stairs, he fell again, breaking his computer in the process. Of course next week Sheldon will be back to interacting with people in a normal fashion (though the tag has him back inside the Sheldon-bot), but there was an opportunity here to do something like an actual ending, no matter what tone the show wanted to take, and it was wasted in favor of a fairly cheap and cruel gag where Sheldon got his comeuppance yet again. (Despite all of this, Wozniak seemed pretty impressed by the virtual presence device.) The tag - with the umpteenth rendition of "Soft Kitty" - was all right, but at some point, I wish the show would just stop arbitrarily ending episodes because they're at 22 minutes.
All in all, though, "The Cruciferious Vegetable Amplification" was not nearly as bad as I thought it might be from looking at the press photos. It came right up to the edge of being utterly, utterly unbearable, but it didn't step over the cliff. From the reactions of the studio audience, this episode seems like it'll be a big hit with fans, but I hope the producers don't take that as an excuse to do more wacky inventions every week (unless Sheldon and Leonard start having to participate in an Invention Exchange via their TV with two mad scientists). The show works best when the characters keep those emotions on a realistic level, and that's hard to do when the lead is building robots or inventing anti-aging serums.
- I've seen a million defenses of why the "Raj can't talk to women" thing is supposed to be funny, but I'm sorry. I still don't like it, and I still think it limits the kinds of jokes the show can tell, since Raj and Penny effectively can't have a relationship. That said, I liked the idea of Howard lying about what Raj said.
- The ratings for last week's premiere were huge, so I think it's safe to assume this show will be in the Thursday time slot for the foreseeable future. That was a great scheduling move by CBS, and the relentless promotions of the new time slot all summer obviously paid off.
- "A dog-opus can play fetch with eight balls. No one can hate that."
- "I just run till I'm hungry, and then I stop for a bear claw."
- "Madame Curie should not be wearing a digital watch. And go."
- "Yeah. I know who he is. I watch Dancing With the Stars."
- "I care neither for turtlenecks nor showmanship."