The Big Bang Theory: "The Desperation Emanation"
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The Big Bang Theory: "The Desperation Emanation"

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The Big Bang Theory

"The Desperation Emanation"

Season 4, Episode 5

One of the things I love most about multi-camera sitcoms is their theatrical quality. There’s no attempt to make us believe that we’re watching anything other than a group of people performing on a soundstage for a loud, laughing audience who loves everything they do. In the best shows of this type, that feeling drips off the screen out to infect viewers, and even the most skeptical of the form will find themselves smiling or guffawing at an elaborately staged comic routine. Think, for instance, of Reverend Jim asking what a yellow light means on Taxi or Kramer telling the story of driving the bus on Seinfeld or Sammy Davis, Jr., showing up on All in the Family. I wouldn’t say any of these moments are triumphs of sharp joke writing (well, the Kramer monologue comes close), but all of them are such a perfect synergy of writer coming up with good dialogue, actor taking that dialogue and turning it into something else, and the audience feeding the actor with laughter and applause. The three bodies push each other, and when it works, it transcends the screen. You’re there, at the taping, watching these people turn words on a page into something incredible.

I mention this because The Big Bang Theory is the only show on TV that even comes close to these moments. There are other multi-camera shows out there. But there’s not one where these moments can happen, where the writers, actor, and audience all get on the same page, except for Big Bang Theory. For better or worse, that’s why we’re still covering this show. When it’s very, very good, as it only has been fitfully this year, it achieves that sense of transcendence. Think, for example, of just how silly it is to have Sheldon break for the stairwell to chase after Leonard, repeating his name over and over and over. But it works. The audience roars. We laugh. On the page, that moment probably took up a few sentences. In the hands of Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki, it becomes the funniest moment of the season.

Let’s back up a bit. This is the latest episode in the “Sheldon dates Amy” saga that has threatened to devour the show whole every time it pops up. In this one, Amy asks Sheldon to meet her mother, a move that baffles Sheldon, who knows it means SOMETHING, but can’t put together just what it does. When he chases after Leonard, it’s to find out just what it all means. Leonard suggests that the line from a girl who is a friend and girlfriend has now disappeared. Even if Sheldon didn’t want to be Amy’s boyfriend, he essentially is now, and he might as well live with it. Naturally, this being The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon reacts in the most extreme way possible, which involves taking the first number off the apartment complex’s building number, changing phone numbers, and otherwise finding ways to hide the apartment.

Yes, this all sounds a little silly and kind of insulting to Sheldon’s character, who’s been portrayed in the broadest manner possible all season long. But at the same time, I’m underselling just how awesome Parsons, Galecki, and Mayim Bialik were throughout. It was one of those episodes where it was impossible not to laugh, even as the brain was marking off things that didn’t work and ways the show was being vaguely mean to Sheldon, who’s been defined as a fastidious man since the show began but has been portrayed as vaguely robot-like all season long. Like I said above, the actors were having so much fun with this turn of events that it made things that shouldn’t have worked – like Sheldon thinking he could fool Amy by wearing a stupid costume – funnier than it needed to be.

What’s interesting is that this is the first of a handful of episodes to not feature Kaley Cuoco, who injured herself in a horse-riding accident and had to take a few weeks off from the show. I, obviously, have no idea just how much the writers had to rewrite the script after Cuoco’s accident, but it results in a reinforcement of the Sheldon and Leonard relationship. Because Parsons and Cuoco are so good together, the writers will often toss a storyline like this to scenes where Parsons earnestly hums along about how he doesn’t understand the behavior of these hu-mans, while Cuoco laughs at him, then gives him some good advice and sings “Soft Kitty.” Obviously, I’m not happy that Cuoco was injured (since she’s a vital part of the ensemble), but her injury forced the writers to work harder, and this was the best episode for Leonard, a main character who’s become a supporting player on his own show, in a long while.

So while the main plot succumbed to a lot of the problems of the season so far but was still really, really funny (which makes up for a lot), the secondary plot – also involving Leonard – was kind of a misfire. I’m always ready for more adventures with the charming Bernadette, who was very funny in the scene about crossing Ebola with the common cold (ADD HER TO THE REGULAR CAST NOW, SHOW), but the rest of the storyline felt like, essentially, one long, clichéd “bad date” joke, with the thoroughly repugnant but not especially funny Joy showing up to check off all of the boxes on the “OMG, this date is TERRIBLE!” plotline list. If Cuoco’s absence from the Sheldon storyline made the writers stretch (or so I assume), they were back to their old, lazy types in this plotline, and Joy was one of the worst guest characters on the show in a long while.

This was a strange episode of the show, overall, even if I thought a lot of it was funny. Cuoco’s absence, obviously, was something the show couldn’t help, but then Raj was gone from all but a single scene. The main plotline focused on one of the regulars and a recurring player, but kept pulling in the main character in the secondary plotline. Stuart showed up for just one scene, when he’s often a stronger presence, as did Bernadette. The show usually has such cut-and-dried divisions between everything that it was fun to see everything get mixed together like this. And then, at the center of everything, there was that great sense of the actors pushing themselves even farther than they usually do, the audience joining them every step along the way. These sorts of over-the-top shenanigans don’t always work, but when they do, they feel vital. Or, to put it another way, watch when Sheldon crouches in the hall to hide from Amy, then imagine that moment in the hands of a much lesser actor. This is a show that thrives on that ineffable thing, that connection between writer, actor, audience, and us, and when it works, you don’t question it too much.

Stray observations:

  • "It's just one of the things that makes one of the me's chuckle."
  • "All right. I'll bow to social pressure. Hey."
  • "Are you still depressed because you're alone and no one loves you?"
  • "He's a cornucopia of social awkwardness."
  • "I don't want to be joined to an object along an inclined plan wrapped helically around an axis."
  • "Have to sign off now. My hunger for Sheldon is stirring in my loins."

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