The Big Bang Theory: "The Gorilla Experiment"
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The Big Bang Theory: "The Gorilla Experiment"

B

The Big Bang Theory

"The Gorilla Experiment"

Season 3, Episode 10

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I've written about how the relationship between Leonard and Penny is a leftover from when The Big Bang Theory began. But I'm increasingly starting to feel like the whole Leonard character is a leftover from that time. Most weeks, he's just there to snipe at his friends and be in love with Penny. One of the things that held the show back at the start was that it hadn't learned that the nerds were the heart of the show, not the way Penny seemed a little freaked out by them. For that whole first season, there was a tension in the show between whether the nerd were to be laughed at or laughed with, and it was a tension that wasn't resolved until season two, when the show made the right call of saying the nerds were to be laughed with. Sure, a big reason for this was Jim Parsons' performance, but that sells short the chemistry that developed between all four guys, who, if nothing else, make a pretty great comedy team.

But there are weeks when the show does a pretty poor job of putting Leonard's occasional snarking about his friends in context. Leonard has always been pitched as the "normal" nerd, the one who indulges in things like Battlestar Galactica and new comics Wednesday but also the one who can reliably fraternize with people outside of his immediate social circle, unlike, say, Sheldon. Though I risk incurring the shippers' wrath again, this is why the Leonard and Penny pairing - boring as it is - has always made more sense within the show's limited conceptions of its characters than the Sheldon and Penny pairing. The show thinks Leonard is the "normal" one, and he'll always BE the "normal" one, and that means he belongs with the hot girl, who's still the most normal one of them all.

This means that you'll often get a storyline where Leonard is probably justified in snapping at one of his friends - like tonight's storyline, where he was irked that Howard thought he was trying to steal away Bernadette - but it's not really placed in any sort of proper context. Howard was being pretty sexist and terrible toward Bernadette until she called him on it, but so far as we knew, Leonard didn't know the back story. When he started going off on Howard, then, it felt a little needlessly cruel. Obviously, we didn't want to see a very moving scene where Howard and Leonard had a talk about how his behavior was inappropriate, but he'd never had a girlfriend, and he just didn't know how to act. But at the same time, just jumping to Leonard's snark felt a little sudden and didn't do so much to endear a character who's often at the center of some of the series' worst elements to the audience.

That sounds like I liked "The Gorilla Experiment" less than I did, but I actually liked the episode quite a bit. It's yet another enjoyable episode in a season that's turning out to be pretty consistent overall. In particular, I enjoyed the interaction between Sheldon and Penny (but, then, when don't I?), as he attempted to teach her physics so she could better relate to Leonard. I'm finding it odd that I buy the Leonard and Penny relationship more when the two aren't sharing screen time. Seeing Penny's desire to at least fake being smarter so she could relate more to her boyfriend struck me as both weirdly realistic and kind of sad. And that gets into something else.

I kept wanting to like "The Gorilla Experiment" a little more than I did, and I think it was because the series was bumping up against something fundamentally emotional at the core of the episode and then backing away from it at the last moment. Leonard and Penny have a fundamental difference in their intelligence levels, and while that's not insurmountable, it's something the two haven't really dealt with. The show seems to treat the Leonard and Penny thing as a certainty, as something we're just supposed to expect was always going to happen, but it hasn't done a very good job of explaining either why it's happened or why it's gone on beyond the idea that Penny's dated a lot of jerks and Leonard finds her really hot. Again, I'm not asking that the show do a bunch of scenes where the two have trenchant discussions of how she wishes she could be more of a part of his world or something, but it would be nice to have some very basic idea of why their relationship works (or doesn't).

I know you guys hate it when I compare this show to How I Met Your Mother, but while opinion on how that show handled the Robin and Barney pairing was sharply divided, at least the series went to the work of explaining the pairing in a way beyond a base level. I just don't get the sense that the series has thought this through beyond just wanting to give the two actors something to do. It's led to some fun storylines, like tonight's attempts by Penny to learn physics (which led to the Parsons-Kaley Cuoco pairing that drives so many great scenes), but the show seems to shy away from anything weightier, which leaves the show's one continuing storyline feeling adrift.

That said, I'm still digging the Howard and Bernadette pairing, which actually is going to the trouble of explaining just why the relationship does or doesn't work. Bernadette's a worthy addition to the gang. Her jokes are actually funny, and seeing new people entering the orbit of these characters is always fun. I could have done without the return of Howard's mom, but I like that this storyline is showing his tentative way of feeling out how to be in a relationship. I'm sure this will all crash and burn at some point (or Bernadette will become the show's Lilith Sternin-Crane), but I'm enjoying the hell out of it while it lasts.

For all of the things that were enjoyable about "The Gorilla Experiment," then, I'm still struck with the sense that if the show wants to do continuing storylines, it has to go all in and really exploit what makes serialized storytelling so great on TV. If it just wants to tell funny stories that close off in each and every episode, that's fine, too, and the show has proved it can do that, but it needs to head away from this relationship stuff (or move it severely to the background) if it's going to pull that off. Too many more episodes in this halfway space just won't end up working.

Stray observations:

  • Not a Raj-heavy episode. For that matter, not really a Leonard-heavy episode. Which made the structure feel just a little weird, come to think of it.
  • "If there were 2,000 people in this apartment, would we be celebrating? No. We'd be suffocating."
  • "If I hadn't gone into microbiology, I would have gone into physics. Or ice dancing."
  • "Howard, your shoes are delightful."
  • "Bazinga. I don't care."
  • "No. Fig Newtons are named after a small town in Massachusetts. No, don't write that down!"
  • "Why are you crying?" "Because I'm stupid!" "Well, that's no reason to cry."
  • "Which is why I tend to feel threatened by other guys." "Or loud noises, clowns and nuns."
  • "He had a panic attack once when he got his head stuck in a sweater."
  • "That's all I know. Oh, wait! Fig Newtons were named after a town in Massachusetts, not the scientist."

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