When Leonard and Penny decided to finally embark on a relationship (or, more accurately, when The Big Bang Theory’s writers decided it was finally time to give the characters something non-Sheldon related to do), no matter how the storyline played out, it was almost guaranteed that one particular aspect of that storyline would turn out at least one terrific episode. How Sheldon reacted to the fact that two of the people in his life were now dating and disrupting the orderly little world he’d built up for himself essentially guaranteed at least one episode of great material, since putting Jim Parsons into conflict with Kaley Cuoco or Johnny Galecki is almost always worth it, and putting him into conflict with both of them (even if it’s oblivious conflict) sounded promising.
And, surprise, surprise, that storyline finally arrived tonight, and it was everything anyone could have wanted it to be. Watching Sheldon deal with the fact that Penny’s over all the time now and that his roommate is clearly just going to tolerate most everything she does was hilarious and perfectly played by all three actors, from the get-go. Even in that opening scene, where Penny prepares French toast on an oatmeal morning, the rhythms are right there, all of the actors are bouncing off of each other terrifically, and the capper – of Sheldon dumping the French toast in the trash – is a great final joke for the scene.
But things only heighten from there, as Sheldon embarks on an attempt to make Penny both a better frequent house guest and a better girlfriend for Leonard through classical conditioning, rewarding her good behavior with chocolate. The episode lets just why he’s periodically feeding her chocolate play out as something of a strange mystery at first but gradually pulled back the curtain, revealing that Sheldon thought he could “improve” Penny via the conditioning. What resulted may not have been the greatest plot beyond that reveal, but by showing Sheldon turning his roommate’s relationship into a kind of experiment, the series managed to keep one foot in solid, character-based humor that have managed to turn the show into a huge hit and the other in the kinds of scientific, geek-based humor that have made the show into a simultaneous cult hit. So long as the show keeps up that balance, it manages to be the kind of show that starts off the week right. (Less successful was the end of the story, which pretty much just petered out, but that’s such a recurring problem with this show that I’d be pointing it out every week if I were to really get into it. Assume I have a problem with it unless I say I don’t.)
What worked about this that didn’t really work in the previous Penny/Leonard storylines was that the series just decided to accept their coupling as a fact of life. I still don’t think the pairing makes a lot of sense beyond the fact that it’s just always been something the show said was present (even though it really wasn’t), but if the show is going to go ahead and have them be together, I’d rather it just be treated matter-of-factly as something that exists and exists mostly without comment. That allows the other characters to play off of it or Sheldon to throw wrenches into the two’s pairing or Raj and Wolowitz to comment with jealousy and lust about everything that’s going on.
It’s worth stating here that this plot mainly worked because it was just an excuse to let Sheldon do some funny stuff and let Penny and Leonard react to that funny stuff. As I sat down to start writing about it, I realized that basically nothing happened in the story. It just set up the simple mystery, solved the mystery, then played out a handful of permutations of the classical conditioning. Did the story go anywhere? Did it really push the characters’ relationships? No. It was just a chance for Sheldon to do funny stuff, and yes, that stuff was funny, but the show, at this point, is pretty much just content to have funny lines that amuse the audience (and they’re VERY good lines) and solidly drawn characters than complex stories. Because comedies are so short now, you kind of have to prioritize if you’re going to have great jokes or great characters or great stories, but you can rarely have all three unless you’re a genius writer (like Mitch Hurwitz), so many shows come down solidly in the camp of just having two. Big Bang seems content to have great jokes and solid characters and let the stories just be most weeks at a time. On other shows, Penny would have found out what Sheldon was doing, and there would have been an argument with Leonard and so on and so forth. Given how predictable this storyline would have been (and given how predictable most multi-camera sitcoms are nowadays), maybe it’s better that the show just kind of lets story slide, but it’s still interesting to look at.
On the other hand, the B-story, wherein Raj and Wolowitz went to a goth club to try to pick up goth girls while wearing tattoo sleeves just wasn’t anywhere near the level of the main storyline, mostly because of the fact that it tried to toss an actual storyline – complete with a character trying to overcome one of his greatest fears and failing at the end – to the show’s too least-defined characters. Raj and Wolowitz, at this point in the show, are both generally good foils (and well-acted characters) for the main players, but they’re not horribly defined beyond a variety of quirks. The show will often try to toss definition to them, but after an episode or two, it will revert to who they were a few episodes ago. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing – traditional comedy relies on predictability – but when the two are shunted off by themselves, it makes for something that just never quite rises to the level of consistently funny, outside of Raj trying to describe himself as a creature of the night.
But, in the end, all of these quibbles don’t matter, really. The Big Bang Theory is at that point in its lifespan where the goodwill for the characters, performers and joke-writing are enough to let the show ride that swell to an episode where basically nothing happens, but it’s still incredibly, incredibly amusing. That’s what this episode was, and while everything I’ve said about it makes it sound like a dull, horrible episode of TV, it really wasn’t. It was one of the funnier half hours I’ve seen this young season, and that’s almost entirely due to the fact that the show has managed to figure out a way to make the idea of a well-told story almost superfluous. We come to The Big Bang Theory to hang out with the characters, and that’s not a bad thing.
- "I can't be impossible. I exist. I believe what you meant to say was, 'I give up. He's improbable.'"
- "Oh, Penny. It's as if The Cheesecake Factory is run by witches."
- "Do either of you ladies enjoy the novels of John Grisham?"
- "If you let me use negative reinforcement, I could get it done before we go to bed."
- "Interesting. Sex works better than chocolate to modify behavior. Wonder if anybody else has stumbled on to that."