The biggest problem with The Big Bang Theory is that it coasts. It has a good foundation. The characters are pretty good and well-defined. The actors who play them are all very capable. The premise of the show has grown into a reliable laugh generator. But the writing on the show rarely takes chances. It prefers to lean heavily on what’s worked in the past and some of the easier jokes. Every week, I reproduce five or six jokes here in the stray observations, and as I go through, I realize that some of them aren’t as funny on paper as they were on screen because they’re not being read by the actors. The cast, as mentioned, is great, and they keep all of this rolling along, but without that cast? This would be just another subpar sitcom.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Tonight’s A-plot revolves around Howard attempting to win back the heart of the lovely Bernadette. This is a good thing, I think, because Bernadette was one of the best recurring characters the show ever came up with, and she balanced out Howard, the show’s most problematic character, in a way that kept him funny but allowed the show to phase out some of the more irritating jokes they tell with the character. Both Leonard and Penny want to know just why Howard and Bernadette broke up (since it was tossed off so quickly last season), and after some prompting, Howard tells Penny: Bernadette caught him having sex with a troll in World of Warcraft, and she was angry about that. The two fought and broke up. Howard didn’t see why she was so upset about this. After all, when you’re having cybersex, you don’t know who your partner is. For all he knew, that troll girl was a …
Here’s the place where the show gets lazy. In the past, particularly in the second season, the show might have come up with something really specific, something that plays off the classic “you could be having sex with a man!” cybersex gag, but comes up with just enough of a new spin on it to provoke a burst of surprised laughter. Here, though, Howard just says the troll girl could really be a “50-year-old truck driver.” When most members of the audience can fill in the blank you’ve left for them with the exact same joke you come up with, then that’s some lazy comedy writing. (Honestly, I’m not that funny, and I came up with “truck driver” straight off.) Increasingly, the show seems to be heading toward this sort of laughter more and more often, not really bothering to tell funnier jokes when it can just tell the easy jokes and prompt laughter because the actors are good enough to sell the jokes to the audience. Hell, I laugh at plenty of these easy jokes, but they lose something out of context. The show just doesn’t work as hard for its laughs as it might.
And this is too bad because there’s a lot of stuff in this episode to like. The idea of George Takei and Katee Sackhoff appearing as the angel and devil over Howard’s shoulder was a potentially good one, as was Howard’s sexual fantasy growing increasingly out of control. And I liked the episode’s use of Kaley Cuoco as the one who’s able to patch over the differences between Howard and Bernadette, particularly the scene where she kept bringing them drinks and food just to listen in on their conversation. Finally, the revelation that Howard and Bernadette’s relationship REALLY fell apart because Howard never put the moves on Bernadette both made sense and was kind of poignant, even if making the sexually obsessed horn-dog someone who has trouble closing the deal is, again, kind of a lazy direction to take the character in. That scene at the Cheesecake Factory with the couple, as well as Penny’s interruptions, was probably the highlight of the episode.
One way I thought the episode did take some chances was in how it paired off the characters. The show’s laziness means that it can get stuck in telling stories using the same basic combinations of characters over and over, like how the show rarely pairs Sheldon with someone other than Leonard or, increasingly, Penny, or how it always throws Howard and Raj into the same storyline. And yet sitcoms are most healthy when every character on them has a different relationship with everybody else. The show would be better if it was able to do Howard and Penny storylines more often or if it could toss Raj into a storyline with Penny (even though this would be all but impossible by the show’s “rules” for the character). Tonight, in addition to having a Howard and Penny storyline, there was also a rare Raj and Sheldon storyline, and while a lot of that was lazy, too, it was just nice to see this other combination of the characters.
To be fair, so much of the Sheldon and Raj storyline relies on sight gags – like Raj’s giant desk – but they were mostly funny sight gags. In some ways, I wonder if the visuals didn’t hold the storyline back from being as funny as it could have been. When Leonard and Howard wander by the office and hear Sheldon and Raj yelling at each other through the door, the number of things they’re mad at each other over rapidly escalating, I think it could have been even more amusing if the stuff they were upset about got more and more over-the-top because the cut inside the office, with the two shooting at each other with Nerf guns, was a pretty simple gag to go to, ultimately. Still, I really like the chemistry between these two characters, and it was nice to have an episode where Sheldon wasn’t the lead after three straight Sheldon-heavy episodes. Sheldon and Raj are a good pairing, and I hope the show does more with them in the future.
It’s not that I hate Big Bang Theory or anything. I just think it’s become such a big hit that it’s become almost too cautious. Nearly every joke now is of the variety where the audience at home could probably come up with a variation on that joke. This isn’t always a bad thing – predictability is a boon in a sitcom, especially when you can subvert it (notice how well it works when it’s HOWARD at the door and not Sheldon after the knock-knock-knock “Penny!” routine). But there’s just such a sense of a tired rhythm settling in over The Big Bang Theory at this point, as though everyone involved doesn’t want to rock the boat too much. And that’s too bad. Howard’s long been my least favorite character on the show, simply because he’s such a lazy nerd stereotype of the skeevy perv. So an episode that tries to break him out of that box should try harder in other areas, but this one just doesn’t. The character work was mostly there. The laughs weren’t.
- "You ran over a hobo!"
- "Why would you want a glow in the dark ant farm?" "They do some of their best work at night."
- "Sometimes, your movements are so life-like, I forget you're not a real boy."
- "Considering its purpose was to piss you off, I'd say it's spot on."
- "I guess for you guys, that's like regular golf."