Episode two of the great, "Kaley Cuoco had to sit a few episodes out" experiment on The Big Bang Theory aired tonight, and it was the second episode to have more of a focus on Leonard (though this one didn't seem to have twisted itself in pretzels to replace Penny with Leonard in one of the plots). After last season seemed almost apologetic that one of the show's original leads had mostly turned into a supporting character in The Continuing Adventures of Sheldon (and Friends) and, thus, gave Leonard a significant storyline to play out in his mostly misbegotten relationship with Penny, this season has returned to what the show became popular for and has pushed Sheldon to the forefront again. And yet Kaley Cuoco's injury has indirectly led to Leonard getting more focus, and it's shown off the way that the show has figured out a way to keep him mostly in the background while still keeping him the putative center of the group.
Somewhere along the line, The Big Bang Theory realized that it could do funny stories about Sheldon or funny stories about Howard or funny stories about Raj or even funny stories about Penny, but it had trouble doing funny stories about Leonard. I suspect this is because Leonard has always been the "normal" one of the show's nerds. As such, the show has trouble defining him as a character. Sure, he has some characteristics, but he's the least "sitcommy" of the nerd characters. He doesn't have anything as broad as Raj's inability to talk to women as hammy as Howard's continued sexual exploits or as original a comedic idea as the whole portrayal of Sheldon. His character, more or less, is the sadsack straight-man who has trouble with girls. If he makes a joke, it's usually an audience surrogate quip, of the "You guys are so nerdy, and I can't believe I hang out with you" variety. In season three, this could make him seem like a jackass, but I think the writers have modulated it a bit this season. For whatever reason, Leonard is sarcastic this season, but not over the top.
Normally, I like when a show introduces a storyline that suggests the characters had a life before the series began. This episode does this via Raj's sister, Priya, showing up and continuing her secret relationship with Leonard, a relationship begun when she first visited five years ago. (I do not remember Priya turning up before, but I'm willing to admit my memory in this case may be rusty. The other sites I check suggest she's a first-time character.) On top of all of this, I rather liked the actress playing Priya, who maybe wasn't the funniest deliverer of lines in the history of the world but certainly was a game and terrific physical comedian (her vault over the couch was gold). As far as random guest characters go, I wouldn't mind seeing Aarti Mann in this role again, and it would make sense that she would visit her brother again.
No, I think what didn't work for me was the fact that the show took a storyline that would highlight a relationship between characters that hasn't gotten a lot of attention - Leonard and Raj - and turned it into another Sheldon and Leonard storyline. Don't get me wrong. I love Sheldon and Leonard together, and the idea that Sheldon had to keep Leonard's secret might have been fun for a B-plot. But it was a part of the A-plot, which went from a relationship between Leonard and a girl we'd never met before to a story about Leonard trying to keep that relationship from Sheldon (and by extension Raj). There's a lot of interesting and potentially comic meat to dig into in this storyline, particularly in regards to Raj's issues with women, but the show just doesn't bother going there. Raj is basically a prop to get Priya in the country and something for Leonard to fear in regards to his secret getting out. What the show really wants us to care about is whether Sheldon will keep Leonard's secret, and while that's funny in places (I did enjoy Sheldon's elaborate ruse about the Irish girl), it felt like the storyline was misplaced, like it was covering up for what the real storyline was supposed to be.
I suppose at this point, complaining about the fact that storylines on The Big Bang Theory seem less like actual plots and more like excuses to introduce elaborate bits of comic business for Jim Parsons to perform is like suggesting you don't like the show. For better or worse, this is what the show IS, and usually, the performances are enough to make up for that. But something about this season has felt more off than usual. At its best, The Big Bang Theory provides some very fun group scenes. Even allowing for the fact that one of the actors has been out of commission for two episodes, this season feels much more focused on just having Parsons do stuff. Parsons is very, very funny, but this is a strong ensemble, and they work well together. It's not for nothing that the funniest scene in tonight's episode is the scene where all of the guys talk about the mean things they've done to each other without the others even knowing. It's the one scene where everybody's an equal partner in the humor, and that allows for some very funny payoffs.
To a degree, viewers like myself are part of this problem. I've made no bones out of my love for Parsons and his performance, and I thought his Emmy win last year was richly deserved. But I do think the show has gotten a bit Sheldon-crazy this season, to the point where the character is in grave danger of throwing the whole show out of balance. This is the common thing to do with a breakout character like Sheldon, but that doesn't mean it's not worrying to see. When Raj eventually forgives Leonard for sexing up his sister in tonight's episode, it feels abrupt because it is abrupt. Somewhere, there's a version of this episode that focuses more on Leonard and Raj and the tension between them over Raj's sister (as well as any number of issues that could come between the two, right down to cultural ones). Instead, it was an episode about how Sheldon is Leonard's wacky roommate. Sheldon business is always welcome, but it doesn't need to take over every episode. I miss the days when full acts could be devoted to scenes that featured all five cast members doing funny stuff in the guys' apartment over Chinese food.
- That said, I liked the little homage to Infocom. Adventure games - text and graphic - of the 1980s are one of those things I keep pitching a Gateway to Geekery on and keep getting rebuffed on. I know there's an audience for that article, dammit!
- I'm genuinely surprised The Big Bang Theory didn't do a Halloween episode. I realize they've done one before, but it seems like every show is going Halloween episode crazy this year.
- Funny: Howard believing he had to constantly tell Priya he had a girlfriend, as she would surely be all over him otherwise. (Also, you have to make a call: Priya or Bernadette. But I don't have to make a call, as I'm the impartial observer.)
- "This is the worst cobbler I've ever eaten. It tastes like it's made of actual ground-up shoemaker."
- "I just wanna put it out there in case I inadvertently squirt any pheromones in your direction."
- "Everyone will see my oddly shaped uvula."
- "You're far too short to be Darth Vader. You're much more likely to be a turncoat Ewok."
- "You put moths in my food?" "For science!"