Most of my favorite comedies use language in some inventive and interesting way. Think about 30 Rock’s flights of verbal fancy (and how the show hilariously undercuts them with lines like "I want to go to there") or the way that the gang on How I Met Your Mother seems to have its own secret code that we’re somehow a part of. I think what has always set Sheldon Cooper apart for me on The Big Bang Theory is the way that his words always seem so precisely chosen. Where the other nerds on this show might occasionally spout giant fonts of scientific dialogue at inopportune moments, Sheldon is almost always speaking like this, as though he’s turning the English language itself into some sort of experiment wherein he chooses the most precise phrasings possible for the things he’s trying to say. A large portion of it has to do with Jim Parsons’ delivery, but the writers on this show do a very good job of finding him things to say that are just the right degree of ponce-y.
Look at this line: “I lost this to Wolowitz in an ill-considered cricket wager.” Sheldon’s just had to go to the bank to retrieve a priceless issue of The Flash from his safety deposit box (when Penny asks him why he’d have such a thing, he answers, matter-of-factly, “Old comic books”). He’s lost it to Wolowitz because he was on the wrong side of a bet to identify a certain species of cricket by only its chirp, and now he’s preparing to hand it over with the commensurate level of grieving appropriate to the occasion. Sheldon’s gotta convey to Penny just why he’s wandering around with this comic book in sorrow, but where a lesser show might have just had him say, “Oh, I lost it to him in a bet,” The Big Bang Theory is so tuned in to this character’s rhythms that they break out a line that’s not a hilarious joke in and of itself but somehow becomes one just because all of the words in it are so perfectly chosen. That shows real craftsmanship, a real sense of both these characters and what’s funny about them.
I wish I could say that about the rest of the episode. While the Sheldon and Wolowitz and Raj chase a cricket and then meet entomologist Lewis Black plot grew into something that was pretty funny, the bulk of the show is still given over to the Leonard and Penny storyline, which basically doesn’t work at present. It’s still in the show because Johnny Galecki is the ostensible lead of the show and a fine comic actor and needs things to do, but the show has failed to define his character beyond something other than his hopeless infatuation with Penny, which makes this plotline harder to take than it should be. Why is Penny suddenly in love with him? It always seems, at base, that she’s in love with him because she’s supposed to be, and that’s why this never quite takes off in the way that it should to be one of the great sitcom romantic pairings.
I don’t think it’s necessarily the fault of anyone in specific here. The show gave a lot of itself over to Sheldon last season, and while Kaley Cuoco and Galecki are both incredibly funny playing off of Parsons, neither has been given the kinds of individual storylines that generally come from being the star of a show. When Raj only gets one or two showcase episodes per season, that’s because he’s a supporting player on a star-dominated sitcom. When Leonard only gets one or two, that’s because the show has essentially turned into a very different show from the one it started out as. The easiest way to generate storylines for underutilized players on any given show is to give them romantic entanglements, and since the show has an already existent “Leonard and Penny secretly pine for each other” storyline, it was easy enough to say that Leonard and Penny were going to get their storyline for the season from their romantic coupling.
The problem, as mentioned, is that Galecki and Cuoco’s chemistry always seems like the chemistry of really good friends. Weirdly, this would probably work if the two came into the series already married or something, but it doesn’t work for making the two seem like they’re gradually discovering their passion for each other. When so much of the episode revolves around how the sex the two had at the end of the season premiere was lackluster and how the two freak out about that, it doesn’t help that Sheldon can say that the two could just go back to being friends and it’s all too tempting to just shrug and admit that he has a point (as Penny pretty much does). When the two collapse into each other’s arms again at the end of the episode, something about it just feels off. I hate to chart all of this up to something as simple as “chemistry,” but it increasingly feels like that’s what it is.
That said, though, the cricket storyline, as mentioned, was pretty funny. Raj and Wolowitz tend to be pretty one-joke characters, but the actors play those jokes very well, and teamng them up with Sheldon usually works out pretty well for the show. While the storyline started out pretty slow, by the time Sheldon and Wolowitz were arguing about what to name their cricket and Raj was occasionally tossing in rejoinders about how Sheldon was once chased around by a neighbor’s chicken, it was rolling along like the best small sitcom storylines do. A small story is one that starts in an intensely relatable place (who hasn’t heard a cricket and wondered where the hell it was?) and then takes it into a new and weird place (most likely, few of us have had a bet riding on what species of cricket it was). This storyline also got the added boost of the always funny Lewis Black as a bug expert whose lab was being shut down so he could go to Oxnard. Black’s bitterness combined well with the goofily aloof nerds, and it made for a fun little scene.
Back at the apartment complex, though, Sheldon inadvertently counseled both Leonard and Penny about their relationship, and each little scene was funnier and more believable than any of Leonard and Penny’s scenes together (particularly the one between Sheldon and Penny). Is there a way to make Leonard and Penny believable? I don’t know, but running the storylines through the other characters is not a bad place to start. The relationship is more believable when everyone else is talking about it, for some reason, than when we’re actually looking at it.
- For some reason, I keep spelling Leonard as “Lenoard.” My week watching The Jay Leno Show has ruined me!
- "in your dream, you're a horse from the waist down."
- "What you're seeing here is a continuation of the mocking that followed."
- "Chickens are not by nature at all timid. In fact, when I was young, my neighbor's chicken got loose and chased me up the big elm tree in front of our house."
- "I took kung fu when I was 13 and I remember a great deal of it."
- "Obviously another carnal fiasco with the shiksie goddess."
- "It was a joke. I made it to lessen your discomfort. You're welcome."
- "Why be polite to the world's leading expert on the dung beetle?"
- "Cruel as that may be, that is not in and of itself a credential."
- "What do they have? Wii Cricket, now?"