I realize that there are people out there who will never like The Big Bang Theory, and I understand why. Not everybody has the same sense of humor, and not everybody is willing to overlook the hoarier elements of the conventional sitcom. And that's cool. But if I there's anyone out there who's on the fence about The Big Bang Theory, or who's never seen the show before, I'd say this: Watch "The Lizard-Spock Expansion." If this episode doesn't make you laugh, than yeah, this is never going to be the show for you.
Most weeks I have to overlook a clunky scene or two in BBT in order to focus on what makes the show special. This week was clunk-free. Everything clicked, from the introduction of the titular variation on rock-paper-scissors–which pre-dates BBT, and which I'll expound upon down in "Stray Observations"–to Howard passive-aggressively trying to pin down the women he's interested in by saying his mother needs a "headcount" for dinner. "The Lizard-Spock Expansion" is an example of the character-driven three-camera sitcom done right, mixing farce, absurdity, and ace ensemble work.
In fact, if I tried to list the highlights, I'd probably just end up recounting every joke, so I'll keep it simple. Here's what worked:
1. The scope. As much as I'm fascinated by Sheldon, I was glad to see him take a back seat tonight, back to playing the scold while Leonard and Howard took center stage. After Howard's new method for picking up girls–involving an eyepatch and "the negs"–fails, he falls back on his old method, which consists of telling girls that if they leave with him, he'll take them back to the university and let them drive the Mars Rover. The line works on Stephanie (played by Sara Rue, one of my favorite comic actresses), but when Howard drives the Rover into a ditch and can't get it out, Stephanie accepts a ride home with Leonard, and the two immediately hit it off. Between the Rover storyline, the "Leonard steals Howard's girl" storyline, and Sheldon's Lizard-Spock business, this was a very full episode, and paced like a racecar.
2. The pathos. Howard can be both pathetic and annoying, but tonight, as he kept calling Stephanie's machine to see if she wanted to come to dinner at his house, his usual misguided swagger gave way to something almost touching in its neediness. And yet at the end, after he goes out with Stephanie's roommate and calls her to apologize for "how the night ended," it's clear that he's no less Howard than he was when the episode began. This is a broad sitcom after all. It only works if nothing changes.
3. The asides. I wrote a few weeks back about how BBT ranked among the best sitcoms ever in terms of pointless conversations, and this week was awash with them. There was Lizard-Spock, of course; and the weird conversational momentum that led from Sheldon explaining that DefCon 1 is worse than DefCon 5 to Raj countering, "Yet Star Trek V is worse than Star Trek I ." There was Sheldon refusing to watch the Clone Wars TV series before watching the movie because, "I prefer to let George Lucas disappoint me in the order he intended." And there was my favorite scene, in which Leonard makes the mistake of asking Sheldon to cover for him while he sneaks out on his date, thus making it impossible for Sheldon to say anything to the gang without sounding like a Shatner-level bad actor.
I don't know. Either this stuff makes you laugh or it doesn't. But I thought "The Lizard-Spock Expansion" had such a good rhythm going that even the throwaway lines were funny, like Leonard describing his day at work as, "I thought about stuff I wrote some of it down," and Penny asking Leonard if Stephanie is, "A doctor doctor or a you kind of doctor?" I knew this episode was working like gangbusters when Sheldon, Howard and Raj were sitting in the Mars Rover control room, apparently working feverishly, and Raj looked up from his computer screen and admitted, "Actually, I was just checking my e-mail." In and of itself, that's line's not much. But how, when, where and why it was delivered well that's the stuff that gives a sitcom its go.
-Sheldon compares Howard's attempt to attract women with his unusual attire to "the rutting baboon with engorged hindquarters." Leonard compares it to "the bar mitzvah boy with pinkeye."
-"You're going to have to play outside! I'm not dressed to receive!"
-Without Leonard, the rest of the gang had the dumpling trouble again.
-So here's how it breaks down: Scissors cuts paper. Paper covers rock. Rock crushes lizard. Lizard poisons Spock. Spock smashes scissors. Scissors decapitates lizard. Lizard eats paper. Paper disproves Spock. Spock vaporizes rock. And as it always has, rock crushes scissors.
And here's why it doesn't work: Everyone always wants to do Spock. (Me, I'd do paper, because I like the idea that "Paper disproves Spock.")
-I think I'd like to try Howard's mom's brisket.