If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear The Big Bang Theory was trying to play the penis game with me in tonight’s episode. You know the one. Everybody gets together in a crowded public place, and then you take turns slowly saying “Penis” more and more loudly, until someone chickens out, and then the person who said it the most loudly wins the game. Surely you all played this at the mall food court in high school? Or at whimsical family gatherings? Anyway, with all of the coded references to penises and the eventual use of the word itself, tonight’s episode was uniquely obsessed with phallus, even for this show. So, in short, an episode that seemed like it might have been fun—at least because it got the characters out of their usual milieu—was subsumed by a steady stream of dick jokes and the characters acting like the most obvious versions of themselves.
Everybody’s going to a conference at Big Sur. It’s about the nebulously defined idea of “Science And Society” (toss a “vs.” in there instead of an “and,” and you might have something), and there’s going to be a panel featuring our six scientist characters, for whatever reason. Penny is invited along because she’s now Amy’s “bestie,” and this means that we’re going to get either road trip shenanigans or door-slamming farce at the hotel. Surely with this many people on the trip and that few of beds to sleep in, we can expect some sexy shenanigans? Or maybe we’ll focus on the trip up and compare and contrast what it’s like to be in a car with Sheldon versus what it’s like to be in a car with Howard and Bernadette? No one would ever accuse Big Bang Theory of being overly ambitious, and this is a case where focusing in on one of those two ideas might have made for a really solid episode.
Instead, a bunch of stuff just kind of happened, then Howard was horrified by the idea of Rick Fox having a much larger set of genitals than his own, despite whatever Bernadette said to reassure him. The portions of the episode focused on the characters in the two cars weren’t horribly funny at all, including such evergreen comic gems as Sheldon communicating with the other car using Star Wars lingo, Penny not knowing what the Periodic Table of Elements is (really?), and Penny irritating Sheldon so much that she gets bumped to the other car. OK, the idea that Raj would be stuck in the car, unable to talk, while Howard and Bernadette talked around their sex life, was pretty amusing, particularly when he texted Leonard, that he might be able to confirm to Bernadette that “nap” means “have sex.” Anyway, this section felt very much like a first draft. “Hey, let’s throw the characters in cars together and see what happens.”
The worst thing about this is that I usually really enjoy this kind of thing. Taking a big group of characters and then breaking them down into smaller groups is usually structural gold, particularly on a show like this where there are plenty of unexplored character combinations to mine humor from. Instead, we get tossed into some of the same old combinations we always get, and the jokes aren’t all that good. The show increasingly feels lazy, as if its hit status makes it able to just ignore stuff like solid story development or cleverly crafted jokes, but, for God’s sake, if I have to hear another scene where Sheldon explains that everything has to be just HIS way, I think I’m going to throw something through the TV. It was a lot of fun two seasons ago. But it’s become the basis of almost EVERY EPISODE at this point, which has robbed it of any novelty.
Anyway, the gang gets up to Big Sur, and when they check into the hotel, Bernadette runs into her former professor, Rick Fox, who was also her lover for a time. Naturally, Howard’s mind immediately jumps to the size of his girlfriend’s former lover’s penis, because that’s where everybody’s mind goes in this situation, and the two then have a long string of scenes where Howard’s penis is mocked as being too small, while Rick Fox’s penis is praised for its size. (You can see why he took the guest role.) Again, the jokes aren’t particularly clever—unless you’re playing the penis game with the show—and it limits one of the better characters on the show in Bernadette, someone we haven’t really gotten to know just yet, who’s tossed into a tired, predictable setup here.
At the same time, we’re getting plenty of scenes where the characters are swapping bedrooms, including a serious and sensitive probing of the Leonard and Penny relationship, as it stands today. The two almost hook up again, but Raj comes in to interrupt the evening, since Sheldon (who didn’t want to have to be in the same room as Leonard and Penny) refused to let him watch Bridget Jones’ Diary, which, what? There’s a sense that all of this could have turned into some sort of bed-hopping farce or even something where the various couples are constantly shifting and changing, so that every room features some completely unexplored character combination, like, say, Leonard and Bernadette or something. But this is The Big Bang Theory. It doesn’t really DO unexpected, nor does it have anything like the kind of speed that would be necessary for the farce to work. All this episode made me think was that I’d rather be watching the ski lodge episode of Frasier.
I don’t particularly view watching The Big Bang Theory as a chore. I like the characters, and I generally don’t mind the situations, but the writing has gotten unbelievably sloppy this season, even for a show that never showed much of an inclination to push for anything more than what it was already comfortable with. At one time, I thought that the expansion of the cast to include Bernadette and Amy might make for a rejuvenated cast. Instead, it’s just given the show to indulge in the same sorts of jokes it always has. There are the requisite scatological gags, followed by a few easy swipes at beloved nerd targets, followed by some sort of “Penny is dumb and/or thinks too much of herself” gag. At some point, something’s gotta give, and I suspect it’ll be me, more than the show embracing the sense of fun it’s shown only sporadically this season.
- I really don’t buy that Penny wouldn’t know the periodic table. It’s one thing to do a character-breaking joke if it’s funny. It’s another if it’s utterly and completely NOT funny.
- Sheldon showing everybody the car arrangements on the computer screen was the sort of thing that might have been funny a while ago but has become less funny through overfamiliarity.
- "She made the case that if we break down in the middle of nowhere, your Nebraska backwoods skills and brawny hands will give us the best chance to survive in the wild."
- "I just got a text from Raj. He wanted me to tell you that when Howard says 'nap,' he means sex."
- "Just pin me down and stroke my hair, and I'll be fine."
- "Even the tiniest organisms can tear you a new one."
- "Are we talking about women wanting penises, because I'd like to weigh in."