(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
Some shows you probably just shouldn’t write about.
I realize that I’m directing this almost solely to myself, so this review is going to be the least helpful thing ever to a bunch of you, but I’ve mostly enjoyed The Big Bang Theory since I stopped regularly reviewing it, and in terms of TV’s two ginormous comedy sensations right now—Modern Family is the other—there are many weeks when I prefer this one, something I never thought I would say. The question I have for myself is whether the show got better—which is an argument you can make, since Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik became such vital parts of its recipe since my last regular reviews—or whether not having to think about it all that much just made me more amenable to whatever it was trying to do. I’m not trying to make the argument that some TV isn’t worthy of episodic reviews, not at all. I’m trying to make the argument that some writers shouldn’t be doing episodic reviews of certain shows, and maybe Big Bang Theory was that way for me.
Because if there’s a thing I like about the show, it would be that I think the people who make it are at least somewhat harsh critics of their own work. It’s just hard to change a TV show, particularly one that’s this big and successful, and like steering an ocean liner, those changes come very slowly. This thing can’t turn on a dime. But over the course of the last few seasons, Big Bang Theory has mostly shook off some of the rut I felt it was in when I was reviewing it regularly, and it’s found some other gear. I’ve always liked comedies that slowly evolve and turn into other shows over time. I liked when Mary Richards moved into that other apartment and all of the cast changes on Cheers. I like when things shift, because people’s real lives will shift, but so many sitcoms since the ‘90s—especially the more traditional ones—have been frozen, essentially trapped in the status quo set up somewhere in the first season. The Big Bang Theory was that way for a while, but it isn’t now, and that has made all the difference.
I can say that in an episode that has basically nothing to do with the two most significant changes to the cast—the two additional women added to it—but one that does attempt to address the largest remaining part of the show’s original template that still doesn’t work: Raj’s inability to talk to women unless he’s been drinking. I’ve been following Oliver’s heroic attempts to parse out possible symbols that Raj is gay in this space for a couple of seasons now, and while I agree with Oliver that that would be an interesting place to take the character, it also seems unlikely that the show would be so bold as to do something like that. So, instead, Raj gets to date Kate Micucci, who plays a character who is socially awkward and “broken,” as she puts it, just like everybody else on this show. Now, I would have liked Raj to be gay because that would have been sort of unprecedented, but this isn’t a show that does unprecedented. On the list of ways to fix Raj’s issues, however, having him date Kate Micucci is way up there.
Now, I don’t know that the show’s producers read criticism of the show. In fact, I sort of doubt they do. But it also seems like they have a preternatural ability to sense when it’s going to be out there and what it’s going to say. The Raj thing has been ridiculous for quite a while now, so the show first downplayed it, and now seems like it’s going to do something to actively undercut it, which would be welcome. Similarly, just a couple of weeks ago, Jaime Weinman wrote an excellent article about the show’s strengths and faults, in which he pointed out that the series goes to the Sheldon and Penny storyline well far less than it used to, which was a disappointment to him because he found storylines featuring the two to be the strongest, generally, back in the show’s second and third seasons (which correspond roughly to the era before Amy and Bernadette became as important to the show as they have been). And now, tonight, we get an extended routine with Sheldon acting robotically in an Internet video (he perceives this as a compliment when it’s mentioned in his comments) and Penny trying to convince him to behave differently. It, of course, morphs into another story where Sheldon learns about the vagaries of human behavior.
By far the most pernicious criticism thrown against this show is that it’s somehow using stereotypical ideas of nerds to mock and make fun of them. (Some have called this “nerd blackface,” but the idea is so ridiculous, at best, and offensive, at worst, on its face that I hope we won’t stoop to that.) Now, look: This isn’t a show that deals in deeply specific facets of nerd-dom. Yes, when it comes to the references, the show is not as hugely specific as some of the other programs in its rough neighborhood. But I’ve been to Comic-Con and seen how the show is worshipped among a certain subset of the geek population. I know that this show has reached out beyond the vast, mainstream audience it has (and I think when the history of broadcast television is written, this will be seen as the last megahit) to the specific subset it’s said to be mocking by so many. But why is that, if so many read this show with such hostility?
The reason, I think, is because The Big Bang Theory sells you what every other good-to-great sitcom has sold over the years: a sense that you, too, belong. Maybe this is a show that mocks the nerd condition or something, but even if it was as bad as its harshest critics insist it is in that regard (and I don’t think it is), it would work for those nerds and geeks who love it because it sells the idea of this happy little family—made up of a bunch of hyper-smart, socially awkward people and people who have more social graces—and the idea that they all love each other and will do anything for each other. That’s the dream all sitcoms since time immemorial have sold, and in a scene like the one where Amy convinces Sheldon that he should go see Penny’s play, those elements are what the show leans on most heavily. We all want to think we’d have friends like those on this show; in reality, we probably won’t. Even as our lives change, friends will drift in and out of them, and we won’t see them with the regularity a series like this suggests. Like all sitcoms, this is a useful fiction about connectivity; it just involves people who often think of themselves as social outcasts.
That, ultimately, is why I still enjoy and watch this show, even if I laugh at it maybe once or twice per episode. It’s a show about an ad hoc family of people who mostly try to be good to each other, and it seems as if it knows when it needs to, say, put Sheldon through some trials so that he comes a bit back down to Earth, or introduce someone for Raj to pair off with. Yes, it still goes in for easy gags about how the nerds would like if they never had to leave the house, and it still seems weirdly insistent that the Leonard and Penny thing is worth following, but it’s also a show about people trying to help each other lead a happier, more decent life. It’s never going to be my favorite show on TV, but I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad it’s as big as it is. As TV comedy goes, there are worse standard-bearers to have.
- The show still has the weird thing where it doesn’t tell stories so much as suggest them. When the final act began tonight, I was honestly surprised to find that it was the final act, because it seemed like the A-plot had been completely abandoned. Then I realized that I didn’t know what the A-plot even was. The show is almost entirely an excuse for extended Jim Parsons comedy routines at times, and that’s fine, because he’s a funny dude. But it can’t all be Penny teaching him to “open himself up” to the audience.
- I must admit the whole “Bernadette is Howard’s mother!” thing the show’s been on about for the last while hasn’t been my favorite use of the character. Melissa Rauch is capable of so much more, show! (That said, remember when the show tried to drum up a love triangle involving Raj being in love with her? What happened to that?)
- I did laugh at the sight of Raj in tighty-whities, gnawing on a lobster. This cast is full of gifted physical comedians, both for the broad slapstick moments and the subtler ones like this one.
- “We could have a pants party!” When Simon Helberg says this, just imagine an extreme close-up on my narrowed eyes as an off-screen voice quietly hisses, “NO!”
- I recently caught the end of an episode of this in syndication, and I really like the closing-credits version of the theme song. This is the least helpful stray observation in history.