I didn't think it was possible, but The Big Bang Theory came up with a Leonard and Penny plot that I actually mostly enjoyed in "The Psychic Vortex," which might have been my favorite episode of the season so far. For once, the show had two good stories, and even though the two had minimal crossover (save for a very funny gag around the episode's midpoint), both were fresh and funny and exploited character pairings the show hasn't done as much with over the years. Sure, there have been episodes that paired off Sheldon with Raj and Howard with Leonard (including a few this very season), but few have utilized all of the characters as well as this one did, even figuring out a way to work Penny into the mix without it feeling forced. What's more, the main storyline, at least, had an actual beginning, middle and end, which is something of a rarity on this show. Yeah, I really liked this one.
Let's start with Sheldon and Raj and the two girls at the school mixer. (One of whom was Danica McKellar! Hurrah!) Sure, a lot of this was a plot we've seen before - particularly all of the stuff with Sheldon being clueless around women - but it was executed exceedingly well, right down to the various comics-related props and Raj finally managing to get Sheldon to agree to hang out with the girls again by giving him Hulk hands signed by Stan Lee. (I once drove cross-country with a pair of Hulk hands in my suitcase. Pretty much everything set them off, meaning most of my memories of the trip involve a tinny voice saying, "HULK SMASH.") And Sheldon entering the party carrying a Green Lantern lantern and eventually intoning the Green Lantern oath? Just about perfect.
But, even more than that, I liked the way that this storyline let Raj be naive and sweet without being a complete idiot. The character sometimes feels a little too desperate, as though you can feel the flop sweat coming off of him from behind the TV screen. I suppose some find this endearing - and, indeed, the way the character is played is very endearing - but I often end up feeling a little sorry for the poor guy, wondering why the series seems intent on keeping him from anything approaching bliss. Well, Raj got to score tonight, and he got to score with Danica McKellar, and that's got to be worth something, right? And, what's more, the whole thing happened with a minimum of scenes of him being unable to converse with women, just jumping straight into the soused Raj action. (Also, this plotline gets extra props for featuring an extended riff on the novel Flatland, which makes this probably the only show I cover that could even possibly have an extended riff on the novel Flatland.)
But, OK, let's skip over to the other plotline, which honestly surprised me with how much I was involved in it. I've long thought the Leonard and Penny pairing was a bad idea for the show, a leftover from when the show began and was very, very different (obligatory link to Linda Holmes' excellent piece on the "de-gazing" of the Penny character here). So perhaps I got involved in this storyline at first because I thought the show was going to break them up. Now, granted, breaking up over the fact that Leonard couldn't accept that Penny believed in psychics would have been stupid, and I'm still not sure why Leonard can't just let Penny believe in psychics and not bother to pretend to believe in them himself. Thousands upon thousands of people spend every day tolerating some stupid thing or another their significant other believes, even as that significant other knows they don't buy it in any way, shape or form. But we put up with it. That's just the way the whole human mating ritual goes down.
Still, the fight between Leonard and Penny was surprisingly sharply written. The couple has been written a little too mushily this season, as though the series isn't quite sure what draws the two characters to each other beyond Leonard finding Penny hot and Penny being the only girl in a cast full of males and thus having to date SOMEone because it's a sitcom and all. The two are always more enjoyable when they're sort of at odds against each other, and this plot proved that that's the case even when they're involved in a relationship. It might make it seem unrealistic to constantly have the two breaking into fights, but what impressed me about the fight here was that it seemed rather reasonable from both sides. Once you make the leap to believing that Leonard just couldn't put up with the idea that Penny wasn't the reincarnation of Michael Shermer, it was easy to see him mocking her for what she believed and to see just why that got her so worked up. Nobody likes being mocked, and Leonard was mean. But, crucially and unlike a lot of other episodes this season, Leonard's meanness came in a context that was mostly believable, and that gave the conflict room to be both snappily funny and plausible.
And, now, let me say a few more words in praise of Bernadette. I have no idea if anyone affiliated with The Big Bang Theory even reads this blog, and if they do, I would hope they take everything I say with a grain of salt, but I am deeply sincere when I say that I think making Bernadette a regular would make the show even better. One of the things that sometimes hurts this series is that the universe it takes place in feels a little small, what with the five regulars and limited number of recurring players. Bernadette both gives Penny a natural ally (from gender and exasperation with their boyfriends and just general friendship) and loosens up Howard to a point where he isn't so irritating. She's also got a comic rhythm that's very different from anyone else in the main gang. It's possible that adding Bernadette to the cast would be a terrible, terrible idea, but I very much like the character and what Melissa Rauch is doing with her, and I'd like to see more, please.
In the end, "The Psychic Vortex" works both because it's funny and because it has a real sense of the characters and what drives them and makes them tick. This series works best, I think, when it is acknowledging that all of its characters are sort of ridiculous but is also giving the sense that it loves them for being that way. Some of the episodes this season haven't made the step from ridiculousness to affection, but "The Psychic Vortex" did in a big, big way. I guess, yeah, it's my favorite of the season so far.
- See? I got through that without once saying Winnie Cooper.
- Here's an obligatory link to this. See, Sheldon/Penny fans? I am not your natural enemy.
- "I always thought that was some sort of after-Christmas sale."
- "If outside is so good, why has mankind spent thousands of years trying to perfect inside?"
- "I am now a hexagon in two-dimensional space."
- "Don't be chintzy with the Shirley!"
- "I don't like to kiss and tell, but somebody made it to eighth base!"
- "I disinfected the kitchen and the bathroom, and now I thought I'd learn Finnish."
- "Voodoo's real. You don't wanna mess with voodoo."