The Big Bang Theory: "The Spaghetti Catalyst"
B+

The Big Bang Theory: "The Spaghetti Catalyst"

B+

The Big Bang Theory

"The Spaghetti Catalyst"

Season 3, Episode 20

See, this is more like it. I liked this episode of The Big Bang Theory. I wouldn't say it's one of the show's all-time greats, but I thought it moved well, and the ideas behind it sort of made sense to explore in the show's universe. I daresay I'd call it "zippy," if I didn't feel stupid using such a word. It had a story to tell, and it told that story well. Again, it's a pretty classic sitcom setup, but that's the sort of thing this show does well, and when it finds its own spin on that sort of thing relative to its own characters, it can come up with some very, very winning stuff. Whether or not you like this will depend on how much you like the show's broader episodes, but I tend to think the cast sinks its teeth into the broader material much better than most of the other stuff, so I enjoyed.

It's a bit odd to have The Big Bang Theory suddenly taking Leonard and Penny's relationship as seriously as it is after a full season where it was often difficult to explain just why the two were together. There's been some argument in comments during the last few episodes about whether or not the show has done a good job of explaining the relationship, with some falling on the side that from what we've seen of Penny's dating life before this, it would make sense that she'd look for a safe guy she could not have to worry about being in a relationship with (just like that XKCD strip!). And while I can see that point of view, I'm not sure we've ever gotten enough of a glimpse of Penny's dating life beyond seeing Leonard insanely jealous of her boyfriends to make it work as well as it might.

See, here's the thing: The reason that the Penny and Sheldon relationship is so integral to the show is that it just might be the only thing that is keeping her from being a character defined entirely as a lust object. (Before I get too much farther, it's worth pointing out that Jaime Weinman is barking up a very similar tree to this one in this post.) Penny is a funny girl, and she's bright and brassy in a way that the cute girl is rarely allowed to be on a show like this, but she's also the girl that Leonard has always had a thing for. Now, because she bounces off of Sheldon so well - in what's likely the show's best relationship - none of this really matters. But can you define her as a character in relation to the other characters, outside of a few perfunctory adjectives? What could you REALLY say about, say, the Penny and Howard relationship? It exists, but it's mostly a one-dimensional one. The mutual antagonism between her and Sheldon not only gave both characters lots to play, but it also more or less defined what the show was going to be about: friendship, yes, but also the ways our friends drive us nuts.

Anyway, tonight's episode has a nice emotional continuity with the last episode. "Continuity" is not often a word that can be applied to this show, but I like the way the show is digging into the way that this relationship's crumbling reaches out and hurts the other friends. In particular, the show is focusing on just how Sheldon reacts to seeing the couple break up, and while the idea of having Leonard and Penny play out a goofy split custody battle over the guy wasn't the most original one in the world, I still enjoyed the way everyone involved in the plotline played it. It feels a little cliche at this point to say that adding Sheldon to a storyline makes it better, but I liked this one, for the most part.

I say "for the most part" because I don't know that the episode needed to make the child custody comparisons so explicit. By the end, Leonard and Penny were pretty much just playing out the idea that Sheldon was literally their son. If it was meant to be taken seriously, it had the effect of infantilizing Sheldon a little more than he probably should be. If it was a joke between two friends, I'm not sure the two would have jumped to that point as soon as this episode would have occurred. It's a minor nitpick, but it keeps most of the stuff after the scene where Sheldon comes to talk to Leonard while he's in bed from fully working for me. That said, though, I do like the idea of Sheldon and Penny going to Disneyland together, and that more or less kept the thing from falling apart for me.

But this is a good episode, one that deals with the fallout of a long-term relationship falling apart well. People in sitcom world are always dating coworkers or next-door neighbors or the best friends of their little sisters. Any time they find a new girlfriend or boyfriend outside their normal circles, they have a tendency to ditch that person as soon as a series regular comes around on loving them. It seems obvious that Leonard and Penny will bounce back and forth between being a couple and being strained friends for the remainder of the series, and whether or not you like that will sort of determine just how much you like The Big Bang Theory. This is a show that is firmly set in sitcom world, but when it makes peace with that fact, it can be very funny indeed.

Stray observations:

  • I kind of think there could have been a better side-plot about Raj and Howard than just having them sit around with Leonard, but I'm hard-pressed to think of one. The best I can do is having a plot where the two fight over whether or not they're going to be on Team Leonard or Team Penny and that is a.) awful, b.) cliche and c.) something that could take over the episode. But I still wanted to see them get something more to do.
  • At the same time, Sheldon's walk with Howard was very funny. So maybe I just wanted to see more for Raj to do than look at comical pornography we could not see.
  • What was up with the audience hooting and hollering when Sheldon said he'd like to erase the memory of Ben Affleck as Daredevil? I get that the movie is one of those things that isn't very good and is also much derided by geeks, but it seems odd that it would have graduated to the status of the studio audience equivalent of "Oh no you didn't!"
  • It's rare to find something as jarring as the dialogue patch in the scene where Howard and Sheldon were walking and the woman called to her dog out of nowhere. It was clearly there to set up that Sheldon was going to meet a dog with the hot dogs in his pants, but I think the whole encounter would have been funnier (though it was funny in its own right) if the dog had just shown up.
  • I DO sometimes feel like the show underlines its jokes with a black marker a few too many times. "Is it possible he said bros before hos?" asks Leonard. I don't know that anyone needed him to spell it out like that.
  • "It was a lot of work to accommodate you in my life. I'd hate for that to ever have been in vain."
  • "You're just coitus-ing with me, aren't you?"
  • "You're in for what my mother calls 'a real eye-talian treat.'"
  • "Jews don't have Hell. We have acid reflux."
  • "I'm pretty sure Martha Stewart never got naked with a room full of big, fat Japanese guys."
  • "And now, as promised, the tangent. Sheldon and the Hell-hound. Or. How I Lost My Hot Dogs."
  • "Don't let Goofy near him. He'll have nightmares, and I'll have to deal with it."
  • "Do you think Elastigirl in The Incredibles needs to use birth control, or can she just BE a diaphragm?"

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