The Big Bang Theory: "The Zarnecki Equation"
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The Big Bang Theory: "The Zarnecki Equation"

B-

The Big Bang Theory

"The Zarnecki Equation"

Season 4, Episode 19

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In this space a couple of weeks ago, Todd (who's taking a breather this week) noted that there are people who think The Big Bang Theory is the worst show on television. It isn't, but it might just aim lower and settle for less than any other series that boasts enough talent and brains and freshness to be worth your time, though all votes for Burn Notice will be counted. This can be a lot more frustrating than consistent, flaming badness. Big Bang is the jewel in the crown of Chuck Lorre, the guy who uses his vanity card at the end of his shows as a blog, and Lorre is an officially recognized TV auteur, someone who gets profiled in The New Yorker and attacked by name on the radio by his crazier stars, as if they expect the people listening in to know what they're talking about. He's a talented guy who knows something about funny, but what makes him stand out in today's crowded field of innovative TV comedy creators angling for hipster cred are the qualities that, in another pop culture era, would have simply gotten him pegged as a hack. 

He likes live audiences, laugh tracks, multiple-camera set-ups, and high-concept premises that could be fully summarized on a fortune cookie slip. (Regular guy marries a hippie! Nerds meet a hottie!) For a number of people, this gives his work an old-school charm, but watching his shows regularly can serve as a fast reminder of why there have always been people who saw this kind of show as something to break away from. Lorre's most daring show was also his worst, and it was daring by accident: Two and a Half Men was conceived as a sort of domesticated version of Men Behaving Badly, then, for reasons that had nothing to do with Lorre, turned into a metafictional dark comedy about a self-celebrating washed-up movie actor serving up glimpses from his private life that would have made Ted Bundy put in a call to Neighborhood Watch, before gradually evolving into a cold-blooded exploitation of someone who's mentally ill, like The Glenn Beck Show.

Compared to that, The Big Bang Theory is a relief, not just because there are actual laughs to be found in the scripts but because everyone is just pretending, or acting, as the purists might put it. That doesn't mean that it's not a little out of control, though. Much of Big Bang's strengths and limitations come down to the degree that it's turned into The Sheldon Show. A lot of comedies have had a supporting character as broadly conceived and executed as Jim Parsons's Sheldon; many's the time that a viewer has probably watched them and thought, it's too bad they think they need that boring, stiff character as the lead when it's this weirdo who gets all the laughs. It's too bad they can't just push the dull guy to the side and let this wild man take over the show. The Big Bang Theory is the show where this more or less happened. 

Parsons deserves all the praise he's gotten for his work on the show, and he was in good form tonight, in an episode that began with Sheldon's discovery that some online sneak thief had made off with all the boodle he'd accumulated playing World of Warcraft. ("They even took my battle ostrich." "Oh no, not Glenn!") Parsons was great with the seething indignation, which he played as a rich parody of the kind of sense of violation people feel after they've really been burglarized, and he knows how to get the most out of a line like, "Three thousand hours clicking on that mouse, collecting weapons and gold. It's almost as if it was a huge waste of time." 

But some of his reactions to the situation, such as going to confront the thief armed with a collectible piece of weaponry from the Star Trek armory, as if he were really going to maim the guy, were so forced they wrecked the tone of the show, even when the jokes they were there to set up were kind of clever on their own. But that's the problem with a character like Sheldon. You have to give him something to do, and the temptation to give him cartoonish things to do is always there. It would be easier to reel in that impulse if his place in the show were more commensurate with his possibilities as a character you could believe in and relate to, but when he takes over the show, there's nobody strong enough to challenge his domination of it. 

The obvious counterweight to Sheldon is, of course, Leonard, and the relatable stuff is supposed to come from the romantic tension between him and Penny. That tension hasn't felt credible for awhile, if it ever did. I liked the way this episode gave Penny a girl-talk scene (featuring the always insanely welcome Mayim Bialik) in which to talk through her feelings about this contrived push-pull relationship, and I was grateful for the way it gave her a chance to demonstrate how her assertiveness could be of use to the guys, after their run-in with the cyberthug turned out to be a damp bag of fireworks. But it's a bad sign that the best way they could come up with to stir the embers again was to bring back Priya and have her get involved with Leonard again, while at the same time tilting her character into becoming such a bitch that her attraction to him is more implausible than ever.

I suspect that the avoidable tragedy of The Big Bang Theory was the decision to let Johnny Galecki in on the fact that he was playing a sensitive, vulnerable geek. He can scarcely play anything else, of course, but when he played David on Roseanne, the character was introduced as a bad boy, then just naturally shifted into sweet-geek territory as the writers discovered what kind of scenes Galecki could knock out of the park. Maybe if he were under the impression that he was playing James Dean with a Mensa certificate, he'd be able to come across as skewed and nerdy but also put across the kind of blazing romantic need that would give the show some fire at its center and make the whole "will-they-won't-they?" thing compelling. But when Galecki knows from the outset that he's playing a geek, he's all forehead and eyeglasses, and you can hear him straining to make his voice sound asexual enough. 

He's meant to be the believable hero to Sheldon's caricature of someone who ought to be a living brain in a jar in mad scientist's laboratory, but as with Sheldon, there's not much in-between to him: He can be terrific at slapstick, but when he's not falling all over himself, he might as well be dead from the neck down. (I did love his excited grin during the ride to "get Sheldon's fake stuff back," when his upper row of teeth seemed to displace his whole head. There are few things on Earth more absurdly touching than the sight of a Johnny Galecki character enjoying himself; it's not as if you don't know that it won't be for long.) Now that the damage has been done, Lorre and his crew might want to brainstorm and find a way to shake things up that'll liberate Galecki and make him feel he can lower his voice and give his rhumba seat a little shake. Maybe they could blow up the lab and kill him off, only to have him emerge as his own, smoother clone. And then he can, I don't know, win Penny back in a fight with Doc Ock. 

Stray observations:

  • "Ah, here's the alcohol and drug peer pressure Mother warned me about. I was beginning to think that it would never happen. Yes, please!"
  • "I'm sorry for your loss, but the Pasadena Police Department doesn't have jurisdiction in Pandora."
  • I don't want to keep bringing up the whole Arlie-Chay Een-Shay business any more than Chuck Lorre wants to keep hearing about it, but if he wants us all to just forget about it and move on, he might want to try to stop alluding to his personal suffering in his vanity cards. 

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