Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Big Bang Theory: "The Engagement Reaction"

Illustration for article titled The Big Bang Theory: "The Engagement Reaction"

From the earliest days of The Big Bang Theory, from back when I really, really disliked it in its earliest episodes, one of my least favorite devices/characters has been Howard’s mother. She exists solely as an evil Jewish mother stereotype/flexible fat joke, and because we never see her on screen (and thus get to see her build a character), that makes the writers’ demeaning treatment of her all the worse. Unseen harridans have been around since the earliest days of televised comedy (really, they have their roots in radio, where everybody was unseen, but there were often characters referred to who didn’t turn up), but Howard’s mother always struck me as a bad use of this particular trope. With Vera on Cheers or Maris on Frasier, we simply never heard ANYthing from them, but with Mrs. Wolowitz, the show always had her to go to for garden variety shrieking and easy jokes that picked on how terrible of a person she was and how much she had dominated Howard’s life from his childhood.

That’s been lightening up a bit in the last two seasons (one of the things I’ve most liked about these two seasons, which have been rockier than the second). Howard’s mom appears less, since he now has Bernadette to bounce off of, and tonight’s episode made her out to be downright sweet. I’ll admit I was rolling my eyes on the way to the ending, but the bit where she was concerned about Bernadette and wanted to make sure her future daughter-in-law didn’t have food poisoning played very nicely against what we know of her and what the show wants us to think about her. I wouldn’t call it a surprise twist ending or anything, but it was nicely done. Well played, show, and way to make up for some of the not-as-great stuff earlier about Howard’s mom (including Penny’s jokes about how fat she was).

That said, I still thought this was a bit of a step down from the week before, mostly due to an endless Sheldon plot. The show has done a pretty good job of making Sheldon’s many quirks vaguely endearing, but this episode—which focused almost entirely on him racing around and trying to sterilize himself in the fear that he’d been grossly infected by one of his friends and was about to die was just way too broad. Worse, it didn’t really go anywhere. Sheldon is afraid of infection, so he’s a jackass to his friends. Then he somehow wanders into a room that’s under lockdown due to a biohazard and IS contaminated. At the end, he and his friends play a Magic: The Gathering-style card game and Raj makes a bunch of stupid jokes about the cards that get played.

This might have been OK with just a bit less prominence, but since Sheldon’s the ostensible star of the show at this point, it meant that much of the episode was given over to Jim Parsons racing around and acting like an idiot. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but this all felt undercooked, especially when all of the other storylines were fairly sweet. The gag where he tries to get Howard to drive him home so he can use his own bathroom while Howard’s worried about, y’know, his MOM DYING was pretty funny, but the rest of the stuff was trying way too hard. Plus, Sheldon’s often at his best when he has someone to bounce off of, and this was mostly just him going over the top and shouting about stuff. It wasn’t very funny.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that the show would get around to having Penny and Priya realize just how much they have in common and becoming friends who discuss their mutual relationships with Leonard, but I didn’t mind the execution here, simply because I like when the show is willing to make Priya less of a bitch. Like all of the storylines in this episode, pretty much nothing came of it, but it made for some nice, funny scenes, like the initial one where Penny and Priya talk about how odd it is that she’s friends with Howard and Raj and how Penny wouldn’t have expected something like that a few years ago. (It’s a nice throwback to the show’s original premise of “CAN A HOT GIRL AND SOME NERDS GET ALONG?!” that doesn’t strain too hard like the early episodes of the show.) Again, not a lot there, but what was there served to soften a problematic character and give one of the show’s better characters something interesting to play.

The persistent problem this show has—the stories don’t really end so much as they just sort of peter out—returned this week, but since we’re so close to the season finale, I’m going to assume that some of the stuff here will return next week. For example, Bernadette’s anger at realizing that Howard’s a putz who would accuse her of giving his mother a heart attack would make for a weird ending if it never came up again, but the show has been experimenting with serialization in recent weeks and will probably bring this up next week (possibly involving some sort of romantic cliffhanger, I’d imagine). It helps that Melissa Rauch sells the hell out of her anger in that scene. Still, it’s the sort of thing that would be the act two closer on most other shows, with a final scene where Howard and Bernadette either realize that what they have doesn’t work or realize that they can get it back together. Placing it as the climactic point of the episode just feels… odd.


But that’s just one of the things the show does now. Where it used to tell pretty solid stories that involved the whole group, now it tells two or three halves of a story per episode and thinks that just letting us hang out with the cast is good enough. That’s probably true in most cases, but when you’ve got an episode with as important a central topic as this one—Howard’s mom is in the hospital and it’s because she found out her son was marrying Bernadette—it might be preferable to actually come up with something better than, “Let’s send these guys to a hospital and see what happens.” Just sayin’.

Stray observations:

  • It’s probably not weird that Amy doesn’t turn up, since she has no good reason to do so, but it still made me wonder if even this show has hardcore budgetary concerns and has to parcel out its cast as needed or if it was just the writers realizing they didn’t need one other character gumming up the works.
  • Leonard mostly returned to his role of “guy who sits on the sidelines and wisecracks about his friends,” though at least this week he had Raj to bounce off of.
  • Since it’s obvious Priya will have to be written out at some point, Chuck Lorre should toss her in whatever show he does next. She’s got a nice comic rhythm, even when she’s given shit-all to do.
  • I did like how loving Sheldon got after just a drop of tequila. I like how often alcohol is like some magic potion on this show. (That “like” should probably be in quotation marks, but I do sort of enjoy the idea that it has supernatural properties for these guys, properties that Penny is more or less immune to.)
  • Just one more episode this season. What are your predictions?
  • "Whereas Jewish mothers take a casual la-dee-dah approach to their sons."
  • "Fine. Thank you for asking. I love you so much."
  • "My family IS the history of heart disease."
  • "Howard's mother had a heart attack because I have sex with him and she can't!"
  • "They dressed up in leotards and goggles and called themselves the New Delhi Power Rangers."
  • "Actually, she said, and I quote, she'd 'like to see the little Catholic girl first.'"