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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Big Bang Theory: "The Griffin Equivalency"

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So why a Big Bang Theory blog?

Mainly we decided to add BBT to our Monday TV Club lineup because each week's How I Met Your Mother blog was becoming a de facto home for Big Bang Theory chat, which wasn't really fair to people who dropped by each week to talk HIMYM. But more importantly: A lot of us here at The A.V. Club like this show. (Seriously. You'd be surprised how many people volunteered to do this blog when we discussed adding it.) Early in its first season, The Big Bang Theory strained quite a bit, dropping forced geek references and overplaying the "lusty nerd" angle. And while the show remains a broad comedy that trades on geek stereotypes, its references have become far more natural (and geek-friendly), and its characters have developed the kind of distinctive traits and rapport that shows the writers aren't lumping them all into the same "taped-up glasses and pocket protector" heap. On a good week, The Big Bang Theory isn't just funny, it's sweet and knowing. In the classic sitcom tradition, creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady have concocted a cast of characters that are enjoyable to be around, in a milieu that's comfortable to visit for 22 minutes a week.

At least that's true most of the time. Tonight's episode wasn't really a great one to kick off the BBT blog, though it contained at least one extended scene that showed off what the series does best.

The main problem with "The Griffin Equivalency" is that it focused on arguably The Big Bang Theory's weakest character, Raj, whose sole interesting trait is the disconnect between his scientific skills (about which he is justifiably arrogant) and his skills at talking with the opposite sex (which are non-existent). In this episode, Raj's confidence in both areas gets a boost when People magazine names on their "30 Under 30 To Watch" list for discovering a new planetoid. (Quoth a confused, envious Sheldon: ""Is there some sort of peer review committee?") When Raj's subsequent boasting proves insufferable, his friends refuse to accompany him to his big People party, though Penny–who likes to presume she knows better than her neighbors how to behave in a social setting–fills in for the gang, and promptly regrets it when an already drunken Raj complains that her outfit isn't "ridonkulous" enough.

I found much of the Raj material as overdone as BBT's detractors (mistakenly) claim the show always is, especially when his parents showed up via IM-cam, playing not just to every Indian stereotype but to every "Mom and Dad meeting the new girlfriend" stereotype. (Also, the less said about the Charlie Sheen cameo, the better.) However, I did appreciate the way The Big Bang Theory continues to ditch the idea of lengthy resolutions. Just a quick scene before the closing credits and then out.

Which was especially useful tonight, because the lack of a long "I'm so sorry, Penny"/"That's okay, Raj" scene allowed more room for a classic BBT digression. Over meticulously ordered Chinese food, Sheldon tells a story from his youth in East Texas (which, apropos of nothing, is "home to many Vietnamese shrimpers"), about how he once tried to use the ironic death of his pet cat Lucky as an opportunity to get a new, even more awesome pet: a griffin! Since that plan didn't work out, Sheldon proposes that they replace Raj in their group with the ultimate animatronic pal. (Just imagine: "We're playing Halo with a multi-lingual Abraham Lincoln.") Leonard, the only one of the foursome in touch with reality, extrapolates from Sheldon's proposal, and suggests that, "Well, it wouldn't kill us to meet new people. Sheldon's reply: "For the record, it could kill us to meet new people."

It's scenes like that one that keep me watching Big Bang Theory, which may be the best sitcom since The Andy Griffith Show at wasting time with pointless conversations. No quick cutaways. No ironic inserts. No rush. Just enough time spent with characters that we get to pick up on their particularities: like Sheldon's inability to fake a convincing smile, or the way he eats with chopsticks while Howard and Leonard opt for plastic forks, or how when Howard grumbles that Sheldon's insane, Sheldon can't continue the conversation without offering a rebuttal. "I'm not insane," he says with confidence. "My mother had me tested."

Grade: C+

Stray observations:

-Ordinarily, I'd be annoyed at a sitcom for relying as heavily on a breakout character as BBT does on Sheldon, but I'm too fascinated by Sheldon to complain. As I've mentioned before on this site, my 7-year-old son has an autistic spectrum disorder (he's currently diagnosed as a high-functioning autist, though in the years since that diagnosis, I think he's moved closer to the Asperger's range of the spectrum), and I recognize in Sheldon a lot of what I see in my son, and in my other encounters with the autistic. The BBT creators have pointedly avoided addressing whether Sheldon has a neurological condition or if he's just "eccentric," and I don't blame them for their reticence. If they tie Sheldon's personality to something specific and medical, that limits what they can plausibly do with the character. And yet, the portrayal of Sheldon has been remarkably consistent with Asperger's, in that he hasn't shown any sudden emotional growth or extraordinary bursts of tractability. I've checked a few Aspie forums, and parents and Aspies alike have expressed their appreciation at seeing such a familiar character on TV, and in what amounts to a starring role. I know I appreciate it. For that reason above all, Big Bang Theory has won me over.

-Fun facts about Howard: He doesn't have a PhD; he doesn't think comparing Raj to The Simpsons' Apu is racist, because Apu is a beloved character; and given the opportunity, he would "so do Ellen Page."

-Sheldon thinks that his annoyance at Raj's success was just a way of "raising the bar" and helping his friend. He explains, "When I was 11, my sister gave our father a 'World's Greatest Dad' coffee mug, and frankly he coasted until the day he died."

-Sheldon on the university bathrooms' new air-dryers: "Frankly, it would be more hygienic if they just had a plague-infested Gibbon sneeze my hands dry."