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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Big Bang Theory: "The Plimpton Stimulation"

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This was such a strange little episode of The Big Bang Theory. And yet, I liked it quite a bit. Part of this may stem from the fact that I think Judy Greer is just one of the greatest comic actresses we have right now, and I tend to like her in whatever she does. She's completely unafraid to seem as stupid and ridiculous as possible, even when she's playing a highly acclaimed physicist, and that's the kind of thing I like in a comedic performance. That show she was on, MissGuided, was pretty awful, but I loved her performance at the center. She's someone who really deserves a genius comedy producer to come up with an idea just for her and turn it into the role of a lifetime. The idea behind her character, Elizabeth Plimpton, is pretty much just, "What if there were a female physicist who was a little sex crazy?" but damned if Greer doesn't make it work.

I think this episode kind of loses itself in the middle portions of the storyline, when it seems like it's going to veer from being about Sheldon's special guest falling for Leonard to being about how Penny feels about Leonard hooking up so soon after their break-up (must the Leonard and Penny relationship ruin everything on this show?), but I think the whole thing rights itself in the end, with a scene that's bizarre but also pretty funny, thanks to solid work from the ensemble and Greer. I wouldn't want to see the show turn into a sex comedy week after week, but the heightened farce of this episode was a welcome respite from the relationship drama of the last couple of weeks.

The best sitcoms can do many different TYPES of episodes and don't end up reliant on just one template or format. Cheers was most comfortable with episodes where some crazy scheme was hatched among the bar's patrons, but it could also embrace many other moods. It could be a romantic comedy or a big slapstick tale or even a light farce. The same goes for shows as wide-ranging as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons, and the relatively new Community. If there's a thing holding Big Bang back at this point (well, if there's one thing out of many things), it's the fact that the show is largely unable to break out of telling the same story over and over and over again.

Seen in this light, the Leonard and Penny storyline is more of a problem in that it didn't expand the show's list of episode types. Had it been executed effectively, Big Bang would have added romantic comedy to its list of things it could do well. Instead, the show's attempts to pull that tone off gobbled up most of the season, and it's only now escaping them. Most of the episodes of this show involve the series placing the nerds (or more often just Sheldon) in some sort of classic sitcom setup and then seeing how they react to that. It's reliably funny because the nerds (or more often just Sheldon) are reliably funny characters. But it does have the effect of making just about every episode feel fairly similar.

So that's why this episode's helpful, I think. Some of it is about the nerds getting into a classic sitcom situation where they don't know how to cope. Some of it is about Leonard and Sheldon coming into conflict. But the bulk of it - particularly that final scene - is just a goofy sex romp, as the characters all end up kinda sorta competing for the hand of Elizabeth. I love the way Greer plays the gradual ramping up of her character's sexuality, and I love the way the show sort of goes off the rails after she sleeps with Leonard. The easy thing to do here is to have Sheldon get mad at Leonard for what happens. The slightly harder thing to do is to have Penny get mad at Leonard but be unable to express why. The completely, utterly out-of-nowhere thing to do is to have Elizabeth decide to seduce Raj for little to no reason, in a way that also justifies the undeveloped runner of having Raj have a developing cold that he's self-medicating with NyQuil out of a flask (which is a funnier image than it should be).

I'm not going to say that the final scene is a complete success. Parts of it feel a little awkward, as though the show isn't sure it should be going even this far. The whole thing is really rushed, as though the show knows that it's once again run out of time to tell its story. And the barely motivated reasons for Leonard and Howard to be there make sense within the show's universe but could have used a little more oomph. But I like the way the scene escalates out of control, the way it goes from silly to strange to kinda smutty with Greer over in the corner as some sort of nerdy tease. I like the way her role playing scenarios are endlessly expandable with apparently very little effort on her part. And I love the way Raj tricks the other two into leaving the apartment, then flips around, smooth as can be, and says, "I hear you're having trouble paying your rent."


I wouldn't want The Big Bang Theory to be this every week or even most weeks. Most weeks, I want it to be doing the same old, same old, since that's been reliably entertaining in the past. But this season has suffered, a bit, from a feeling that the show is unable to break out of the box it's built for itself, and if you're having trouble breaking out of that box in season three, who knows what you'll be doing in season six or even season four? I'm not going to argue for this as some great classic exemplar of the show's form or anything, but I do think it's promising in that it breaks the show out of its rut. There's fun to be had here - non-Sheldon-related fun, even! - and if that means the guys nearly getting into a foursome with Judy Greer, well, who am I to complain?

Stray observations:

  • I should probably be more upset about the show's rather callous writing out of Howard's girlfriend, Bernadette, given how much I liked the character, but this is clearly a case of a show running out of episodes for a character who proved more popular than they had expected. Again, I'm on board with hoping the show adds her as a regular in season four, but I don't see Howard's breaking up with her as being an impediment to her coming back. Indeed, I dare say this makes it almost mandatory that she come back. She IS the show's Lilith Sternin-Crane, in my overheated imagination.
  • Next week is a flashback episode. Ah, Big Bang Theory. Is there no sitcom plot device you will leave unsullied?
  • I've been thinking about this for a few weeks now. I don't mind live studio audiences. Indeed, I think they're wonderful when used well. But the live studio audience on this show is SO LOUD. The show must be really mic'ing the hell out of them.
  • "That's what Typhoid Mary said, and clearly, her friends buckled."
  • "A.) I rarely kid and b.) when I do kid, you will know it by my use of the word bazinga."
  • "What? What are you doing with … what?"
  • "Can I get you something? A feminine hygiene product or a bowel-regulating yogurt?"
  • "It ended as inexplicably as it began."
  • "Dr. Plimpton, Penny is a waitress who doesn't understand the role gasoline plays in the internal combustion engine."