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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Big Bang Theory: "The Robotic Manipulation"

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It's a big year for The Big Bang Theory. The show's ratings success last year prompted CBS to believe it could be the first step toward a network other than NBC opening up a comedy bloc on Thursdays. Jim Parsons just won the Emmy, which will likely bring the show another small number of eyeballs. And the series continues to be held up by some influential critics and its ardent fans as an example of the multi-camera show done right. The premiere's such a big deal that the show's producers have broken out a story idea they've obviously been sitting on for quite a while: Sheldon Cooper is going to go on a date with Amy (played by the ever enjoyable Mayim Bialik). Even better? He's going to take Penny along for the ride because he's not entirely sure of how to behave on a date, and, indeed, continually denies that he's even on one. Even for people who are only casual fans of the show, this should seem like a recipe for comic hilarity.

Is it? For the most part. The A-story here - the one described above - is very, very funny. Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco's interplay remains the show's secret weapon. For as much praise as Parsons gets for the creation of Sheldon as a very specific kind of comic creation, he'd be less entertaining with just the other nerds to bounce off of. Every time the show figures out a reason to get Sheldon and Penny alone in a room together, it's comic gold, even if the scene is underwritten, because Parsons and Cuoco are so terrific together. As a bonus, this episode features Penny interacting with, essentially, two Sheldons, and Cuoco and Bialik bounce off of each other almost as well as Parsons and Cuoco do. I realize Bialik is only a guest star, and she'll most likely go the way of last season's Bernadette, but I do hope the show gets all of the comic mileage out of her that it can before that happens.

So why doesn't this episode get an A- or even an A? Because Howard Wolowitz gets his penis caught in a robot hand. When The Big Bang Theory is at its best, it believably advances the idea that these people like each other on some level, that they're hanging out together because they're all good friends and take an interest in each other's lives. Sure, Sheldon is annoying as hell, but when the others make fun of him, it's out of a place of friendly ball-busting, not outright contempt. The reason these storylines work so well is because they come from a place where the show seems to like the characters on some level as well. The reason we watch a long-running sitcom is, on some level, because we like hanging out with the people who live in that universe. When the show seems to hate or dislike them, it makes the time we spend there seem wasted and pointless.

The problem with the Howard subplot isn't that it contains exactly one good joke - that elaborate setpiece where the guys slowly wheel in Howard and his robot hand like some sort of Rube Goldbergian contraption - or that it has a complete deus ex machina as an ending or that all involved seem a little ashamed to be performing the material. It's that the storyline returns us to a vision of Howard - as a completely horny sexual miscreant who argues endlessly with his mother and basically exists as a troll living under a bridge - that it's seemed to be running away from since at least mid-season two. Howard is easily the show's most problematic character. The whole "Raj can't talk to women" thing is dumb, and Leonard is often very boring, but only Howard seems to cling to the show's original, stupid premise of the show being about stupid nerds the audience is invited to titter at.

The Big Bang Theory can get by in one of two ways. It can create truly interesting scenarios that play out in unexpected ways, or it can put the characters we like in scenarios where we can't wait to see how they react (often predictably, but at least amusingly). The Sheldon storyline fits the latter template. Nothing that happens in those scenes is surprising, but the jokes are funny because we're laughing as much at the idea of these people in this wacky situation, at our thoughts of how these characters might react to all sitting at the same table on a date together. The show gets enormous laughter out of putting a signature Sheldon joke - about the Check Engine light in Penny's car - in Amy's mouth, a joke that works precisely because it suggests who Amy is as a character, plays off of a long-running joke, and finds a way to place that joke in a new and unexpected context. It's funny because it's somehow predictable and unexpected all at once.

The Howard storyline, on the other hand, is basically exactly what any savvy audience member can assume will happen the second a robot hand that Howard smuggled out of JPL appears. From the first vision of the hand, passing out takeout to the guys, it's fairly easy to assume that someone, probably Howard, will be caught in some sort of compromising situation with it, probably involving his penis. This might all be amusing enough if it were at all good-natured, but the whole central joke of the enterprise is incredibly mean-spirited. "Heh, heh, heh," the show laughs in its best George W. Bush impression. "Look at the pervy nerd with his penis caught in the robot hand."


The Big Bang Theory is capable of sublime comic moments. There's a certain comfort level to watching a show like this, where you have some idea of just how the characters are going to react to any given situation and you spend much of the time waiting for them to react in exactly that specific way. But the thing that separates the great sitcoms from the mediocre ones is a sense that the producers really, really like the characters on some level. Even on a fairly non-heartwarming show like Seinfeld, there was always a sense that Larry David and his other writers had a supreme, almost scientific curiosity in seeing how their characters would react. They didn't love their characters, maybe, but they did find them incredibly fascinating. The problem with The Big Bang Theory - the problem that will never go away, really - is that it veers too much between genuine affection and pointing and laughing.

Stray observations:

  • We're undecided as to whether coverage of this show should continue. I'm probably going to make Community my first priority when I don't have screeners for both, but I'm curious to hear if you guys want to see the show continue or not. No harm, no foul either way.
  • "At best, it's a modest leap forward from the technology that gave us Country Bear Jamboree."
  • "You have broad hips and a certain corn-fed vigor. Is your womb available for rental?"
  • "Would have been more flattered if you were a homosexual."
  • "Apparently, a semi-incestuous Teens 4 Jesus hoedown didn't count."
  • "Let's round that up to 31."
  • "Penny, to your mind, are you a slut?"