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The Big Bang Theory: "The Thespian Catalyst"

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In the weeks The Big Bang Theory has been away, I’ve been thinking more and more about just what I find so unsatisfying about the show this season (and in some episodes of last season), just what kept it from getting over the hump and becoming a very good or even great show, when it seemed like it was heading in that direction in late season two. Obviously, the show is the second-most popular comedy on television, so I hold a minority opinion. But that’s fine. I’m used to holding a minority opinion. What I find is that, more and more, the people who used to defend this show so much no longer do so with quite the same fervor, both among my critic friends and among the people I know who don’t spend all day every day watching TV. There’s a sense among many of them (not all, I’ll stress, since plenty of you still love the show, after all) that the show is in a bit of a slump right now, a sense that this might be all there is.


If so, why? And then a couple of weeks ago, critic Jaime Weinman, who’s always been a bigger fan of this show than I am, published an article that crystallized a lot of this for me. The big complaint against The Big Bang Theory has always been that it has no character development. And that’s true. Outside of a few relationship plotlines, these characters are pretty much the same people they were in the pilot. But that’s not unusual for a half-hour sitcom. All comedies have a sort of basic situation they return to when they need to come up with new episodes ideas. You can’t say that some of the truly great sitcoms, like I Love Lucy or The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Honeymooners, had any character development at all. It was all just amusing situations, putting the characters in those situations, then letting the jokes fly.

No, the problem with the show is that it now lacks variety. We know what we're going to get, and that makes the experience feel that much less unpredictable. As Jaime outlines in the article linked above, Big Bang has never been a densely plotted show. That’s fine. A collection of loosely connected sketches that sort of suggest a story is an old way to build a sitcom episode, and I think it fits this show well enough. But if you’re going to do that, the characters have to be pretty damn engaging, and they’re just not on this show. They’re essentially frozen at the level they attained in early season two, with little to no more information about them added on since then. When Leonard and Penny attempted a relationship last season, it made no sense because the characters didn’t reveal sides of themselves that made the relationship make sense. Instead, they just threw their pre-relationship selves into couplehood without having to alter much of anything. It was a botched opportunity to deepen two characters, to reveal more about why they are the way they are.


Last season, I got in trouble with some Sheldon/Penny shippers for saying their hopes for the two to get together were insane. It wasn’t the world’s greatest word choice, but this was, sort of, what I was talking about. It’s one thing to hope for two characters to get together on a show where that might, conceivably, happen. It’s just setting yourself up for disappointment on a show where the characters all fall into rigidly defined roles in relation to each other, roles that can never be altered. Again, you can work within this framework. All In The Family certainly did, revealing so much about all four of its central characters over the course of hundreds of episodes but never, ever altering any of the fundamental traits of the show in the slightest. There are lots of great comments on Jaime’s post from people who think they DO see new character development in the show, but they’re, like the Sheldon/Penny shippers, for the most part, extrapolating their own thoughts onto the show, rather than sitting down and looking at what the show gives them. There’s nothing wrong with this either. Playing along at home is a lot of fun when it comes to TV. But it doesn’t help the people who DON’T see what you see.

How does this relate to tonight’s episode, one that was MUCH better than the two January episodes? Well, honestly, this episode both felt like a chance to push the show in BOTH directions. The idea of having Penny give Sheldon acting lessons (which was literally just an excuse to get Kaley Cuoco and Jim Parsons to do fake improv together in what might have been the funniest scene of the season) is almost certainly one the show has been sitting on for a long time, but that can be OK if it’s one of those scenes that comes naturally from the characters or premise, as this one mostly was. On the other hand, this was also the, “Hint about Sheldon’s childhood in a way that is funny but lets you know how hard he had it growing up” episode for the season. (These episodes would seem like blatant Emmy bids for Parsons, but he usually ends up submitting more broadly comedic choices, which is why he has one Emmy and I don’t, I guess.)

Sheldon’s been in danger of turning into a raging dick this season (even in this episode, his slights at Penny’s acting career seem harsher than usual), but this kind of information is useful in that it keeps the character grounded, lets us see new sides of him, lets us get inside his head. Character development doesn’t have to mean character growth. It can also mean deepening characters we already know, letting us get to know new things about them, or giving them new, in-character things to do and get excited about (as Jaime points out in his article, in regards to the show’s running jokes, of which there have been no new examples in a long while). And while his class being incredibly bored by his teaching and Sheldon being upset by that COULD have been this sort of storyline (how does Sheldon deal with human rejection when he NEEDS the people to at least tolerate him?), it mostly segued aside for another Sheldon and Penny scene. Which was fine because it was a funny one. But the big monologue at the end, where Sheldon acted out a scene from his past, is the show repeating itself, and not in a particularly funny or character-building way.

Look. The people behind The Big Bang Theory don’t care about any of this. They have a giant hit show, with a loyal, rapturous audience. If some of the audience gets a little tired of what they’re seeing, so what? There are over 10 million other viewers who are just fine with what happens on this show every week. But it strikes me that there was a time when this show could have been something more, something better, and then it mostly just settled for being what it’s always been. Predictability doesn’t always hurt comedy, particularly TV comedy, but there needs to be some sort of push and pull between that and the unexpected. And the unexpected has dropped by on The Big Bang Theory too little this season.


Stray observations:

  • All right: The Raj/Bernadette/Howard subplot. I liked the first scene that turned out to be a dream sequence quite a bit, especially since Bernadette is the best thing to happen to this show in the last two seasons (the one “new” thing you can sort of cling to here). But the second scene was a literal repeat of the joke, with nothing new added or changed. Sheesh. (That said, I want to know if this ignited a firestorm of Raj/Bernadette shippers because I’m masochistic like that. To LiveJournal!)
  • Things I never thought I would say: The Bollywood dance on Outsourced was better than the Bollywood dance here. And that’s not to say this one was bad or anything. The Bollywood dance on Outsourced was just one of the few amusing moments that show has come up with. And much more elaborate. This one was also hurt by some pretty dreadful auto-tuning. (Other things I never thought I’d say: The auto-tune on Glee is better than the auto-tune here.)
  • I know it’s pointless to complain about the endings on this show, but that Sheldon/Penny scene deserved a better capper than, “I think I broke your son.”
  • "I was expecting applause, but I suppose stunned silence is equally appropriate."
  • "Picture the Hindenburg meets Chernobyl meets Three Mile Island meets Tron 2."
  • "That's downright cruel, plus insects have six legs."
  • "Cute is for bunnies. I want to be something with sex appeal like a labrodoodle."
  • "The first thing that comes to mind is isolating the part of the brain where the memory is stored and destroying it with a laser."
  • "Most of them regular, some of them kinda messed up."
  • "My body and I have a relationship that works best when we maintain a cool, wary distance from each other."
  • "Luckily, we sell both shoes and yogurt here."
  • "I'm gonna miss you Shelly-bean, even though you creep the bejesus out of me."