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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Big Bang Theory: "The Vengeance Formulation"

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"The Vengeance Formulation" might be my favorite Big Bang Theory so far this season. It didn't have any single plotline that was as sustained in hilarity as last week's Sheldon and Penny extravaganza, but both plotlines were warmly funny, both treated the characters as actual human beings, and both managed to - gasp! - continue with plots introduced in previous episodes. I think I've said before that The Big Bang Theory is a very good show that's not quite a great one, but there are times when the great show it could be peeks through from behind whatever else is going on. There were moments in "Vengeance" where that was definitely the case, particularly in the Howard storyline (and, no, I didn't think I'd be saying THAT).

But at all times, The Big Bang Theory is reminding you that there are things it does that will always hold it back. Take, for instance, the whole character of Kripke. At a basic level, the idea of a guy at work who has some sort of antagonistic relationship with Sheldon is a good one, and much of the time, the basic storylines that come up from Kripke being around are amusing. For example, seeing Kripke fill Sheldon's office with helium while the latter was on the phone with NPR was terrifically funny, if only because Jim Parsons seemed to be doing the whole thing without any assistance from actual helium, convincingly modulating his voice and then somehow finding a register I wasn't even aware men could speak in. (Seriously, where did they find this guy, and how come no one else realized he was a mad comic genius?)

But everything is shot in the foot because the whole character, at his foundation, is weirdly mean-spirited. Kripke's speech impediment isn't funny, and it's never really been funny. It's just there as an artifact from the show's original attitude toward the nerds - let's make fun of 'em! - and it hasn't evolved past that point to the more jocular attitude the show has taken toward the nerds since the first few episodes. It'd be one thing if the speech impediment added some sort of level of surreality to the proceedings, but Kripke is mostly just your standard recurring sitcom antagonist. He just has a speech impediment, mostly so we can laugh at it.

That feels like a lot of complaint for a relatively minor storyline that I actually laughed at quite a bit, but I think that what keeps The Big Bang Theory from ever stepping from very good to great is that it is always sort of held back by a kind of laziness. The central cast is so appealing, and Parsons is so good  that the show can get away with creating a character where all of the laughs are literally supposed to come from the fact that he says W sounds instead of R sounds. A better show would come up with an antagonist who had his own comic point-of-view (the best I can think of off the top of my head is Seinfeld's Newman, who fulfilled a similar function in the series in a much funnier fashion). It's like the show gets to 88 percent of the way there every week, realizes that's good for a B and decides that's good enough, since Parsons will pull all of his material up to an A anyway.

But the show doesn't need to always be this way. Look, for example, at tonight's Howard storyline, where the series continued the slow humanization of the one regular character who remained problematic right up into the second season. Howard's seeming treatment of women as objects was emblematic of the way a certain type of guy who doesn't realize that some women are out of his league behaves, but the series too often seemed to be laughing at his attempts to talk to the hot girls. The whole storyline this season where Howard's been courting the adorable Bernadette - stop and start as it is - is proof positive that the show has found a way to make Howard's behavior ridiculous while still making him seem like someone you might actually want to hang out with and therefore plausible as a friend to the other guys.

There's been a sort of vulnerability to Howard in this storyline that the show doesn't often go in for, and when he realized that he was actually entering into a relationship with Bernadette and thus pulled back because she wasn't his feminine ideal, it felt realistic (other than the fact that Bernadette, like all TV "less attractive" girls, is super hot). Howard's got a distorted vision of both femininity and what he's capable of achieving, and that keeps him from really connecting with this great girl, or even figuring out how to go from casual dating to relationship without jumping immediately to a marriage proposal. It's all ridiculous behavior, but it's rooted in an understandable series of character motivations. Also, the storyline allowed the series to stick Katee Sackhoff in a bathtub, then focus just as much on her comic chops as her attractiveness, and that's always worth some praise.

The idea of "settling" for someone who's actually quite a good match for you because they don't match up in one or two niggling little areas where you'd like them to match up isn't exactly new territory for drama, but it's not often presented as vulnerably as it is here. It both hurts Howard to realize that he's never going to get Katee Sackhoff and to realize just how much he's hurt someone he really cares about. It also gives Kaley Cuoco some fun stuff to play as she defends her hurt friend against Howard's stupidity. It's not the greatest storyline in the history of the world, but it treats all of the characters as people who behave plausibly within the show's universe. Plus, it allows Howard to freestyle to the tune of "Bernadette!"

"The Vengeance Formulation" is one of the better Big Bang Theory episodes of the show's run because of that emotional honesty but also because it uses everyone in the cast well. Leonard, for example, is there to provide reliable straight man barbs, and, as per usual, he's really good at it. Similarly, Raj is there to provide occasional quips, and they're all great. And, of course, there's Sheldon, who gets more laughs out of a reaction to Leonard asking him if Sheldon can see him than you'd expect. "The Vengeance Formulation," in essence, is just a great chance to hang out with characters who are vastly enjoyable and not cringe at the fact that the show doesn't realize how enjoyable to hang out with they are.

Stray observations:

  • I always love when the show drops in some random science. I also like how the studio audience seemed really impressed with Sheldon's foam trick, as though they didn't expect to get some Mr. Wizard action at their taping.
  • They totally just named Bernadette Bernadette so they could do that closing joke, huh?
  • "In romance, as in show business, always leave them wanting more."
  • "Why are you such a stupidhead? That is also rhetorical."
  • "You'd have a better shot with the three-breasted Martian hooker from Total Recall."
  • "That movie was like 20 years ago. Imagine how saggy those things would be."
  • "Kripke, I found the nozzle. I'm going to kill you."
  • "Is this more comedy that I don't understand?"