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The Big Bang Theory: "The Wheaton Recurrence"

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Think of your favorite sitcom pairings. Maybe you're a Sam and Diane fan (I sure am). Maybe you just love Dave and Lisa on Newsradio (again, I agree). Maybe you love Ross and Rachel, all evidence to the contrary. Or maybe you've got some weird thing for a sitcom pairing most everyone has forgotten, like Maya and Elliott on Just Shoot Me or something. Regardless of which sitcom pairings you love, I think we can agree that the ones that work do something to explain why those couples do or don't work. Sam and Diane had a ridiculous attraction for each other that overcame their basically opposite natures. Dave and Lisa were well-matched intellectually, even as they drove each other crazy. Ross and Rachel … well, I don't know what was up there. I got that she liked the whole hangdog, had-always-been-in-love-with-her thing, but the continued fascination struck me as odd. And I never really watched Just Shoot Me.

But, listen. The point here is that there's basically been no attempt to explain why Leonard and Penny got together in the first place, worked as a couple from there, or continued to get along. There's been plenty of suggestion as to why they DON'T work as a couple, but the main reason they seem to be together, as I think I've said before, seems to be because this is a TV show and that's what the main players on TV shows do. Some of this has to do with the fact that Jim Parsons has essentially stolen the show from Johnny Galecki, insofar as being the lead of the series, but more of it has to do with the fact that the third season of a sitcom is when you put the two lovelorn characters together and see what happens. It has always felt like something the show is doing just to do it, because that's something it thinks it should do, regardless of the chemistry (or lack thereof) between the actors or whether the storyline makes any sense.


So while I appreciate the effort to toss some emotional realism into the relationship at this late date, I can think of so many ways I would have cared more about the breakup of Leonard and Penny, mostly all starting with the idea that the show maybe could have done more to make their relationship something believable to the audience, something worth caring about. Whether the show wanted to do that through making Leonard a safe choice that Penny could glom on to in between other guys or through making him so persistent that she eventually just decided to give him a shot and liked what she saw or any other of a number of plot devices, I wouldn't have cared. In the show's universe as it stands, it mostly just seemed like Leonard and Penny started dating because Penny's dating options seem to consist entirely of the other four guys in the cast, and Leonard was the least objectionable of the four.

Now, the scenes where Leonard and Penny fought over the status of their relationship were pretty well done, honestly. The writing was sharp, the acting was nicely understated, and the conflict between the two - he says "I love you," and she's not so sure - was believable, one of those things we've all run into in our own lives. The show even does a nice job of playing the fact that realizing you DON'T love someone who loves you feels almost as awful as realizing the person you love doesn't reciprocate. (I realize it doesn't seem like this would be the case, but, trust me, it is.) In a vacuum or on a show where the series had made us care about this relationship, this episode would have been pretty great.


But The Big Bang Theory, like every other TV show, doesn't exist in a vacuum. Sam and Diane sort of endlessly reset their relationship into a state of combat again and again and again, but every episode also progressed the relationship to the point where you easily bought that they would either end up married or killing each other by the end of the season. And that's to say nothing of more overtly soapy relationships like Ross and Rachel or Ted and Robin on How I Met Your Mother, where the growth and death of the relationship is done largely organically (albeit through calculated plot twists). Leonard and Penny always seemed to exist in a state where they lacked interest in each other, outside of Leonard wanting to get her in the sack. The show never built them as a believable couple in any sort of way, so the scenes that ask us to buy them as such and mourn the passing of their relationship, instead, just make me glad we won't be spending as much time on this relationship.

Ultimately, I'm disappointed in "The Wheaton Recurrence" because it could have been so much more and instead settled to just be the show as it usually is. The stuff between Sheldon and Wil Wheaton was funny enough, and the stuff where the gang went bowling certainly had its moments (particularly as Sheldon kept psyching everyone out), but the core of the episode felt a little hollow, and many of the jokes - like that lengthy gag about how to pronounce "Wesley Crushers" - just went on too long. I like The Big Bang Theory, and I laugh once or twice at even the weakest of episodes, but if the show wants us to take its characters seriously as romantic partners or anything of the sort, then it needs to find a way to make us care beyond just telling us how to feel about everything.


Stray observations:

  • How did "Lenpen" or "Lenny" never take off as a 'shipper name?
  • I don't know that there's anything I like less than a gag where the main male characters are all in drag. This is mainly because most shows never do anything with it beyond the old Milton Berle gag of "THESE MEN ARE IN DRESSES. THAT IS INHERENTLY HILARIOUS."
  • Stuart is, hands down, my favorite recurring male character on this show. Add him and Bernadette as regulars, and this could be an even better ensemble, I think.
  • What? No one actually registered WilWheatonSucks.com from the Big Bang production offices? That's a recipe for someone to squat on the site with irritating advertising links if ever I've seen one!
  • I was going to talk about this hearkening back to a classic sitcom story type (as the show often does) with all of the characters going bowling, but then I froze up and couldn't think of another episode like that. That said, it DOES hearken back to all of the stories on shows like this where a couple is breaking up, and the friends around them try to keep pushing on with their lives, even as the breakup threatens to consume them whole. Though that's less a TV trope and more a "real life" trope, so.
  • "I believe I quoted Empire Strikes Back."
  • "For the record, the appropriate ranking of cool modes of transportation is jetpack, hoverboard, transporter, Batmobile and then giant ant."
  • "What'd you do, Romeo? Did you pour maple syrup all over your body and ask her if she was in the mood for a short stack?"
  • "Please reserve that butch spirit for the lanes."
  • "I guessed premature. Does that count?"
  • "I've been familiarizing myself with female emotional crises by studying the comic strip Cathy."
  • "If you were a cat, I would have brought you a lasagna."
  • "That's not even from your franchise!"
  • "He's not above playing the dead meemaw card."