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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Big Bang Theory: "The Zazzy Substitution"

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I wasn't really enjoying tonight's Big Bang Theory until all of the cats showed up. I'm not sure that this is something I should admit, exactly, but hey, cats are fun! As my wife points out, they're the most popular pet in America. Lots of people like cats! And there was something terrifically amusing to me about seeing Sheldon, a very particular character, so taken with his little furry friends that he names them all after the doctors on the Manhattan Project before giving up and naming the zazziest one Zazzles. This was the weakest episode of the season so far (yes, even weaker than last week's proto-Urkel adventures), but it's also proof that if the show just goes for broke on something as silly and potentially winning as Sheldon surrounded by cats, it can come up with something that's fun, almost in spite of itself.

I'm not sure what it was about everything leading up to the cats that turned me off. Sheldon and Amy have hit the stage of their "relationship" (and she's not his girlfriend; she's a girl that is a friend, but there's no touching or saliva exchange) where they've become insufferable to everyone around them. Amy and Sheldon always hang out together, and they keep bringing the rest of the gang along on dates, where Amy turns her sense of superiority loose on everyone else. Now, as Leonard points out, Sheldon does this as well, but he's been grandfathered in. The gang doesn't need two versions of Sheldon (and, arguably, neither does the show). But Sheldon couches most of his criticisms of his friends in something like gentle good humor. Amy's just rude about it.

I like Amy as a character, and I like Mayim Bialik's performance in the role. She's got that brusque sense of someone who only has time for you if you're as brilliant as her down, and she's a great scene partner for Jim Parsons. The two of them bounce off of each other well, even when the dialogue they're handed isn't the greatest, and I liked, for instance, the idea that they would invent that insane Counterfactuals game to play with each other, but build it in such a way that it would be completely inscrutable to anyone else who tried to play. That's almost certainly something those two would do, and the bit where Leonard tried to play (and came up with a pretty good answer!) but utterly failed was funny.

But the other scenes with her weren't. I think the script probably made her too boldly confrontational and too dismissive of everybody else. Watching a sitcom like this is an experience where the viewer forms a sort of bond with the cast, to the point where it's not uncommon to sort of think of these people as friends you hang out with once a week. Even if Amy was a little less strident in what she was saying, there's a tendency to be protective of the original cast (this is one of the reasons adding characters to long-running sitcoms rarely goes well). So when she starts putting down everybody - and even when she and Sheldon get into a debate about whose research is more important - it's easy to react badly and to find what's happening sort of offputting. And I think that's what's going on here, even if the rest of the stuff going on is entertaining enough.

Fortunately, that's just the first ten minutes of the episode, which then rapidly turns into Sheldon feeling bad about the "break-up" and getting himself a bunch of cats. Now, again, this is little more than an excuse for a long series of sight gags where Jim Parsons smiles benevolently at the other actors while the cats crawl all over him, but dammit, I thought they were funny sight gags. And it goes from there to unexpectedly become a story about Sheldon and his mother, who tricks Sheldon and Amy into getting back together (using one of the oldest sitcom tricks in the book). The story was a little sloppy, but the back half of the episode was better than the first half, for the most part. (Though I'm not sure that the arrival of Sheldon's mom was motivated by anything other than the series just wanting to bring in Laurie Metcalf, though I don't blame them for having this impulse.)

The more I think about it, the more I think that the problem with the episode was quite simple: There was a surprisingly small amount of Penny. Penny's the necessary counter to every other actor in the cast, the only one who's able to take the wind out of Sheldon's sales without seeming too mean and the only one who can act as an audience surrogate when the show gets too far up inside of its own idea of itself. Sure, when the show debuted, she was just a way for the writers to make fun of all those crazy nerds, but now, she's almost a necessary corrective to a show that can get too broad, too fast. Sure, she was in that scene where the guys hang out at her place because they're sick of Sheldon and Amy and she gave Sheldon the advice that led to him getting a cat, but it wasn't really enough.


That's not to say this was a bad episode. There were plenty of things to laugh at. The soul of it was just a little misplaced, in the end. That's to be expected in some of the more Sheldon-centric hours, but when you make it an episode about Sheldon AND Amy, that's the sort of thing that becomes even harder to avoid. The season premiere largely did so, and that was probably because Penny was in the storyline with the two, but this episode could have used just a bit of her withering sarcasm or her talent for finding the things that make Sheldon seem more human. Without it, it just felt like an unnecessarily harsh half hour.

With cats!

Stray observations:

  • I would love to play Counterfactuals. In fact, why don't we play it in comments? Doesn't THAT sound fun?
  • OK, so Raj can speak when Penny's back in the kitchen? And he doesn't know where things are in the United States or something? Does anyone else feel like the writers are wasting a talented comic actor in a part they don't really know how to write for?
  • On the other hand, this was one of the better episodes for Howard in a while, as he was offering up some pretty funny lines around the edges of the episode and not being a creepy, unsettling pervert the rest of the time.
  • Honestly, if I had a cat, naming that cat Dr. Robert Oppenheimer would probably be a great idea. I could call him Oppy!
  • Anybody else notice that the orange cat kept licking his ass every time he was onscreen? You can sort of see it in the photo above.
  • "Incorrect. Obviously, the answer is cheese Danish."
  • "Despite their tendency to build Death Stars, I've always been more of an Empire man."
  • "Someday, when you have varicose veins, I'll show you how to massage them."
  • "Can't live with 'em; can't successfully refute their hypotheses."
  • "It's like the worst country song ever."
  • "He's so … zazzy!"
  • "Well, that's not fancy at all."
  • "This little guy right here, I think you'll find to be quite … zazzy."