The Big Bang Theory opened its 10th season (!) with a wedding. Well sort of. Fans will remember that last season Penny and Leonard found out that his glacial mother Beverly (Christine Baranski) felt slighted and hurt that she wasn’t invited to their nuptials, so the gang decides to throw a commitment ceremony (something the gays used to do before we could get married) and invite the families to gather and be awkward with each other. And the result was a mildly amusing, though somewhat sleepy season opener.
One of the show’s highlights has been guest stars, and usually the show treats its guest stars well. This week’s episode – “The Conjugal Conjecture” – reveals that while TBBT vets like Baranski and Laurie Metcalf (who’s back as Sheldon’s mom Mary) are aces, newbies like Katey Sagal and Jack McBrayer fit badly in the fictional universe, which is a damn shame because both Sagal and McBrayer are talented performers and great comedic actors who deserve better than their thinly-written characters.
But more on that later. The episode’s A story has Penny (Kaley Cuoco) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) renewing their wedding vows so that their families and friends can witness their love. It’s a sweet gesture, that somehow feels cheated and short-shifted in the episode, that is far more interested in giving us a show of warring bickering families. Leonard’s divorced parents, Beverly and Alfred (Judd Hirsch) are pissed at each other because Alfred possibly has a thing for the Bible-thumping Mary, who is the antithesis of the scholastic Beverly.
But Leonard isn’t the only one dealing with family problems. In a far less interesting plot line, Penny’s family comes to visit, and her mom Susan (Sagal – who played Kaley Cuoco’s mom on the forgotten ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules) is super uptight because brother Randall (McBrayer) has just gotten out of the pokey for producing and selling meth. It’s a dark detail that is totally played for laughs and lands flat. Keith Carradine returns as Penny’s laidback pop Wyatt, who seems to be taking everything in stride, despite his wife’s nervous nagging.
And in the completely useless b-plot with Howard, Raj, and Bernadette (Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, and Melissa Rauch, respectively) have a mini adventure that centers on an Air Force colonel trying to contact Howard for some unknown and unexplained reason, and the episode’s writers – don’t do a good enough job in raising the stakes high enough to make viewers care.
Part of the problem with the show – a problem that is shared by ABC’s Modern Family – is that the show has far too big a cast and not enough time to give each character enough space. And because we’re trying to get everyone a chance at bat, some characters – like Mayim Bialik’s Amy barely register (a waste, because she’s always reliable for a good laugh). I forgot Stuart (Kevin Sussman) was still a character, except he popped up to hammer home his nebbish pathetic persona (I remember when we first met Stuart, he wasn’t as bad as this).
In the twenty minutes or so that the show has to tell its story, everything feels rushed and forced. The family squabbles are simply sitcommy fights, peppered with decent one liners that are launched with the custom broad hammy acting that’s befitting a multi-cam sitcom. There is very little in terms of exploration into why the characters are so fraught and tense – Randall’s stint in jail could be explored for some interesting insight into Penny’s own addictive behavior, and Susan’s constant attempts at scrubbing away at the family’s imperfections could be a sign of larger issues at hand. But we don’t get any of that. And Sagal and McBrayer are totally wasted in these roles. Sagal, especially, is prim and tight, and doesn’t get much laughs. And McBrayer’s character is basically a charmless version of 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell.
But despite the mediocrity of the opener, there were still some bright moments to be found. Laurie Metcalf is a comedic genius, as is Christine Baranski, and I’d love to see the two join the cast, and we can jettisone the neglected Stuart and Emily (Laura Spencer). Though Mary and Beverly are completely one-note (Beverly more so), the actresses do so much with even the hackiest lines. And Jim Parsons does have a touching moment near the end, in which he shares his love for Leonard and Penny at the wedding. It’s a brief glimpse into the potential the show constantly exhibits – there are always these quick moments throughout the show’s 10 years, in which genuine growth and development occurs – this is especially true with Sheldon who, in the first season, wouldn’t have been able to stand up in front of his friends to express his innermost feelings.
Ten years is a long time for a show to be on, and The Big Bang Theory is frayed at this point. The show has accommodated for its growing cast by marginalizing some of the characters – this is especially true in the way Penny morphed from the hot, kooky girl next door, to the colorless straight man of the bunch. Her character is solely defined by her relationships, whether it’s with Leonard, Sheldon, or Amy and Bernadette. In this episode, little has changed. She takes a backseat to her warring family (which is sad, considering how dull they are), and then she’s practically background noise for her friends. There was some promise when the writers decided to have her character leave acting, which brought some interesting conflict in her relationship with Leonard, but even that detail did not live up to its potential. Hopefully the writers will try and perk up her character a little bit, given that this could be the final season of the show (it’s still a monster hit – opening with 16 million viewers – but at 10 years, the cast must be crazy expensive at this point).