A sitcom’s quality and longevity is often measurable by its fourth season. Usually by that point, the actors have settled into their roles, the writers have developed a rhythm and have created memorable story arcs. Often a sitcom with limited shelf-life will show frayed edges by the fourth season and the quality often drift. This is not the case with The Big Bang Theory‘s fourth season. Almost as strong as its third (arguably the best in the show’s 5 years), the fourth year has some of the sitcom’s strongest episodes.
For the uninitiated, the story of The Big Bang Theory is rather simple: two extremely intelligent guys, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) are roommates and best friends, who hang out with fellow geniuses, Howard (Simon Helberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar). Aside from being brilliant, the four are also stereotypical nerds, each with some defining idiosyncrasy that will often be the catalyst for some of the adventures these guys get themselves into. Across the hallway from Sheldon’s and Leonards, lives aspiring actress-Cheesecake Factory waitress, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), a beautiful girl who manages to endear herself to the group despite her average intelligence, because of her sweet nature and her down-to-earth attitude. Her street smarts often clashed with the guys’ books smarts, but the group managed to gel.
The fourth season deals primarily with the ongoing effects of Penny’s and Leonard’s breakup. Unlike the torturous Ross-Rachel tango of Friends, the unsuccessful love affair of Penny and Leonard is dealt with a brevity and wit that the audience should be grateful for – their post-breakup assembling of their friendship is also interesting when Leonard finds new love in Raj’s brilliant lawyer sister, Priya (Aarti Mann). In one of the stronger episodes, Priya feels threatened by Penny’s perennial presence in Leonard’s life and asks him to make a choice. Unable to, Penny makes it for him, and gracefully steps back. What’s so beautiful about this development is that no one is the villain in the story. Even though Priya instigated this minor bust up of the group, she’s pretty sympathetic.
As good as the fourth season is, there are some minor debits. Firstly and conversely, Penny’s estrangement from Leonard means her involvement with the group is pretty limited, which cuts down on a lot of Penny screen time which is unfortunate. Also unfortunate is Sheldon’s ever-increasing marginalization as a real character. As the writing becomes broader, Sheldon’s borderline Asperger’s-like behavior allow for him to become a cartoon. Parsons is wonderful in the role, and he puts his wiry, gangly form to perfect use. He also delivers his lines in a hilariously pompous tone, veering from deadpan to delightfully shrill.
Still, despite these small setbacks, when the writers exploit the show’s best qualities, then The Big Bang Theory is arguably the best sitcom on network television right now. The brightest spot is, of course the cast. Aside from Parson’s brilliant performance, Galecki also does great work, in a role that’s a little trickier. His Leonard is much more well-balanced and together, and his nerdiness isn’t as much of a hindrance to him as it is to the other guys – because of this, he can sometimes fade into the background. Galecki’s portrayal of Leonard is still pretty great – his nasally delivery is fantastic – it skates the line between caricature and character, but never crosses it. The Leonard and Sheldon scenes are great because despite their obvious affection for each other, there’s still a healthy antagonism between the two. In fact each of the characters has a mean streak, and Sheldon’s inability to decipher verbal or visual cues of sarcasm or deception makes him the perennial butt of the jokes.
Another great thing about the show is the addition of a “girlfriend” for Sheldon: Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik). Like Sheldon, Amy’s a brilliant, if socially awkward nebbish, who is navigating the social world, woefully unequipped. Unlike Sheldon, Amy’s uninhibited, and throws herself into situations that require her to examine her feelings (when she’s sexually arroused by Penny’s ex, Amy’s academic approach to this newly discovered side of her results in hilarity). Bialik is also a welcome addition to the show, showing a fearless comedic talent, that makes for an interesting character. Also, there’s an intriguing bisexuality with Amy and her persistent (and slightly odd) crush on Penny that has Amy sling throwaway lines that reference Penny’s beauty (she characterizes something as “Not Penny beautiful, but beautiful”).
The best element of the show, however has to be the weird relationship between Penny and Sheldon. The two are in certain ways, the best friends of the show, and Cuoco and Parsons have been able to create a memorable comic duo. The writers did not invent the wheel when creating this relationship – The Odd Couple did it first and this sort of pairing of two opposites is a favorite among most sitcom writers. However, the writers and the actors manage to transcend the formulaic nature of the archetypes they’re working with, and create a warm, funny and flinty relationship. The third season had some of the best Penny/Sheldon scenes, and because Cuoco was injured during the season, the audience is gifted with less of this odd pair, so when the two do get together, it’s all the more satisfying. What’s best about this friendship is that it shows certain aspects of the characters’ personalities that normally would be obscured: mainly, Sheldon’s ability to actually care about someone and Penny’s latent appreciation for intellectual pursuits. There are some Internet Big Bang fans who pine for a Penny/Sheldon hookup and that would be a huge mistake. The most endearing part of the friendship is that the two have an utter lack of appreciation for the other’s physical appearance, and their love for each other is based solely on their interaction with each other.
The show still has some detractors who find the portrayal of nerds unrealistic, condescending and silly. The writers aptly handle the somewhat threadbare Star Wars, Star Trek, video game, comic book jokes. The writing also has some of the most sophisticated and verbose dialogue on television today (though with the gluttony of reality TV, that’s not saying a whole lot). The nerd-aspect of the show, the “gimmick” that was its hook in its inception has been paired with a true dose of reality for each of the characters; it’s not that the show abandoned the “geek chic” but instead used the characters’ various forms of social ineptitude as layers of characterization. Even at their most broadest, the characters manage to remain human and likable.
The Big Bang Theory isn’t a perfect show and the fourth season is a slight drop from the excellent third, but it remains remarkably intact. The cast has essentially grown to 6 characters, but the divide among the sexes provides some much-needed balance to the show. The new additions also add to the tart zing of the interplay between the characters. There are also more questions that need answering for the fifth season: mainly in what direction will Sheldon and Amy go? Will the love affair between Howard and his beloved, Bernadette last? And where does Penny fit into this ongoing group? It’s a credit to the show, its writers and cast that the stories are engaging enough for audiences to stay tuned.