With the cast growing from the original five to the current eight by the sixth season, The Big Theory really became four shows:
- The story of a group of nerds and the hot girl that lives across the hall from them.
- The story of two groups of friends – one, a quartet of male nerds, the other, the three women in their lives.
- The story of a socially-awkward, but intellectually brilliant nerd and the people who tolerate him.
- The story of a socially-awkward, but intellectually brilliant nerd and the hot girl who befriends him.
Trying to successfully fold all these variant themes into the sixth season showed the strain. Still, audiences didn’t mind, making the series the biggest hit of the season – so huge, in fact, that by the sixth season, The Big Bang Theory was boasting Friends-era numbers, and beating former juggernaut American Idol in the ratings. With the addition of Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch, the show’s plots became deeper and more complex – in fact, episodes that centered around the female characters – Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the gorgeous blonde, Amy (Bialik), Sheldon’s girlfriend, and Bernadette (Rauch), Howard’s wife – were arguably the strongest of the season.
The show opens with Howard (Simon Helberg) off in space. On earth, his BFF, Raj (Kunal Nayyar) is lost without him, so he turns to lonely comic book store proprietor, Stuart (Kevin Sussman). Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny are still together, their relationship becoming more stable, while Sheldon (an excellent Jim Parsons) is growing, glacially, as a partner with Amy. There are a lot of moments for the gang to grow and in this season, Howard and Raj go through some of the most interesting progressions in their lives. And even though Parsons is clearly the breakout star (and multi-Emmy winner), both Helberg and Nayyar give the strongest pair of performances this season: both actors are given ample opportunities to shine. After returning to earth, Howard assumes that his friends will see him as a hero – like Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin, but instead, he’s just plain old Howard, which leaves him hurt and nonplussed. And in a particularly touching episode, Howard must deal with his unresolved feelings of abandonment and resentment over his absentee father when Sheldon finds an unopened letter. It’s nice that The Big Bang Theory is willing to move beyond its “nerds are funny, dumb blondes are hilarious” jokes and dig deeper to show that these fun guys are complex individuals.
And Nayyar is nothing short of revelatory as the lonely Raj, who seems unable to find love. His subplots are often saddled with cheap gay jokes – Raj is a self-proclaimed metrosexual, who is the dandy of the group. He thinks he finds a soul mate with the lovely, if emotionally-crippled, Lucy (comedienne Kate Micucci), but her appalling shyness creates obstacles in their relationship, and Raj finds himself crying piteously on Penny’s shoulder. Thankfully, the writers abandon the whole “Raj can’t talk in front of girls sober” gag, which was wearing out its welcome, and as some of the richest moments of the show featured Sheldon and Penny, in this season, Raj and Penny (along with Amy and Bernadette), also shared some great moments.
While Raj and Howard are far more compelling in this season, Sheldon is still reliable for some great laughs. He’s also given some movement to grow, but he’s also much more annoying and abrasive. One would think that his relationship would mellow him, but he’s just as obstinate and neurotic as ever. He’s still a cold boyfriend to Amy, and imperiously condescending to his friends, which makes him a hard character to like. Thankfully, Parsons and the writers manage to wring sympathy from such a potentially-unlikable person. When he’s confronted with his bad behavior, more than likely, his motives are revealed, and often they come from a place of cold logic or from the dark, twisting forest that is his psyche. But he’s never wantonly cruel.
Like the other seasons of the show, this one boasts some great guest stars, the greatest one being comic legend Bob Newhart (who won an Emmy). Other starry names include Buzz Aldrin (as a conceited version of himself), Stephen Hawking, Star Trek: The Next Generation alumni Wil Wheaton and LeVar Burton, and the aforementioned Micucci as Raj’s love interest. The guest stars are all obvious stunt casting, and though they all do a fun job, they’re little more than attention-grabbers. Even Newhart is coasting more on his iconic status than offering a particularly memorable performance (unfortunately, he’s wading in one of the season’s worst episodes).
And because this is a traditional, multi-camera sitcom, there are some trappings the show’s still suffering from: namely from an aggressively expressive laugh track as well as some so-so running jokes (Howard’s monstrous, off-camera mother is grinding the horribly emasculating Jewish mother stereotype to death). But these are minor issues, because the game cast and scripts that run from good-to-great keep the show enjoyable. And though there are far too few Penny/Sheldon exchanges for my taste, the sixth season shows that despite its advancing age, The Big Bang Theory still has a lot of stories to tell, and most of them are very funny.