It’s been a long while since I did a recap on The Big Bang Theory – not having TV added with the show’s dipping quality made the idea of reviewing a show I once loved not really all that appealing. I kept up with the show, watching some of the episodes – this season was a solid C+ season (except for the excellent Sheldon-Penny “The Intimacy Acceleration” episode), but overall, I though the show was merely okay. I think that with the shift toward romance, the show became a post-millennial Friends, and a lot of the weird, quirky charm of the show was rubbed out in favor of a more mainstream show.
So with pretty low expectations, I watched the season 8 finale, “The Commitment Determination,” and though it was a decent episode, with some solid beats, it confirmed that the show’s no longer about a group of highly intellectual misfits trying to figure out how to live in a world that demonizes intellect; instead, it’s a romantic comedy that stretches out plot lines with “will they/won’t they?” stories.
In “The Commitment Determination” we see the three couples of the show: Penny/Leonard, Amy/Sheldon, Raj/Emily, and Howard/Bernadette take a critical view at their relationships. Of the four pairings, Howard and Bernadette have the lightest story – it might be because the two are married, or it could be because Mrs. Wolowitz’s death may have been the “very special episode” for the pair – but in the episode, the biggest thing the two have to work out is how to get sad sack Stuart out of their house. I welcomed Stuart initially, because I thought he was an interesting companion for Raj – I was even thinking that there might be something more than “just friends” but that was quickly jettisoned and Stuart was allowed to regress further into the “woe is I” loser, and he became almost unwatchable.
But the other three couples had to really examine how they feel about their loved ones. With Raj and Emily it’s a question of can Raj deal with Emily’s bizarre, dark qualities, or will he dump her? In the episode, she proposes they have sex in a cemetery. It’s a stupid idea – utterly ridiculous – and if Emily was a more interesting character, maybe it could’ve been something to watch, but the writers did a very poor job of introducing Emily into the series. Raj, one of the series’ most emotionally-complex characters, is in a strange bind because he may love Emily, but he also may be terrified of being alone. It’s clear that Raj feels he’s the Leonard to Emily’s Penny – though Raj is good-looking, the show has him written as a nebbish wallflower who struggles with talking to women. In the cemetery, Raj goes through a rehearsed speech, which Emily spots as a “It’s not you, it’s me breakup speech,” and when she confronts him, he chickens out and declares his love for her. It’s played for laughs, but I wish the writers did more to develop Raj’s feelings of loneliness and isolation. I hope for the show’s sake, that Emily is sent packing during the summer hiatus, because she hasn’t gelled with the show (even the friction she shared with Penny was dissolved).
With Penny and Leonard things are heightened only because she’s wearing his ring. Otherwise, the two seem perfectly content with each other, until Sheldon squirms his way into their heads by pointing out that their engagement has lasted over a year, and there still isn’t a date. Now, normally, I think that a long engagement is fine – and both Penny and Leonard present some fine arguments to why they’re waiting. But then they jump into a car and head off to Vegas, without their friends to get hitched. Obviously, they’re getting married to qualm any fears and doubts they have about each other, and it’s to the writers’ credit, that the show is allowing for the two to blunder in such a way. Still, the reveal that Leonard kissed a girl a couple years ago while he was at the North Sea expedition is a little much – something to add drama to the relationship that could potentially settle into ennui (which often happens with TV couples – just look at how stale Jim/Pam got on The Office once they got married and had kids). I get that impulse, but I think it’s cheap and transparent. Also, unnecessary – there’s enough in their relationship to present obstacles without having to resort to the “he cheated” bit to add depth: Penny’s growth and independence, for one – she left acting to become a pharmaceutical rep, discovered she’s pretty good, and is now financially set; Leonard, on the other hand, is still battling feelings of inadequacy, feeling that he somehow doesn’t deserve Penny because of her bombshell looks. Again, I wish the show moved on from this beauty and the geek narrative, because it’s fine – beautiful women marry brainiacs all the time, and it’s often because they’re compatible (Modern Family is another show that cannot seem to transcend its joke that Gloria is too hot for Jay).
When he admits that he kissed a girl, Penny is understandably mad, but quickly forgives him. It makes sense as it was two years ago, and the two weren’t engaged. It’s interesting that the hot blond who was waiting for her man at home was the faithful one, and it’s a credit to the writers that they were able to confound expectations enough to go in that direction. I also like that Penny didn’t abort their marriage plans because of the revelation. Even though the inclusion of the cheating was tired, the writers were able to rally enough to write a compelling scene that both Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting played well (though, to be honest, this episode did little to tax either actors’ thespian abilities).
Far more interesting was the story of Amy and Sheldon. I always had a soft spot for Amy – she’s kind of screwed (and not in the good way). She’s in love with an emotionally-stunted guy who has zero skills in social intercourse. He’s just getting the hang of sarcasm, and we’re eight years into the show. So when Amy reminded Sheldon that it’s their five year anniversary, it made complete sense that Sheldon responded to that bit of news by asking Amy if he should start watching the new Flash tv show.
On the surface, it’s a silly question – classic Sheldon, but there’s something in his reasoning behind the question. It’s a question of commitment – can Sheldon commit to something for a long period of time. Though to outsiders, weighing the pros and cons of watching a TV show is silly, to Sheldon it’s not. For someone who thinks like him, getting involved in a television show that may last a few years means accepting a commitment – and that’s not easy for Sheldon. It’s clear that Flash is merely a symbol of how difficult it is for Sheldon to conceptualize sticking with something for a long amount of time. It also makes sense that when reminded of the five years he spent with Amy, his mind immediately went to the difficult of taking on another long-term project in his life.
And even though I sympathize with Sheldon, I do get Amy’s frustration. The writers give Amy the patience of a bionic Job, but it’s clear that she views Sheldon’s Flash question as an indication of either his inability to totally commit to their love, or his unwillingness (I’d argue it’s the former). That’s why it’s very sad when she breaks up with him via Skype. Jim Parsons does beautiful work as Sheldon tries to process all of the emotions he’s feeling – most of them new and foreign to him. He’s confused, nonplussed, and in a bit of a daze. I just wish the writers left it there, without resorting to Sheldon pulling out an engagement ring. Again, it’s a very cheap way at throwing a cliffhanger so that viewers tune in next season.
So when the ninth season opens, it’ll be interesting to see just how this fateful night worked out: did Leonard and Penny go through with the wedding? Is Raj still with Morticia, I mean, Emily? Where do Amy and Sheldon stand?