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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
t’s mildly irritating that “The Big Bang Theory” has become one of the biggest shows on network TV. This thing is a ratings behemoth at this point. It seemed so much cooler when not as many people were watching it (yet enough to keep it on the air). The misfit, socially outcast central characters made a kind of sense in that context. Now they’re seemingly as powerful as the superheroes they worship. Oh, it’s still a great show, or at least a very, very good one, but I think most people who’ve been there since the beginning will find a grain or two of truth in what I’m talking about. When the guys who hated you in high school are rooting for Sheldon Cooper (thanks for the info, Facebook), just a little something special has been inadvertently ripped out of the concept.
In writing up Season Two, on the subject of a possible relationship between Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) I wrote that “the chase is half the fun, and to make Leonard and Penny a couple this early in the series would take away a lot of what makes it so special.” Clearly those words were spoken in misguided haste. Or perhaps not. Little did I guess that the very relationship I predicted would spoil the show would take off in the first episode of Season Three; it in no way spoils the show, but the writers don’t do a whole lot with the idea, either. (Some of the best stuff involves the couple standing in as surrogate parents of sorts for Sheldon.) It would seem, in fact, that this was one of those TV cases of “we’re bringing them together so that we can split them apart,” which is mercifully what happens before the season is over. Mercifully because it reopens that playing field for a new and different kind of Leonard and Penny game, which presumably we’ll be getting more of in Season Four. In the long run, this all may have been for the best.
But “The Big Bang Theory” is a traditional sitcom, and as such, character arcs aren’t really why we watch it in the first place. The show’s strengths will likely always rest on its standalone stories, and there are plenty of those that are gems here. “The Adhesive Duck Theory,” in which Sheldon (Jim Parsons) must drive a half naked Penny – who has suffered a dislocated shoulder – to the hospital is yet another fine entry in the Sheldon/Penny episodes, a formula which nearly always delivers. “The Maternal Consequence” sees the return of Leonard’s mother (Christine Baranski), who once again manages to be a season highlight. On this visit, she and Penny head down to the Cheesecake Factory to do tequila shots, and I’m sure you can imagine where it goes from there (but really, you can’t). “The Plimpton Stimulation” guest stars Judy Greer as a fellow physicist and Sheldon’s houseguest. Oh, and she’s really, really horny. But surely one of the season’s very best is “The Precious Fragmentation,” in which the guys stumble across an actual prop ring from “The Lord of the Rings” flicks at a garage sale. Who gets to keep it? To say anything more might just invoke the wrath of Sauron himself.
With success comes bigger and bigger guest stars. The tightrope “Big Bang” walks involves actors playing themselves. Two incredibly successful episodes this season revolve around Wil Wheaton (who played Wesley Crusher on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), whom Sheldon considers his nemesis, due to the actor missing a convention appearance when Sheldon was a young teenager. These two episodes are flat-out hilarious, but the show needs to watch it, because this is the sort of thing that can’t work ad infinitum. To wit, “The Vengeance Formulation,” in which Katee Sackhoff appears as a masturbatory vision of herself in Howard’s (Simon Helberg) bathtub. The gag isn’t anywhere near as clever as it thinks it is, and while we’re at it, who’s lame idea was it to turn Stan Lee into a crabby old man?
Don’t get me wrong, “The Big Bang Theory” remains one of the funniest “nice” comedies on TV, and if I’m pointing to the stuff that didn’t work this season, that’s because it’s gotten itself into a position where it now warrants some genuine criticism, rather than just heaping rounds of applause. There’s one particular area that needs to be talked about: the area of “All Things Sheldon,” and that’s because the show is rapidly turning into “The Jim Parsons Show.” Jim Parsons is an excellent comedy actor (or at least he is when he’s playing Sheldon – haven’t seen him in much else), and his recent Emmy win was well-deserved. The bulk of these episodes, however, largely revolve around his character, and rarely does another character get to take center stage (at least in comparison). The writers and producers are playing something of a dangerous game, because some of the other characters, most obviously Leonard, are shrinking into the woodwork. (One need look no further than the Season Four premiere, where Galecki seemed to be all but an afterthought chiseled into the goings-on.) “The Big Bang Theory” is an ensemble comedy series. Let’s work to keep it that way, Chuck and Bill, because I don’t want to look up at the screen one day and find myself bored with Sheldon Cooper.
Special Features: It appears as if expecting anything even remotely resembling a decent selection of extras from this series is an exercise in futility at this point. “Takeout with the Cast” has the actors kicking back around the coffee table and answering a fairly banal selection of questions via the opening of fortune cookies. “Set Tour with Simon and Kunal” is self-explanatory, but surely no more so than the gag reel which closes out the set.