There’s been a fair amount of inspired conflict in this season of The Big Bang Theory. The key to the show creating meaningful conflict is to make sure that it arises out of moments that feel true to the characters. Sheldon and Amy have been grappling with hurt feelings and varied intentions for much of the season, and their two personalities have made the ensuing conflicts feel real. Sitcoms can certainly go to more outlandish places to find tension, but the tension that comes out of meaningful character moments that are built on past actions are typically more resonant.
I mention that because so much of “The Viewing Party Combustion” is built upon contrived or familiar conflict. The setup is typical Big Bang Theory. Sheldon, Leonard, and Penny are preparing to have everyone over for a Game Of Thrones viewing party. Leonard’s ordered a party sub, much to Sheldon’s chagrin, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone makes their way to the apartment. Before that can happen, Sheldon brings up the fact that they have their quarterly roommate agreement meeting scheduled for the next day. That sets Leonard off, as he’s sick of putting up with Sheldon’s strict schedule and bogus excuses to discuss meaningless minutiae.
Before long, Penny is taking Sheldon’s side, saying that because it’s important to Sheldon it should be important to them, while Leonard is pouting on the couch. Eventually everyone arrives and splits into two separate groups, with Howard and Raj, who are at odds because Howard is sick of hearing his friend complain/boast about dating both Emily and Claire, stuck in the middle. Howard decides to join Leonard and Amy, who surprisingly agrees with Leonard’s point, and Raj goes with Penny and Sheldon, mostly to not be with Howard. It’s a pretty silly, contrived way to split the group up, and the whole first half of the episode feels intensely overwritten. Everyone is spouting off to one another but there’s nothing behind the aggravation. It’s just conflict for the sake of conflict.
To the show’s credit they try to salvage some semblance of insight from the whole mess. There’s a moment late in the episode that reveals an underlying tension. When Leonard thanks Amy for taking his side, she replies by saying she couldn’t care less about his issues, but that she sometimes gets sick of how close Penny and Sheldon are. Leonard, like us, balks at the thought. Who argues more than those two? But as Amy points out, it’s Penny who always comforts him, who gets him to take medication, and, unbeknownst to Leonard, gets clauses put into the roommate agreement so that she doesn’t have to fight with Leonard about them.
It’s an intriguing line of thought, as it’s true that over the years Penny and Sheldon have grown closer to one another. Where they once started as enemies they’ve come to understand one another. It’s clear in the moment when Penny defends the roommate agreement meeting. That’s something that the “old” Penny would roll her eyes at, but now she’s all for it because she knows it keeps Sheldon sane. There’s the potential for interesting character exploration here. Is Leonard truly sick of Sheldon’s antics, or does he see himself being replaced by Penny? Has Amy felt this way for a while, or is this a new observation? Trying to unpack those questions would be good for the show, as it would present an opportunity to explore how the character dynamics have changed over nine seasons.
“The Viewing Party Combustion” never really digs deeper though. Instead, it just raises the idea that Penny and Sheldon are closer now and then leaves it at that. It’s the same problem the show has with Raj right now. He’s inarguably insufferable this season. He’s a character with no depth and almost no redeeming qualities. So, to see him openly boasting (by “complaining”) about dating two women is just another example of his misguided, annoying behavior. But, here’s the thing: there’s obviously something within Raj that compels him to show off to Howard. Is it the fact that he’s normally so lonely, and now that he’s dating he wants to show off? Does he legitimately feel like a total ladies man? Has he always felt lesser than Howard and now he’s trying to prove that he’s more of a “man” than he is? Once again, the show would do itself a huge favor by digging into these questions and exploring why Raj is acting the way he is.
Too often The Big Bang Theory allows its characters to act out and engage in conflict without really having a reason for them to do so. Sure, this is a sitcom, so sometimes that’s okay; not every situation needs to be built on significant backstory. But the lack of attention paid to characters being themselves, being the versions that we’ve come to know over the years, means that episodes like “The Viewing Party Combustion” can’t help but feel both inconsequential and forced.
- Sheldon can’t believe that Leonard won’t attend a mandatory meeting: “This is what a generation raised on Bart Simpson looks like.”
- Sheldon doesn’t like The Simpsons, but he does like Lisa Simpson.
- How did Howard going to the emergency room in any way relate to what happened in the episode? It feels like the writers rushing to a conclusion because there really isn’t one when your conflict is so out of character.
- “If Sheldon’s testosterone dipped he’d become a butterfly.”