"The Adhesive Duck Deficiency" has everything I love about The Big Bang Theory and everything I find enervating about it so close to each other that it almost serves as a perfect object lesson about what makes individual episodes of the show work or not work. There's one plot that relies heavily on its character interplay and entertaining dynamics, while the other plot relies almost entirely on stupid sitcom logic and making its characters behave like idiots. It's not even that the problem is that one plotline has Sheldon and the other does not, since there have been numerous times the show will stick Sheldon in a stupid sitcom plot, and Jim Parsons will save it just through sheer force of performance. The problem is more that one plot takes the show and characters seriously, and the other does not.


I actually have more to say about the good than the bad, so let's get the bad stuff out of the way straight off. Sending Raj, Leonard and Howard off into the woods for a camping trip isn't a bad idea for a show that often relies heavily on sending its characters into new situations, but the jokes from the storyline don't really arise from any sort of camping-related humor or the guys confronting the great outdoors or anything like that. To be sure, those would be setups rife with worn-out jokes, but at least they'd be in the same ballpark as the story. Instead, the episode falls back on one of the most worn-out TV jokes of them all: the uptight characters accidentally eating drug-laced baked goods and then tripping in "hilarious" fashion.

In this case, the three guys eat some cookies with drugs in them, and they end up marveling at how beautiful the stars are and talking about how Raj could be the rabbit king and assorted other things. It's all pretty proficiently delivered, but the story in and of itself is a waste, as much of a big comedy sketch as anything else on this show, consisting of the one joke stretched out over half of the episode. And that was it. We just saw the guys having the TV version of a drug trip (tame and ultimately just sorta goofy), and it was all so predictable that the second Howard produced the cookies, I knew the show was heading in that direction. I didn't even need the fact that the teachers who gave them the cookies were hippies to know what was coming.

Fortunately, the Sheldon/Penny half of the episode was aces, the first plot this season I'd give an unqualified A to. One of the biggest strengths of the show's breakout second season was the fact that it figured out the strongest relationship in its central cast was between Sheldon and Penny, the touchy, persnickety nerd and the kooky girl next door. It was one of the rare non-sexual male/female relationships with great chemistry on TV, particularly on sitcoms, and Parsons and Kaley Cuoco played the hell out of every scene they were given. The two made such an inspired odd coupling that at times, it seemed as though the entire show were about them, as though the other characters would be gradually cast off into some other, lesser show.

The first episodes of season three have mostly been about righting this balance, about returning the show to the original central premise of two nerds living together, their friends dropping by every so often and one of the nerds pining for the hot girl across the hall. By and large, we've returned to that in season three, and it's resulted in some strong, fairly consistent episodes, but it has yet to pull off anything as comically perfect as many of the best episodes of season two. And there's a good reason for that. The premise that the show shifted to - with Sheldon and Penny as the leads and the other three providing support - was a much better and more original premise to build a sitcom around than the one the show started out with. Because the show's actors and writing are so strong, the series can get away with the shift back to its original premise now, but it's hard not to think that everything would be stronger with what the show evolved into in season two.

And so it was with "Adhesive Duck," where Penny slipped in the shower, possibly dislocated her shoulder and called on Sheldon to help her. Everything about the plot worked, from how it kicked off to Sheldon trying to dress the naked Penny and grabbing the wrong parts to Sheldon filling out the form for her at the hospital. There were great running jokes - like Sheldon pointing out what Penny's tattoo on her rear actually meant - and there were great one-off gags and physical moments - like Penny asking Sheldon if that felt like her arm. Cuoco and Parsons have such a finely tuned comic rhythm at this point that one could probably toss them into any given situation and get some great jokes out of it, but the show is never better than when Sheldon is forced to help out someone he probably wouldn't normally help out because it's the thing to do, and this was one of the better examples of that kind of plot the series has come up with.

You can even sense just how much fun the actors have with all of this material. Look at the smiles Parsons and Cuoco share as they embark upon the "Soft Kitty" round, or the way the two enjoy Cuoco playing loopy off of the hospital drugs. There's a chemistry here that has some of the rattle and rhythm of the great comedic duos, and while I think the people on the Internet who want Sheldon and Penny to get together are pretty much insane, I can see what they're feeding off of. TV teaches us that any time a man and a woman are in some sort of relationship with any sort of spark to it, that man and that woman will inevitably begin sleeping together, and I think that's what the Sheldon/Penny shippers are responding to, but The Big Bang Theory is showing us that that doesn't necessary have to be the case. Here's hoping the show chases that impulse more than it chases the impulse to stick its characters in boring, stock sitcom plots.

Grade: The Sheldon and Penny stuff gets an A, but the other stuff gets a C. Since there was more Sheldon and Penny stuff, we'll average it out to a B+.

Stray observations:

  • "You keep in mind that my sharply worded comments on yelp.com recently took down a local muffin store."
  • "I have a series of whimsical duck stickers on the floor of my tub."
  • "It doesn't feel like an arm."
  • "If I could speak the language of rabbits, they would be amazed, and I would be their king."
  • "I hate my name. It has nerd in it. Leo-nerd."
  • "Why do you have the Chinese character for soup tattooed on your right buttock?"
  • "Episodes of sub-psychotic rage." "Ass!" "Possible Tourette's."
  • "You can save a plant and get the fat people out of the float-y chairs."