Todd's away at a TCA (Television Critics Association) conference, so I'll be covering tonight's episode of The Big Bang Theory, "The Bus Pants Utilization." I haven't watched an episode this season, but I'm familiar with the show, and it's in the nature of TBBT that nothing much ever really changes. Leonard and Penny might date for a while, Howard might find a new girlfriend, Raj might suddenly find the power to talk to girls without alcohol, but the core stays the same. Sheldon is intractable and frustrating, Howard is a horndog with an annoying mother, Raj is… Indian, Leonard is the "normal" one, and Penny is The Girl. I've been keeping up with reviews, and I did watch most of last season, but I was curious if the show would be any different from what I remembered. The first joke was Howard trying to explain laptops to his mother. It felt like coming home.
At least it did for a little while. Watching TBBT has always been a little like watching two different shows at the same time. On the surface, it's a broad comedy that uses antagonistic relationships between its ensemble to drive most of the humor, with little regard to character growth or depth; just to the left of that, though, there are enough hints of something stronger, something more complicated and equally entertaining that keep threatening to break through. Sheldon was compelling because he was single-minded and because he was distinct. His contempt for his "friends" was funny enough, and his interactions with Penny were interesting because they came the closest to achieving that second show I thought might break out. Around Sheldon, Penny couldn't just be the dippy sex object she was initially designed to be, because Sheldon is, so far as we've been able to determine, asexual. And the barbs he threw at her didn't land the same way they would against, say, Howard, because Penny mostly felt sorry for him. When she got exasperated, she wasn't afraid to show it.
Something has finally changed, though, and not for the better. I'm not sure how much of this is just my distance from the series at this point or how much of this is because the show's been on the air so long it can't help but exaggerate its worst qualities, but "Pants" was pretty unpleasant to watch. And it wasn't even all that funny. The premise could've come from any season: Leonard has a brainstorm for a new smart phone app that would solve differential equations by translating hand-written notes. (Something along those lines. I don't know enough math to know how useful this would be, but it sounded useful enough.) Sheldon, Howard, and Raj team up with him to try and design the app, but Sheldon tries to take over the project, belittling everyone's contributions and generally being an annoying ass. Leonard fires him from the team. Sheldon gets mopey, Penny feels bad for him, and, after he belittles her for a while, she tries to help him make up with the others. This goes poorly, and the episode ends with Sheldon helping Penny design her app idea: a program that lets users snap photos of shoes they like and find out where to buy those shoes. (Honestly, this sounds a hell of a lot more marketable than Leonard's idea.)
It's a standard structure for the show, and there's nothing really wrong with the plot. I always like it when Leonard, Howard, and Raj get to be actually competent at something, and the few times we see them working together without Sheldon's hectoring, they seem to be doing a good job. But the episode just wasn't funny, and it wasn't fun to watch. Sheldon was at his absolute worst tonight. That he's mean to everyone is a standard bit, but his meanness is generally tempered with some sort of vulnerability or, at the very least, the insults are clever. This all felt one-note, and there was no escalation. Seeing Sheldon bust out a theremin? Yeah, that's cute and good for a chuckle, but it wasn't enough to really hold together the last act of the show.
What it comes down to is, either the jokes have to land enough that I'm too busy laughing to care about characters, or the characters have to be enjoyable enough to spend time with that I don't mind if they aren't always hilarious. "Pants" failed on both counts. We heard routines we've heard a dozen times before (hey, a Raj and Howard gay joke! That never gets old), and there wasn't much in the way of surprises. Sheldon, who used to be the bright spot in an otherwise routine sitcom, was just a dick. Yeah, I get that being-a-jerk is one of Sheldon's key traits, but he needs to be a little sadder than we see him here or a little less cruel. (One swing at Penny for her failed acting career? Okay. Two was pushing it.) Or maybe he just needs better gag writers.
- "Let's see you come up with an explanation as to why this woman hangs out with us all the time." Okay, that made me laugh. Also, the idea of Sheldon's bus pants was clever.