Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik

The best episodes of The Big Bang Theory are the ones that treat the characters like real people. They avoid some of the more predominant and predictable sitcom beats in favor of a more nuanced approach to storytelling. Meaningful character work, the kind that engages with a show’s past and allows conflicts and resolutions to appear organically, is what makes episodes like “The Champagne Reflection” or “The Anxiety Optimization” stand out in a 22-episode season. Those episodes work because they feel lived-in, because the narrative beats feel natural to the characters and the world they occupy. An episode like tonight’s “The Colonization Application” is what the show looks like at its worst. While there’s nothing overly cynical or off-putting in the episode, the storylines are bland and predictable, where the characters aren’t unique individuals, but rather just vessels for stale punchlines.

The episode kicks off harmlessly enough, with a fun bit that plays on Sheldon and Amy’s intimacy issues. When Leonard and Penny come to the apartment, Sheldon and Amy are excited to see them because they have some big news. They hold hands and talk about how they’ve been together for awhile, and say that after a long discussion about their relationship, they’ve finally decided to take a big step forward; they’re going to get a turtle together. It’s a solid punchline, but it also works in the sense that, for Sheldon and Amy (well, Sheldon at least), the idea of buying and owning a pet together truly is a significant step forward. It’s the kind of relevant character work that I mentioned above; Sheldon and Amy having a long conversation about the ins and outs of owning a turtle and what it means for their relationship is exactly the kind of thing they would do.

Sheldon applying to be one of the first people to colonize Mars is also something he would do, but it’s not nearly as harmless as buying a turtle. He neglects to tell Amy about his application, and casually drops that into the conversation while he’s telling her that the turtle they’re thinking of buying looks vaguely Italian. What follows is predictable: Amy is upset that Sheldon could be so uncaring and not even consult her before deciding to fill out an application, while Sheldon can’t comprehend what she could possibly be mad about. For him, this is a huge opportunity, and he assumes Amy would have done the same thing. Amy doesn’t say she wouldn’t jump at the chance to go to Mars, but that she would certainly have discussed it with Sheldon first. She tells him that she wants to be “planning our future together.” It’s a tender moment, and coupled with Sheldon’s offer for her to fill out an application to go with him, serves as a nice cap to a forgettable but solid storyline.

The rest of the episode focuses on Raj and Emily–well, with the exception of Leonard and Penny’s adventure with erotic body paint, but there’s so little there, even in terms of plot, that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Raj is finally spending some time alone with Emily, whose roommate is in Palm Springs. Their night together isn’t meant to be though, as Emily gets called to the hospital. She says she won’t be long, so she tells Raj to stay and hang out. Raj being Raj, he has to snoop around (while talking to Howard on the phone, because more often than not these two are codependent man-children). After peaking into her nightstand, he can’t get the drawer closed again. Then, when he tries to pull out the drawer and see if there’s anything behind blocking it from closing, the whole front comes off. It’s like Ross and his leather pants on Friends; things just get worse the more Raj tries to fix them.

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On paper, that’s not a terrible sitcom storyline. It presents an opportunity for an awkward confrontation and a few laughs. Somehow though, the show complete botches the execution. Emily’s character is so underdeveloped that it’s hard to really get a grasp on how she’s going to react when she gets home, which robs the storyline of any building tension. All we know about her is that she has a seriously morbid sense of humor, one that feels completely out of place on this show and in this episode.

In general, Emily has felt out of place since she was introduced on the show. Her character often gets shoehorned into an episode as a reminder that Raj has a girlfriend, but she never has anything meaningful to do. Her only significant storyline, which involved being mad at Penny way back at the beginning of the season, was thrown out and never addressed again. Furthermore, her relationship with Raj, when it has been present on the show, feels out of place. The introduction of Amy and Bernadette into the main cast felt earned because it served to balance out the characters. Sheldon finally had someone that understood him, and could therefore call him out on his ignorant behavior the way Leonard couldn’t. Even Bernadette, for as much as her character and the talents of Melissa Rauch are consistently wasted, helped to curb some of Howard’s worst behaviors, though getting him to do his taxes instead of playing video games is still a challenge.

“The Colonization Application” does little to help us understand the dynamic between Raj and Emily, which is important if she’s going to continue to be a part of the show. For now, their entire relationship boils down to easy jokes that either play off of Emily’s morbidity or Raj’s supposed “femininity,” resulting in the entire episode feeling like one lazy punchline after another. Raj’s character has always been somewhat less-developed than the rest, but when he’s paired with a romantic partner, that lack of development is even more glaring.

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Stray observations:

  • Sheldon snuck in some solid punchlines tonight. For instance, when mentioning that life on Earth is no picnic, he also says, “picnic’s are no picnic.”
  • Biggest laugh of the night came from Sheldon’s application video, where he gets Leonard to open a can of “peanut brittle.” Leonard waits for something to pop out, but there’s actually just peanut brittle in there, so Sheldon throws a pie in his face. It’s just the kind of misguided attempt at a joke that Sheldon would make.
  • I’m glad the episode didn’t spent too much time with Howard and Bernadette, because I was already fuming about Howard’s total lack of husband-like qualities.
  • Amy, when talking to the turtle about her relationship with Sheldon: “Like you, we’re taking it ridiculously slow.”

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