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The Big Bang Theory: "The Cornhusker Vortex"

Illustration for article titled The Big Bang Theory: "The Cornhusker Vortex"
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“The Cornhusker Vortex” isn’t a bad episode, but I’m not convinced it hangs together story-wise, like the best Big Bang Theory episodes do. It’s a collection of very funny scenes, but most of them don’t really go anywhere within the story as a whole, like this is a sketch comedy where the individual scenes have some but not a lot of bearing on the scenes that follow. Whole plot points are introduced and then mostly disposed of, with only the loose overarching idea of Leonard being worried that Penny doesn’t want to show him to her friends serving as a runner throughout the episode. Also, much of the episode involves nerds trying to learn about football and being inept at it, so storyline originality is not the episode’s strong suit.

That said, this was one of the first times I’ve genuinely enjoyed the Leonard and Penny storyline at the center of an episode. Leonard’s fears that she just has no desire to introduce him to her friends because he wouldn’t get along well with them are the sort of thing that’s sat at the middle of many a sitcom plot, but it’s such a truism because it’s something that all new couples have to go through. One of the central conflicts of the show when it started was the idea that Penny’s old world of the sorts of former jocks and popular people that Penny is obviously a part of kept coming into conflict with the new nerdy friends she had. This could too easily lead to scenes where the show made fun of the nerd characters and seemed to side with Penny, but as the show evolved and learned to be more interested in its nerd characters, this conflict took on some nuance.

Now, granted, Leonard not knowing a single thing about football was the sort of “Man, nerds just don’t get it!” plotline that the show used to botch horribly, but there was something sweet about the way he tried to learn all about it. Where in an earlier season this might have been played as a way to mock Leonard, in this episode, the show seemed genuinely invested in his attempts to teach himself the complete ins and outs of something he couldn’t be less interested in over the course of a few days. (The only time it felt at all mean-spirited was when Leonard was cheering the highlight footage before the game started, which made him seem a little too stupid about what was going on. Better was Leonard’s almost obsessive recounting of football rules in intricate fashion, which Johnny Galecki played with an appealing desperation.)

This was another fairly Sheldon-lite episode, but it still found a use for the show’s best character by shoehorning him into someone else’s storyline. That Sheldon knows all about football is nicely explicable (he grew up in Texas and went to all of the games with his dad), and I kept hoping for the show to do more with this, to show us scenes where Sheldon really did school Leonard in the rules of the game or even to have the final scene have Penny’s other friends find Sheldon to be a pretty good time, what with his extensive knowledge of the game. Instead, Sheldon mostly just came by to invite Leonard out for more kite flying and/or fighting and provided the show with a way to get out of the storyline since the episode was about to end.

I keep thinking it’s probably a little unfair to criticize The Big Bang Theory for poor story development, when it’s clear the show has made a conscious choice to pursue stories where we just hang out with the characters and have a good time watching their antics. In addition, multi-camera comedies arguably need room to breathe, room to let their characters play around with audience reactions and provide slow-burn payoffs, so story development is what goes out the window in this equation. But that lack of story development is probably what is keeping the show from consistently turning out the kinds of truly great episodes that it has in the past. It’s also probably what’s keeping the Leonard and Penny relationship from feeling like anything approaching an interesting story engine. The Big Bang Theory is a show that thrives in situations where the plot is mostly just an excuse for hijinks and then hopes the hijinks are funny enough to justify the lack of plot. Most of the time, they are, but when the show attempts to do something more than that – like, say, build a multi-episode arc around two of its characters dating – it becomes incredibly apparent that this is not something the show does particularly well or has ever even tried to do well. I don’t mind that the show is a throwback and doesn’t bother with much in the way of serialization or multi-episode character development (despite all evidence to the contrary), but when it tries either of these approaches, it usually just reveals its own weaknesses.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of the Raj and Howard storyline, which might have been what kept me from liking the whole thing overall. Again, it stemmed from a pretty funny scene – the guys’ kite fighting – but in this case, it headed in a direction it feels like the show has covered a few times too many over the course of its run. Once again, Howard is pursuing women at the expense of his friendships, and now Raj is, again, saying something about it. There were a handful of laughs in the story, but the story just kind of sat there throughout, mostly as an excuse to give Raj and Howard something to do. While I like both characters, they’re usually better utilized when they’re bouncing off of the other characters rather than each other.

I probably sound way more down on this episode than I actually was, and for that, I apologize. The story had a nice momentum to it, once it got rolling, and there are certain things I’ll just always enjoy, like Sheldon saying “mimesis” or Penny saying, “That’s my boyfriend. He’s really smart.” By and large, watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory is as much about how enjoyable it is to hang out with these characters as it is anything else. Sure, it doesn’t make that leap up to the next level of great sitcom-hood, but it’s not immediately apparent that’s what it has its sights set on. And, hell, so long as the characters are this much fun and so long as the show keeps coming up with amusing situations to put them in, I guess I don’t mind.

Stray observations:

  • As someone from the Midwest now living in the Los Angeles area, I’m impressed that Penny can corral that many diehard Cornhusker fans to watch the game at her place.
  • No photos from this episode on the CBS press site, so please stare at this really generic photo of the entire cast from an earlier episode for a while.
  • "Really? The only thing I've learned in the last two hours is that American men love drinking beer, pee too often and have trouble getting erections."
  • "It's not a little scooter. It's the second biggest Vespa they make."
  • "If you're interested, I also know all about frying meat that isn't chicken as if it were chicken."
  • "If you'd like, after the game, I'll take you out back and teach you how to shoot close enough to a raccoon that it craps itself."
  • "That, however, appears to be a football cocktail dress."
  • "Cats, however, refuse to wear sporting apparel. My sister found that out the hard way."
  • "What's funny about Cylon toast?"

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