Simon Helberg
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After ending its seventh season, perhaps the series’ best, on an emotionally complex note, last week’s two-part season premiere quickly glossed over any potential complications—other than the absence of Sheldon’s pants—and got right down to the business of easy punchlines and stilted storytelling. This week’s episode, “The First Pitch Insufficiency,” is a slight improvement; it’s notably funnier than last week’s one-hour block, and even finds some time to muse on the central relationships that have anchored the show for so many years now. As Oliver Sava has noted in his reviews of the past few seasons, this is a show that’s at its best when allowing its characters to get a little messy; the most rewarding and earned moments come when Leonard, Penny, Sheldon or anyone else is shown as a flawed human being, not just a robot reciting pop culture references.

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“The First Pitch Insuffiency” delves into some of that emotional complexity, but it never sticks its neck out too far. The episode’s most fruitful storyline follows Wolowitz, Bernadette and Raj, as they come together to try and teach Howard, who’s been asked by NASA and the Los Angeles Angels to throw out the first pitch at an upcoming game, the mechanics of throwing a baseball. It’s the kind of plot that The Big Bang Theory can do in its sleep, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Surprisingly, the jokes about Wolowitz being unable to throw a ball because he’s a “nerd” who gets sore throwing air at a TV are mostly kept to a minimum, which plays to the shows advantage. Cookie-cutter punchlines about nerd culture are one thing when you’re establishing the tone of your show in its early going. Eight seasons into your run though and it would just feel stale. Instead, the show teases out the strange and compelling relationship between Howard, Raj, and Bernadette, while also giving Simon Helberg a chance to do what he does best. Helberg is a gifted physical comedian, his take on Howard a mess of faux-boastfulness masking a deep well of insecurities, all poured into a variety of colorful skinny jeans. Watching him warm up in the gym, striking various ridiculous poses with the ever-intimidating presence of Bernadette by his side, is one of the episode’s funnier moments; the fact that Wolowitz doesn’t know how to throw a ball isn’t inherently funny, but the way Helberg exaggerates his inadequacy, turning it completely up to eleven, helps make the stale joke feel fresh.

The show doesn’t go nearly deep enough to stumble upon any profound insights, but there are elements within this storyline that deal with traditional ideas of masculinity. Howard’s complete lack of ability when it comes to sports is mostly played for laughs, but there’s also a genuine sense of compassion to be felt for him. There’s something achingly real about Howard’s feelings of inadequacy in an area largely considered to be proof of one’s manhood; he’s an outsider made to expose his flaws in front of the most unforgiving of audiences, and we all anticipate his glorious, YouTube-ready failure. This anticipation makes the eventual bait-and-switch, where Howard uses the Mars rover to deliver the first pitch, all the more satisfying. Sure, the moment is undercut by the fact that the rover moves too slow and the crowd starts to boo, but there’s some satisfaction in the idea that Wolowitz uses his depth of knowledge to solve a seemingly unsolvable, physical problem. It’s a worthwhile conclusion to a story that at least makes a slight effort to look at themes of competition and inadequacy.

Those themes extend into the episode’s second storyline, which follows Leonard and Penny as they go on a double date with Sheldon and Amy. Sheldon, when not annoying waiters with his detailed knowledge of Cornish game hens, finds time to rank the quality of relationships within his circle of friends. Leonard and Penny come dead last, just behind Penny and Chardonnay. When Leonard challenges Sheldon by saying that relationships aren’t quantifiable, Sheldon promptly disagrees and introduces him to a 25-year-old study that gives your relationship a numerical rating based on a variety of factors—he and Amy scored an 8.2, which we’ll presume is a great score out of 10! When Leonard, letting his competitive nature (or annoyance with Sheldon) take hold, suggests taking the test, Penny refuses, saying that she’s terrified of the truth: that they are two people who are about to get married, yet have nothing in common. It’s a note that The Big Bang Theory has hit numerous times when exploring the romantic relationship between Leonard and Penny. Laid out here as mere fodder for one of Sheldon’s inane debates (which ends with Leonard touting how the differences between him and Penny make him excited to do this thing together), the seemingly knotted and intriguing insight into their relationship feels insignificant. It’s a sweet moment, but nothing more. There’s a gaping hole between Leonard and Penny that has been there since the very first season. The show has done some remarkable things bringing them closer together—specifically with Leonard’s growth from the type of guy who would use “friendzone” in all seriousness to a generally good and compassionate human being—but none of that growth is present here. Instead, the show opts for a quick, painless reconciliation. Surely there will be more bumps in the road as their wedding approaches, but for now, their decision to get married feels inconsequential; not a good sign for a show that finds its best moments in the tangled emotions of relationships.

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Stray observations:

  • Reviews of The Big Bang Theory are still alive! The show has been extremely divisive over its lengthy run, but as Oliver Sava (and a handful of other TV Club writers) have shown, there’s always something worth analyzing. I’m looking forward to discussing TV’s most reliable ratings juggernaut with all of you over the next few weeks.
  • Though the show usually gets quite a bit out of its supporting cast, it was nice to take a step back with this episode and only spend time with the main characters. Added bonus: no jokes about Wolowitz’s mom!
  • The sight gag with the tape measure was another great moment from Helberg. He really carried an underwhelming storyline while adding in a little emotional heft.
  • “I’m heckling you. It’s a beloved part of baseball.”
  • “Isn’t this when he says ‘bazooka’ or something?”
  • “It’s better than hot; it’s binding!”
  • Sheldon: “Did you enjoy my lecture?” Amy: “No, and neither did our waiter.”

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