Kunal Nayyar, Simon Helberg, Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki

Last year, while The Big Bang Theory was in its seventh season, the show put together one of its most consistent runs. From “The Locomotion Manipulation” through to the finale, there was a significant shift in the dynamics that hadn’t been felt since the core cast expanded to include Amy and Bernadette. Sheldon went through a variety of life changes, from learning a little more about intimacy and emotional reciprocation, to dealing with the death of his childhood hero. Leonard and Penny saw their relationship change in ways that felt honest, so unlike the sitcom tropes that had been used as an obstacle in their relationship before. Even Raj, forever the lone wolf of the group, found a sense of happiness and learned that he had to love himself before anyone else would. There was a sense of focus and purpose going into the eighth season that was exciting. So far, everything that happened in that wonderful run late last season has been ignored, tucked away in an expansive walk-in closet like a drunk Amy Farrah Fowler.

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Yes, The Big Bang Theory is chiefly a comedy, and “The Focus Attenuation” finds some good humor in splitting the cast along gender lines and putting them into some fresh situations. Still, the complete lack of acknowledgement to the storylines of the previous season is baffling. Sheldon kissed Amy! Raj found a girlfriend! Leonard and Penny are getting married! Those are moments that deserve a narrative follow-through, however slight, and other than the fleeting insecurity of Leonard and Penny’s relationship in “The First Pitch Insufficiency,” there has been no progress, no sense that these characters have gone through anything in the last year that would alter their views, beliefs, or relationship dynamics. Rather than acknowledge Sheldon’s brief moment of intimacy last season and build upon it, we get him complaining about Amy’s “sexting,” which amounts to her seeing how his day is going. It’s lackluster storytelling, and mishandles the momentum and trust the show spent many episodes building.

Still, this episode is good for a few laughs, and leaves some room for an always reliable source of comedy: the cast’s chemistry. In the episode’s strongest storyline, Leonard, Sheldon, Raj, and Howard realize that since they’ve all developed serious romantic relationships, their focus on work has dwindled. Instead of breaking new ground and inventing something that charges your phone while you walk, they’ve spent hours watching television. With a renewed sense of purpose, they plan a science retreat (Sheldon doesn’t want to go to a cabin in the woods, because he’s seen Cabin In The Woods and presumably isn’t a fan of Mermen or REO Speedwagon), which involves sending the girls away and locking themselves in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment to focus on scientific discoveries. When Leonard asks Penny if that’s ok, because they originally had brunch plans, she jumps on the opportunity to go to Vegas for the weekend with Amy and Bernadette. It’s a nice setup that not only lets the characters spend some time away from their significant others, but also gives us that signature Johnny Galecki pout face when Penny doesn’t seem the slightest bit sad that they’re spending time apart; that facial expression, a mix of disappointment and complacency, will always be a reliable punchline.

Of course, once the guys are alone, they can’t focus, and the premise of them consistently getting distracted makes for some great comedic cuts. Particularly, jumping from Raj’s doubt about the ping-pong-playing pigeons, to Raj, Sheldon, and Howard looking at their laptop screen, their heads moving back and forth to the sound of ping-pong balls, is a great visual gag. It’s a moment of crisp editing used to accentuate a ridiculous premise, but the timing makes it funny and memorable. The constant distractions also lead to the episode’s best bit, where the guys argue about the time-traveling intricacies of the Back To The Future films. The interrogation of Biff’s timeline is fascinating, but it’s Sheldon’s continual focus on grammar and tense that elevates the bit. Jim Parsons is at his comedic best when his mouth is firing on all cylinders, overwhelming his friends and the audience with facts, theories and ramblings. The show could have taken this storyline and added some emotional consequences–it briefly touches on how important it is to remain an individual when in a committed relationship–but as it stands, it works like a solid pseudo-bottle episode, confining the guys to a single premise and compounding the ridiculousness with each new scene.

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The storyline shared by Penny, Amy, and Bernadette doesn’t fare as well. While the guys got to mess around with quick dialogue and solid sight gags, the girls’ trip to Vegas feels like an inconsequential B-story. Penny, for this episode alone, is now the ”nerd” of the group, as she finds out that she has to study for her new job instead of joining Amy and Bernadette for a night of puking on roulette wheels and hopping into the thongs of Australian strippers like baby kangaroos. There are a few great moments peppered throughout their weekend–Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch play drunk, raunchy and adorable like no one else–but it’s largely a forgettable series of events that leads to another rote episode tag involving hangovers and sunlight. It’s not that this kind of character development isn’t reliable or good for a few laughs; it’s that we’ve seen this configuration before and it feels stale. We already know that Amy and Bernadette know how to let loose and subvert their nerd persona, and we’ve already established that Penny is a smart, committed worker. Last year, The Big Bang Theory took some chances and put its characters in situations that were unfamiliar, forcing them to adapt and learn; much of this eighth season so far is nowhere near as courageous.

Stray Observations:

  • On the one hand, I’m glad we didn’t get a continuation of the Penny-Emily bickering from last week, but, as I said above, some sense of the show interacting with its past would be nice.
  • I will always laugh at a sight gag that involves oversized margaritas.
  • The way that opening scene built to its payoff–Sheldon reciting all the places he wouldn’t go for the retreat because of the relevant movies he had seen that took place in such locations–was great. This show often does a good job of building jokes up one piece at a time before bringing it all together.
  • I’m pretty appalled that no one would go see the Barry Manilow cover band, Fairly Manilow, with Amy. That sounds great.
  • “So much blood rushed to your genitals that your head became a ghost town.”
  • Howard listing Leonard’s relevant achievements since Penny moved into the building: “A few weeks ago he almost did a pull-up.”
  • Bernadette on the Australian strippers: “We want to see if they twirl their junk in the opposite direction.”
  • “We had some pretty hot corpses in my anatomy class.”

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