When I look back on the episode’s of The Big Bang Theory that I’ve enjoyed, that I think represent the best version of this often spotty show, there’s something that most of them have in common: narrative economy bolstered by a focus on either one or two storylines. By streamlining the stories, the show gives the characters room to work with each other, to really stretch out (in a good way) the emotional and comedic beats. This formula works because these characters work better as people, with feelings and insecurities and moments of triumph, than as punchline machines. Thus, an episode like “The Fortification Implementation,” which tries to juggle three separate storylines, and fails to connect them thematically in any meaningful way, ends up falling flat.
Three storylines is a lot for any 22-minute sitcom episode to balance. When you add in the fact that this episode reveals that Howard has a long lost half-brother, dives into a deeply-rooted argument about finances between Leonard and Penny, works in a cameo from Kevin Smith, and contains Sheldon and Amy’s very first boy-girl sleepover, there’s just no way to explore every story in a meaningful way. The result is an episode that feels haphazardly structured and terribly rushed, meaning that the moments where the characters should be evolving are passed over with little attention paid to providing nuance or insight.
For what it’s worth, the storyline that sees Sheldon and Amy building a fort together on date night, doing what they can to counteract the years of neglect they suffered as kids–and Sheldon in particular still suffers as an adult–works without any added nuance. It’s a lighthearted story about these two outcasts continuing to build a life together, who manage to find solace in another person, which is monumental for these two characters. They’ve spent most of their lives at a distance from other people, and even if they still hold grudges, or exhibit behaviors that suggest they don’t fully trust other people, they can at least rely on each other. Admittedly, the story begins on rocky ground, with Sheldon complaining about not getting an invite to a colleague’s dinner party and the writers working in a horrid joke about pouting and moodiness as tied to “uterus stuff.” Thankfully, much of that is tossed aside as the story boils down to simply Amy and Sheldon bonding. It’s at turns funny and heartwarming, which is more than can be said for the other two plots here.
On paper, the other two storylines aren’t bad; they have the ingredients to make for a solid episode of The Big Bang Theory, with Howard learning that he has a half-brother, which adds to the mystery of his absent father, and Leonard and Penny discussing how careers and finances can shape and alter a relationship over time. The building blocks are there, but they’re crammed up against one another; nothing can be built up, and the result is a narrative mess.
After arguing with Bernadette about how they’re going to remodel his mother’s home, with Raj of course there to put in his two cents, Howard answers a knock at the door, revealing a half-brother that he never knew about. For a man who’s just lost his mother and doesn’t know anything about his father, this should be a big moment. Instead, the reveal of the half-brother is used as mere joke fodder, never once providing any dramatic tension or consequence. After initially freaking out about having this new brother in his life, Howard warms up to him as his brother starts to ask him questions, becoming more and more impressed by Howard as the night progresses. If I were being generous, I’d view this behavior as a coping mechanism for Howard, as he needs to build up his self-esteem after losing the person in his life that most consistently doted on him. That’s not how the show presents this though, instead treating the reveal of the half-brother, and Howard’s reaction to him, as inconsequential. The surprise encounter is played for laughs–there are a couple of stale jokes at Howard’s expense, including one about his inability to throw baseballs and another about how boring his magic is–which feels like a complete misstep. This should be a significant moment for Howard and his half-brother (and Bernadette and Raj, even), but instead the show chooses to haphazardly toss out some unoriginal jokes and “awkward” scenarios before sending the half-brother off into an unforeseeable future.
Similar problems plague the fight that anchors the Leonard and Penny storyline. Penny is appearing on Wil Wheaton’s podcast to discuss the terribly titled Serial Apist 2: Monkey See, Monkey Kill, the movie the two shot together. When Kevin Smith calls into the show to talk about the movie, and to offer Penny an audition for his fresh, completely different new film called Clerks 3, Penny jumps at the chance, which leads to Leonard worrying about her leaving her new job. He says he’s protecting her after having seen her disappointed at a number of auditions–which is ridiculous because if he’s a huge Smith fan, which he admits to being, then he’d be thrilled that Penny might land the role–but that logic rings false. Penny and Leonard start arguing about supporting each other’s careers, with Leonard learning that Penny makes twice as much money as he does.
The storyline branches off in so many different directions, raising a number of questions about their relationship and the way they interact with one another, that it’s impossible to get a grasp on what they’re really arguing about. Meaningful points of discussion, like where their finances are coming from, how they’re investing their money, and what each of them wants for their future, are passed over in a hurry, with Wheaton only there to occasionally chime in with an annoying aside for “the listeners at home” or “the listeners who are just joining us.”
This is The Big Bang Theory at its most unfocused, presenting a jumbled mess of ideas and sitcom tropes that manage to obscure the potentially fruitful moments of character growth and insight hidden underneath.
- To admit a bit of bias, I’ve never been able to stomach Wil Wheaton’s guest turns. His character feels completely out of place and hardly ever adds anything to a given episode.
- Amy tried to fit in with everyone in grade school when they were all getting lice. She sprinkled sugar in her hair to get that lice-like effect, but it had terrible consequences: “I just got attacked by bees.”
- Sheldon is all about the literal, adorable fort names, calling the one he and Amy build Fort Cozy McBlanket.
- To be clear, it’s gif with a hard “g.”
- The “happy Sheldon photo” was one of the better laughs of the night. The interplay between Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik is one of the show’s more consistent highlights.