The eighth season of The Big Bang Theory opens with Sheldon Cooper roaming a train station in his underwear, asking for assistance from people that assume he’s mentally ill because of his pants-less situation. This is what Jim Parsons has to do to make $1 million per episode, and that’s hard to comprehend for people with just a passing familiarity with this series. Hell, it’s not that easy to comprehend for people that watch the show regularly.
Big Bang Theory is a relic of a former age. One where three-camera sitcoms still dominated network comedy and actors on successful TV shows were able to negotiate their contracts into seven figures. The series feels increasingly dated with each new season. Episodes put the slightest of twists on the most conventional sitcom plots, and the jokes are simple, blunt, and probably similar to something you’ve heard before. Boundaries aren’t pushed, stereotypes are embraced, and the cast makes loads of money as they wade through their unoriginal scripts.
This all sounds like negative criticism, but Big Bang’s traditional approach to sitcom television has its charms. The actors have developed very strong chemistry over the past seven seasons, and they’ve done particularly impressive work bringing depth to the character relationships that isn’t always there in the scripts. When the scripts find that emotional substance, the show can be genuinely touching. There were few moments on TV last season that were as heartwarming as Howard’s song to Bernadette, which encapsulated all the love and compassion that has developed within this ensemble over the series’ run.
Last season saw the show reaching multiple high points as it started moving characters out of their comfort zones: Amy and Sheldon’s relationship became something resembling boyfriend and girlfriend, Penny and Leonard’s relationship became something that could feasibly transition into a marriage, and Raj started dating now that he could finally talk to women. Not much changed with Howard and Bernadette, except for the rise of Simon Helberg and Melissa Rauch as the show’s most valuable players, but there’s definitely a baby on the horizon given the hints dropped last season.
The world is changing, and that’s why Sheldon ran away at the end of “The Status Quo Combustion.” He’d rather ride the rails across America than stay in a home that is becoming less familiar with each day. You may wonder why a man who doesn’t like new environments would choose to ride cross-country trains for 45 days, but Sheldon doesn’t explore any of the locales he visits. He goes as far as the train station, a comforting place that may change aesthetically from town to town, but always has the same purpose.
Sheldon remains one of this show’s most problematic elements, and when the writers up his asshole quotient, he becomes a chore to watch. “The Locomotion Interruption” features Sheldon at his jerkiest, particularly when Amy shows up with Leonard to pick him up from an Arizona police station. As expected, Sheldon has no empathy for Amy when she expresses her sadness that he abandoned her without warning for a summer and then called Leonard for help instead of her, and it’s especially unsettling how the writers attempt to justify his behavior. On the car ride back, Sheldon reveals that he wants to have coitus with Amy, and the laugh track applauds and hollers as if to suggest that’s a totally reasonable course of thinking.
Is Sheldon being insensitive because he’s nervous about having sex? That’s a pretty shitty reason to disregard another person’s feelings, especially when you’re planning on engaging in an activity that is a serious physical and emotional connection between two people. When Amy tries to psychoanalyze Sheldon and tells him that she’s OK with him not being perfect, he takes it as an insult and immediately changes his mind regarding the coitus, punishing his girlfriend for trying to comfort him. They have an extremely unhealthy relationship, and frankly I hope Amy never sleeps with Sheldon. He’s extremely emotionally manipulative and a complete egomaniac, and it’s unlikely that sexual activity will make him any less so. He’s not aware of and doesn’t care how the next stage of physical intimacy will impact his girlfriend, and at this point, Amy has proven herself as someone too good to put up with Sheldon’s shit.
Sheldon continuous to be an insufferable jerk in “The Junior Professor Solution,” which sees him begrudgingly taking on a junior professor position at his university so that he can continue his studies on dark matter. He has no interest in babysitting grad students, which works out great because Sheldon’s reputation as an obnoxious blowhard prevents anyone from taking his class. Howard takes pity on his friend and decides to enroll, but Sheldon’s raging ego forces him to turn his classroom into an intellectual battlefield where he can prove his intellectual superiority over Howard. It’s returning to a rivalry we’ve seen quite a few times before on this show, and episodes pitting Howard versus Sheldon always end up working in Howard’s favor, showing how much more likable he is as a character.
Despite some significant status quo changes, the world of The Big Bang Theory doesn’t feel like its changed much at all since last season, with one exception: Penny. She’s rocking a “cool mom” haircut and gets a new job working as a pharmaceuticals salesperson for Bernadette’s company, marking a major step up in her maturity level. Well, maybe not quite major. She completely bombs her interview with Bernadette’s supervisor (played by the always-welcome Stephen Root), but she ends up getting the job because they bond over their mutual fear of the adorable little blonde. I love the ongoing joke that Bernadette is a terrifying person underneath that cute candy shell, and Melissa Rauch clearly delights in those moments when she gets to let loose and put Bernadette in attack mode.
I’ve long been an advocate for spending more time with this show’s female cast, and all three women share a subplot in “The Junior Professor Solution.” Penny’s laziness has put a wedge in her relationship with Bernadette because she’s not taking the time to look over the preparation materials for her new job, and both women seek out Amy for friendship while they feud. This puts Amy in the position of power she’s wanted since high school, and she thrives on the control. There’s a mania to Mayim Bialik’s performance in this episode that is very fun to watch, and building up that excitement makes it even more entertaining when Amy’s authority is taken away by Bernadette and Penny’s reconciliation.
There’s some valuable character work done in these episodes, but by and large, it’s more of the same from The Big Bang Theory, a strategy that has worked out pretty damn well for the cast and creators. A lot of the jokes are tired and the plotlines are standard sitcom material, but if it’s worked for seven seasons, why switch it up now? The problem is that the longer the formula is in action, the lazier the show becomes, as evidenced by the tag at the end of “The Junior Professor Solution.” It’s literally a scene showing the four central nerds sitting in a circle with reference books and asking each other questions, because that’s something smart people do for fun. The men lament why they weren’t more popular in high school. End scene. It’s pretty much the most clichéd way to end this show’s eighth season opener, but with the show safe for at least two more seasons, there’s no motivation for the writing staff to try harder.
- This week marks the end of T.V. Club’s regular Big Bang Theory coverage. Thanks so much for reading and giving this show the benefit of the doubt given it’s less than favorable reputation.
- Between Stephen Root and Regina King, Big Bang Theory is assembling a pretty great supporting cast for this season. I wouldn’t mind seeing a lot more of their characters.
- The Stuart and Debbie plot actually works really well for me. It’s a better use of Howard’s mother than making her the primary source of fat jokes, and I like how it adds another twist in the Oedipal relationship between Howard and his mom.
- Howard has Raj’s blessing to have sex with Raj’s mother. Their relationship is strange.
- “You are built for pharmaceutical sales. You’re cute, you’re flirty—started out like there were gonna be three things.”
- “Like our lawyers say: the world is full of things that could cause a rectum to bleed.”
- “Don’t talk to her like that! That is my mother—uh m-my wife!”
- “Usually when someone is being talked about behind their back, it’s me and it’s right in front of my face.”
- “It’s taken 15 years, but high school is finally awesome!”
- “I am trying to find a way to intellectually emasculate a very dear friend of mine.”