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The Big Bang Theory: "The Maternal Congruence"

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"The Maternal Congruence" is just an odd episode of The Big Bang Theory on a lot of levels. The structure of it is all over the place, as if the show that's usually content to inflate sketches into stories on a weekly basis suddenly started to try to tell a bunch of different stories at once. The character relationships are solid, but there's also a sense that some things are happening just because the writers need them to happen to further the story along. And to top it all off, I'm not a huge fan of Christine Baranski's Beverly Hofstadter, whose character is funny but often seems dropped in from some other series. I realize that this places me at odds with much of the Big Bang fandom, but I wasn't a huge fan of her appearance in season two, and I wasn't a huge fan of her appearance here.

This might be because Baranski is a very broad, theatrical actress, and that kind of cuts against the tone of the show, which can be broad but is rarely as far over-the-top as she likes to go. That tone can work on a show like, say, Cybill (where she won a number of Emmys and also worked with Chuck Lorre), but the rest of the performances on this show are far more naturalistic by the standards of the genre. Jim Parsons' work can go over the top, but never so far that it doesn't seem like it's occurring in a universe that's only a few steps removed from our own. Baranski, on the other hand, is so fond of just going all the way up and over that she kind of suffocates many of the scenes she's in.

The biggest exemplar of what didn't quite work in this episode was that scene with Penny and Beverly in the bar. The two went there after Penny confessed that she was dating Leonard, and Beverly made a few clipped jokes about the fact. Baranski plays the under-wraps side of Beverly fairly well, and Kaley Cuoco's fun bouncing off of her. Naturally, Penny decided to take Beverly to the bar so they could loosen up and bond or something like that, but at the bar, the two very, very quickly got drunk on shots. I kept waiting for the scene to go somewhere other than "uptight woman and party girl get wasted," but all that happened was the two got drunker and drunker (somewhat unrealistically quickly), while talking more and more about Leonard (and a busboy Beverly developed a sudden infatuation for). All of this might have worked if it were funnier, but it just wasn't, mostly kind of sitting there as the actresses tried to sell it a little too hard.

I get why people like Beverly and why the writers like bringing her in to mix things up. Unlike Sheldon's mother, Beverly is also a learned woman (a psychiatrist), and her insights into the gang tend to create ways to undercut them. She also gets along great with Sheldon, and any scene Parsons and Baranski shared was one of the best in this episode. The problem with most of Beverly's insights is that they aren't terribly deep and are, indeed, the sorts of things that the show has already made fun of. The latent homosexual attraction between Raj and Howard? We've been there before. Penny's got father issues? There, too. So while that material never quite took over the episode or anything, it also wasn't as clever as it might have been.

This meant that the bulk of the episode ended up being about two fairly separate things that seemed connected but weren't as closely related as it might have seemed. Leonard wanted a better relationship with his mother. He also wants to build some sort of relationship between her and Penny. As it turns out, Beverly's been withholding lots of information from Leonard, some of which she's been telling Sheldon. She was in the hospital, for instance, and Sheldon's been helping her by giving notes on a paper she wrote. Oh, and she's getting divorced, which, of course, distresses Leonard the most. The "one parent comes to town to tell their kid they're divorcing the other parent" feels like something I've seen a number of times on shows like this, and maybe because we don't really know all that much about Leonard's dad, the impact of it on the character - and the impressively uncharacteristic attempt to reach out to him by Sheldon - felt weirdly muted.

This is too bad, too, because the beginning of the episode was pretty strong. Having Sheldon empathize with all of the wrong characters in Christmas specials was a promising idea, and the show has had a lot of very good moments when it taps into a sense of strained Christmas cheer. (Sheldon possessing the DNA of Leonard Nimoy remains the series' high point for many.) And there were quite a few laughs scattered throughout the episode, even as there were just as many curious dead spots. The Big Bang Theory isn't a show I watch to laugh constantly, but, unfortunately, I was barely laughing at much of anything in this one.

There are only so many plots that a show can pull out for the annual Christmas episode. You've got the, "Everyone's snowed in" plot or the "someone has to work on Christmas" plot or the "everything goes wrong getting ready for the big meal" plot. Or you have assorted really saccharine plots like one of the characters meeting an orphan or the real Santa Claus or something. But the plot that seems to pop up the most often this time of year is that a family member comes to town, and it either leads to a new appreciation of the wonder of family or a new appreciation of just how much the characters don't like their extended family. "The Maternal Congruence" is definitely in that latter camp, and while I admire a lot of the show's attempts to do this story with an icily cynical edge, too much of it just didn't work for me.

Stray observations:

  • I suppose what everyone will want to talk about was how Beverly gave Sheldon a kiss and what that means for his character's purported asexuality or whatever. I don't think that it somehow suggests he's capable of holding a romantic relationship or anything (as a few of you were arguing on my Twitter feed), but I will admit that it was a fairly funny comic set piece, even if it was a little too easy to see it coming. I'd almost rather the show kept that particular arrow in its quiver for a little while longer, only unleashing it after a few more seasons of back and forth.
  • All the talk of going to Del Taco when drunk put me in mind of this.
  • "I was really with him up until the point that he succumbed to social convention and returned the presents and saved Christmas."
  • "I am a bit distressed to be in a vehicle that's not subjected to regular maintenance."
  • "That's the natural reaction of the limbic system to being betrayed by a loathsome son of a bitch."
  • "The Germans have always been a comforting people."
  • "I'm getting a warm feeling spreading through my heart." "That's the Del Taco."