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The Big Bang Theory: "The Occupation Recalibration"

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It’s always easy to tell when the writers of The Big Bang Theory phone in an episode because the rhythm is always a little more sluggish than usual, with more dead air between the lines as the laugh track is put into overdrive. That’s the case with this week’s episode, which has some fairly high stakes but doesn’t quite justify them in the script’s execution. Leonard and Penny are trying to figure out how to repair their relationship while Amy is faced with a potential new love interest at work, but the stories ultimately fail to fully explore the emotional depth of the characters and their situations. With a tacked-on C-plot pairing Bernadette with Stuart on a journey to a hip rival comic shop, “The Occupation Recalibration” firmly plants itself in mediocrity, no matter how hard the ensemble tries to make it work. 


Maybe it’s because it’s been a great week for TV comedy, but the beats of tonight’s episode feel especially stunted and not at all like the finely tuned chemistry this group has showcased in more recent episodes. The line deliveries are blunter than usual (and this show isn’t known for it’s delicate touch) and the jokes are broader, ultimately making everything less funny. Last week’s episode did such a good job juggling comedy and drama that the flaws in tonight’s script come through even stronger, particularly in Leonard and Penny’s conflict. Leonard’s most pressing concern of being broken up with is addressed at the very start of the episode, when Penny apologizes for being a drunk mess and tells him that he did the right thing in turning down her proposal—but then a new obstacle appears when she reveals that she’s quit her job at The Cheesecake Factory to fully devote herself to acting.

I’d be more forgiving of the Penny/Leonard situation if the writers addressed why Leonard thought her quitting was a bad idea, rather than making the story about how angry he is that she quit without talking to him about it. Penny doesn’t yet understand that without her job she won’t have money to keep living in L.A., and if she moves back home she’s definitely not going to get the acting career she wants or her boyfriend. Penny needs to have things put in perspective, but instead Leonard reacts with disappointment that she would make such a big decision without considering him—and then decides that he should just act supportive to avoid any future conflict. It’s a bad strategy that blows up in his face, and it only gets worse once Sheldon decides to butt in.

Sheldon has nothing to do this week. It sounds like a criticism, but that’s actually a description of his storyline. The university has forced him to use his vacation days, so he’s going crazy in the apartment while Leonard is dealing with his personal crisis. There’s a recurring joke that Sheldon is essentially the group’s dog when he’s not using his brain, but it really doesn’t make much sense for Sheldon’s dominating personality to act so submissive just because he’s stuck at home. There are some nice scenes between Penny and Sheldon when he decides to back up her decision to quit, but Sheldon turns into his usual selfish self once Leonard and Penny’s fight moves into the apartment and he decides to make the argument all about how this will affect his future. Sheldon was making so much progress, but all it takes is one scene to send him back into insufferable mode. Ultimately, Leonard ends up conceding and telling Penny that he’s proud of her decision, but after the earlier scene where he revealed that he’s been practicing that exact response, the truthfulness of his words is in question.

During this year’s Christmas dinner, my 13-year-old cousin told me that one of his friends said The Big Bang Theory was “nerd blackface,” a harsh accusation that is pretty hard to dispute. (“Nerd minstrely” would probably be more appropriate, but you know those crazy kids). I know a significant portion of the nerd community doesn’t like this show, but I’d never heard the criticism put in such blunt terms. This week’s episode actually provides a glimpse at a more contemporary, trendy interpretation of the nerd identity when Bernadette and Stuart go to a popular comic shop that serves coffee and scones, but even that place is depicted as a den of elitism run by a total asshole.


The majority of the time spent on this week’s two subplots is devoted to jokes told at the expense of chronically depressed comic-shop owner Stuart and Bert (Brian Posehn), Amy’s socially awkward, physically imposing coworker with a crush. These are not flattering portrayals of nerds or even just smart people, and the show’s quality tends to dip when it goes for offense without presenting any sort of redeeming qualities to balance out the bad stuff. These storylines aren’t complete failures, as they provide some insight into Amy and Bernadette’s characters—but this show is far better when it shows a bit more sympathy instead of going for the most obvious laughs.

Stray observations:

  • That mean Comic Book Guy is not a good actor.
  • I’m not well versed enough in Friends to notice the plot similarities that NameTBD pointed out in the comments last week, but I’m very appreciative of the info. Was this episode also a big ole rip-off?
  • Drinking a milkshake through your genitals may prevent brain freeze, but it’s probably not worth it in the end.
  • “He’s always saying I should be more careful with my curling iron and it seems like a dangerous precedent to let him think he can be right.”
  • “He’s not like us, Penny. We’re dreamers.” I like the idea that Sheldon ultimately feels a profound connection to Penny because of a shared mental quality.

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