Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons

Last week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory brought a renewed focus to the season. After a couple of rigid, cynical, out-of-character episodes defined by forced emotional tension and contrived character relationships, “The Misinterpretation Agitation” shifted the course of this season by adding a bit of cultural criticism and finding the natural tone and feel of the characters that the show has spent eight seasons building. This week’s episode, which sees the group attempting to have an adult prom night, has a similar feel. It’s funny, charming, and earns its emotional moments.

The central cast is the driving force of the show at this point; they have such strong chemistry, and well-established character traits and patterns, that anytime the storylines branch out to include some of its minor (or pseudo-minor) characters, it only serves to highlight how well Galecki, Cuoco, Parsons, and company understand what makes this show tick. They understand how to convey heart and humor all at once, and how to hit the comedic beats that are unique to Sheldon, Leonard, Amy, or whoever.

“The Prom Equivalency” builds around the idea that the group needs a prom do-over. Amy and Bernadette in particular want to throw a rooftop dance for the group. Back in their high school days, each of them had horrible prom night experiences. Bernadette was saddled with a date that was in love with her best friend, and Amy danced to “The Lady in Red” with a mop. The idea of organizing a Prom 2.0 is the kind of premise that could be disastrous, a mess of clichés and snippy remarks, but The Big Bang Theory mostly sidesteps such pitfalls and gives us an episode that engages with ideas of peer pressure, social routines, and how media can influence our actions.

The Big Bang Theory has always peddled too readily exploited certain areas of pop culture for easy punchlines. Every now and then though, the show gets at something deeper, and “The Prom Equivalency” manages to find a bit of emotional depth. Specifically, this episode explores how a whole generation of people raised on (and, in some cases, by) television filter their emotions and social interactions through the lens of pop culture. When Raj is presented with the idea of attending the prom, his initial thoughts are about American media. He says he’s wanted to go to an American prom ever since he saw Pretty In Pink…then he saw Carrie and didn’t want to go to an American prom. When Sheldon learns that sex is a presumed part of a prom night, he begins to panic. The social conventions presumed, and the actions taken, by the guys (and, sometimes, gals) on this show are all gleaned from the pop culture they’ve consumed. They’re unable to process their own emotions–not to mention the reactions of those around them–without relating them to a piece of popular media. Last year, when Sheldon had to deal with the death of his childhood hero, he could only process the feelings of grief and abandonment by having a Star Wars-inspired dream. Such character depth, and such insight into the influence of pop culture on our lives, bolsters The Big Bang Theory with an emotional resonance.

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The best parts of “The Prom Equivalency” contained such an emotional resonance. In particular, Leonard and Penny were given a lot of time alone, and the storyline was able to pull a few heartstrings. The reward was in how the show achieved such resonancy through small moments, not easy manipulation. When Leonard, while slow dancing, thanks Penny for wearing her flats, and she lightehartedly thanks him for wearing his heels, it’s not a nasty jab. It’s the type of heartfelt teasing that comes from a sense of intimacy in a relationship. Penny is riffing on Leonard’s insecurities, but also letting him know how much she loves everything about him. Eight seasons in, such an emotinal, honest, organic moment feels earned.

The same can be said for that climactic scene between Sheldon and Amy. As Amy dances around the idea of telling Sheldon that she loves him, already imagining his excuses for not saying it back, he says, “I love you too.” It’s predictable, but boy if I didn’t get me a bit misty. Again, this show has eight seasons of character development behind it, so this moment feels earned. And not just for the audience; Amy earned it too. Her passion, understanding, quick-wit, and empathy has made her into one of the show’s most consistent highlights, and it’s wonderful to see her get something she’s been longing for.

The rest of the episode barely deserves mentioning because it’s the kind of halfhearted, unfunny narrative The Big Bang Theory settles into all too often. Up above, I mentioned how the core cast is the strength of this show. That’s made all the more obvious by the inclusion of Stuart and Emily. Emily has a certain edge to her, a bit of a sadistic side, but there’s no real explanation as to why. Her character is absurd for absurdity’s sake. Then there’s Stuart, who’s become unbearable this season. Whereas he used to be the lovably lonely comic book store owner, and a nice reminder of how passion projects are hard to pursue in 2014 America, he’s now a one-note punchline, and consistently mean-spirited. The culminating limo scene, where Stuart and Howard fight about Stuart’s relationship with Howard’s mother and cousin, is painful in its execution because it all feels so pointless, and so contrived. Whereas the struggles and triumphs of Leonard and Penny, and Sheldon and Amy, feel like natural extensions of their characters, the limo scene feels like a screwball comedy gone wrong, a scene meant to get laughs from stale jokes about Oedipal relations. It’s hollow, unfunny stuff, and only serves to highlight how The Big Bang Theory delivers its finest, most insightful moments when its focusing strictly on its main cast of characters.

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Stray observations:

  • Seriously, Mayim Bialik is doing wonderful work. Like Jim Parsons, she’s taken a potentially one-note character and added countless layers.
  • “Sorry kid, you’ve got it worse than a Gibbon.”
  • “I meant “why are they folded?”, but whatever.”
  • “Pretending to be an alien is a valuable coping mechanism.”
  • I really hope Amy recovers from her panic attack and gets to slowdance with someone who has arms.

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