Thursday, May 19, 2011

"The Big Bang Theory" Finale: And Then There Was Raj

Kaley Cuoco, Jim Parsons and Kunal Nayyar in "The Roomate Transmogrification." Photo courtesy of toomuchtotivo.com.

I have to admit, for most of this season I felt that The Big Bang Theory was in a serious slump. The premise was growing stale, Jim Parson's Sheldon, while still entertaining, was even more one-note than before, and Kunal Nayyar's Raj was too often sidelined as a result of a new focus on Howard (Simon Helberg) and his girlfriend, Bernadette (Melissa Rauch). I don't know if the season finale necessarily turned the show around - after all, there is every chance that these problems will come back full force next season - but tonight's episode was a return to form. Tightly plotted and full of laughs, the episode had its flaws, but overall it was an entertaining throwback to the first or second season. (Warning: SPOILERS ahead for those who haven't yet seen "The Roommate Transmogrification.")

There were a few moments in the episode that didn't click for me, and I want to get them out of the way so I can get to the good stuff. The biggest problem I had with the episode - and a problem I've had with the season in general - is the way that Sheldon's character has somehow become even more neurotic and socially inept than he was originally. While there were moments in the episode that featured typical Sheldon humor without going over the top, like his jokes about Leonard's flatulence in the opening Cheesecake Factory scene, much of the story reduced him to the one-note awkward scientist who hasn't changed since the first season. The roommate paperwork he gave to Raj in particular was a joke that has been repeated ad nauseam, and while Parson's delivery still earned a few chuckles, the joke has worn a little thin.

I understand why the show chooses to showcase Parsons - he's an extremely talented comic actor, and Sheldon is the show's breakout character - but I wish they would give the character something more to do than just be neurotic and socially incompetent. Parsons is a great comic talent, but he's also capable of much more range, as the rave reviews he's earning in the Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart demonstrate. Obviously, The Big Bang Theory is a broad comedy, and there isn't a lot of room in the episodic sitcom format for serious character development; however, Parsons is a talented enough actor that the writers could give him a little more to do without upsetting the balance of the show.

The problems I had with the Sheldon storyline, however, didn't detract from the episode as a whole. There were some great, laugh-out-loud funny moments that were grounded by some good plot threads. One of my favorite scenes the scene where Raj, having taken off his noise-canceling headphones to get a snack, overhears Leonard and Priya (Aarti Mann) having extremely nerdy, Star Trek-themed sex. Hearing Leonard and Priya's banter through the door was hilarious, and Nayyar's reactions completely sold the scene. I've always been a big Kunal Nayyar fan, and one of my favorite things about this episode was his central role.

Of course, a discussion of Raj's role in the finale wouldn't be complete without his surely buzz-inducing hookup with Penny. Kunal Nayyar and Kaley Cuoco are my two favorite actors from the show, and even though I could see their hookup coming from a mile away, they have such great chemistry and comic timing that it didn't matter. I particularly liked the moment when Penny, having woken up in bed with Raj, first sees his hand, then follows his arm with her eyes until she reaches his face. The moment went on for a long time, but not too long, and Cuoco's dawning expression of dismay was priceless.

While one pair hooked up, two other couples were falling apart. Leonard, who was bothered that Priya refused to tell her parents about him, got a shock when he found out that she was planning on moving back to India in a month. Raj was feeling threatened because Bernadette had just received her doctorate and had been offered a high-paying job at a pharmaceutical company, thus making her both the more educated and higher-earning half of the couple. Neither of these plot threads were particularly groundbreaking, but they were played well by Johnny Galecki, Mann, Helberg and Rauch. The Leonard/Priya story in particular was compelling because Leonard is really the audience's stand-in; he may be smart and geeky, but he's the character, even more so than Penny, who really stand back from the group and comments on their social awkwardness. (Of course, it's possible that Penny is the real audience stand-in, and that I identify with Leonard because I'm also a geek, and I have my socially awkward moments.)

The Big Bang Theory will never be a groundbreaking show in the way that Community or 30 Rock can be (although the latter's better days are behind it). It is generally, however, a solid half-hour of laughs that, in episodes like this, is well put-together and streamlined, and it has a cast of excellent comic actors. The show can't attain the insane heights of a "Modern Warfare" or "MILF Island," but when it's good, there isn't a more consistent comedy on TV. Let's hope that the show uses the momentum from this episode to bring season 5 back up to the level of the first two seasons.

A few random notes that didn't come up in the review:

  • The moment when Penny confessed to Raj that she made a mistake in dumping Leonard was sweet, and filled with the kind of sentiment that doesn't usually come up on this show. Props to Kaley Cuoco for making the moment seem organic.
  • The writers are clearly trying to start season 5 with a clean slate, but I really hope that Leonard's relationship doesn't crash and burn. I don't always like Priya, but Johnny Galecki brings such identifiable sadness to his character that it hurts when he's unhappy.
  • Bernadette giving Howard a Rolex was funny; her comment, "I just want my baby to have pretty things" seemed forced.
  • Speaking of Howard, any character progress made by his unseen mother in last week's episode was negated by her lewd come-ons to Raj.
  • Penny's reaction when she realized that Raj couldn't talk to her even after sleeping with her was great.
  • Loved that while Penny and Raj were drinking wine, Sheldon was drinking filtered water.
  • The moment when Leonard shuts the computer on Priya's parents was really funny in an understated way.

1 comment:

  1. "Is that my daughter-in-law the doctor?!" Heee.

    "Soooo, is it hot in India?"

    "Of course it is. It always is. It's India!" - Priya/Raj's dad's delivery of that line killed me for some reason.

    Shelden massaging himself? Oh so easy, but oh so hilarious.

    I thought the "you're not a doctor" jokes went on too long, but otherwise, fun, solid, hilarious ep. I love that about Big Bang; it makes me smile, consistently, and text quotes to my mom. Nothing groundbreaking. Just solid and funny.

    However, I disagree. Gooooodbye, Priya. And not because I'm a Penny/Leonard shipper. (You know I hold a weirdy little candle for Penny/Sheldon, and increasingly, Penny/Amy "hey, bestie.") I'm just done with Priya, and she kinda looks down on all of our beloved characters (the boys/Amy for their nerdiness, Penny for being a struggling actress from the midwest). And hers isn't the socially awkward disdain that Sheldon has. It's more snobbish, and no me gusta. Bye bye Priya. PLEASE go back to India.

    That said, I love that it's not just the boys' club anymore. I think the best moments still come from the boys and Penny, but I love when Penny/Amy/Bernie have their side adventures, or mock the men in their lives.

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