november 2009

Big Bang Theory
America has made a hit sitcom out of a series about physicists. From left, Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, Kathy Cuoco and Johnny Galecki.

Laura Fissinger

Close Encounters

In Search of Intelligent Emotional Life:
Some Theories about The Big Bang Theory

by Laura Fissinger

Most of my finest boyfriends so far have been nerds. Most of the women I know have romanced or married a man with some sizable percentage of nerd in him.

Heck, how did Brad Pitt land Angelina Jolie? Remember, this is a woman who willingly wed Billy Bob Thornton, so you have to know it's not all about bone structure or social finesse.

Brad Pitt probably runs about 62 percent nerd. Every single character on the wonderfully weird CBS-TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory rotates near 77 percent nerd, minimum. The majority of human beings, at their unobfuscated core, are probably 59 percent nerd, given the arc of evidence through history. Let's not even get started on the percentage within musicians, though arguing about Bob Dylan could be fun.

Regarding arguing: the 45 (as of October 26) short Theory episode descriptions on the official CBS website draw a hysterically noisy picture. It's immediately clear that the four male lead characters have been arguing with polysyllabic gusto about everything, everyone, and anything, into this, the show's third and most successful season.

It's also obvious that this is a kind of sitcom verite portrait of a geek quartet learning (very slowly) to lead functionally semi-adult emotional lives. The best friendships forming between them force them toward smarter hearts, testing what they're beginning to understand about the human condition. Still more testing comes through the people who move in and out of their days: family members, co-workers, acquaintances, and, yep, romantic partners.

Romance issues create whopping challenges for the friendships, all the time, both among the four male physicists, and between them and the neighbor to two of them, a very lovely and lonely blond named Penny.

Penny is the show's much-needed contender for emotion's honor roll; she's entirely smarter in heart than either she or her neighbors, Sheldon (Emmy nominee Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki, of the stage and Roseanne), realize. (In case anyone has missed it, the two male leads’ names are a tribute to Sheldon Leonard, the late, great TV producer whose resume includes The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and I Spy.) Thanks to experienced television actress Kaley Cuoco (Eight Simple Rules), Penny's inner-life learning curve takes viewers on some very funny rides.

The casting directors for Theory deserve an Emmy of their own. Cuoco projects a king-size, born-with-it funny bone; she also radiates her relational intuition without overplaying the warm woman card. Galecki summons up everything the writers ask of his character, Leonard, which is a whole lot of paradoxical behavior. The first episode I watched with a notepad ("The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary") featured Penny and Leonard taking a lesson in that very adult necessity: talking about sex with one's paramour.

Series creators Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men) and Bill Prady (Gilmore Girls) earn themselves a trophy for diving off a high platform in this scene. Penny gives Leonard a breathless rave for a particular boudoir maneuver de thrill; Leonard, briefly forgetting his terror of defenseless moments, says, "I Googled how to do that."

A lot of women I know would fall face-first in love with a guy able to own up to a Google sex search while stark naked. Leonard's love god potential appears to be taking a jumbo leap forward.

An important plot point: Leonard and Penny have been doing the classic sitcom love dance—trying to get together and trying not to get together—since Theory's earliest episodes. They dance it better than most, spreading the silly from episode to episode at every opportunity.

Sheldon is Leonard's University Physics Lab co-worker as well as roommate. He could be headed for classic sitcom characters' hall of fame. As one of the three in Theory's neighborly triangle, Sheldon fills the "doesn't quite function in normal society" slot, as Kramer on Seinfeld did, according to some Seinfeld aficionados.

Parsons fearlessly exaggerates and re-invents the clichés of TV's pencil-neck geeks. He and the writers give Sheldon a truckload of contradictions, including a minor misanthropic streak paired with major buddy affection for Sheldon, Penny, and lab co-worker buddies Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar).

The Theory cast and scribes have excellent help with the science lab details—Lorre and Prady hired a real live physicist as series consultant. The result sounds unlikely when you say it out loud: America has made a hit sitcom out of a series about physicists.

Hence, one of the delicious little details that make The Big Bang Theory so much fun comes in the episode titles. All of them whip up friendly mockery of real physics terminology and appear to have left-turn connections to episodic stories and subplots.

A sampling: "The Nerdvara Annihilation" (in which we discover that Leonard collects "nerdmobilia"); "The Pork Chop Indeterminacy"; "The Bad Fish Paradigm" (Penny confides to Sheldon that she's scared about having insufficient brain power to interest Leonard); "The Hamburger Postulate"; "The Codpiece Topology" (scientist friend Leslie breaks up with Leonard because he supports Sheldon's String Theory over Leslie's Loop Quantum Gravity); "The Panty Piñata Polarization" (including a subplot about Wolowitz becoming mesmerized by the show America's Next Top Model, subsequently fixating on locating the house where the models live during the season's shoots); "The Friendship Algorithm" (Sheldon starts confronting his dreadful friendship attitudes and skills).

A tip of the hat should go to the writers who take care of the online episode summaries. During the show's half-hours, plot points, subplots and dialogue whip by the viewer at unusually high speeds. They shorthand it all with pithiness.

I tried taking notes a few times. Laughing and writing coherently made for a clunky pairing. From "The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary," I was able to scribble down that Sheldon loves to play a card game named (I think) "Mystic Warlords of Ka-Ha" and is headed for a tournament where actor Wil Wheaton (TV's late Star Trek: The Next Generation) is scheduled to participate. Meanwhile, Howard and Leonard squabble about a long-ago pact—whoever landed a hot girlfriend first would set the other up with one of the companion's hot friends.

Leonard and Penny aren't thrilled at the prospect, but they do the true friend thing, bringing a pal of Penny's to a double date dinner. The blonde looks lovely but insults everyone through filter-free honesty. She also seems to suffer from severe humor impairment. The conversation heads for a crash landing until Blondie and Sheldon discover that they both have mothers who drive them crazy.

They agree to two future dates at least, designed to give unto their mamas as their mamas have given unto them. For one, he'll go to her house for Sunday dinner wearing a yamacha. For the other, she'll go to Shabbat dinner at his house wearing her great big Christian cross.

Penny and Leonard watch, bemused and pleased. Once again, in their own knotty ways, nerd emotions have managed to emerge and make a connection.

No bang for Sheldon and Cross Girl yet, but things between Sheldon, Leonard and Penny have passed another quiz in heart smarts. The friendships have taken one more small step forward. Meanwhile, The Big Bang Theory keeps airing episodes more intelligent in head and heart alike. 

Big Bang Theory

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