Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Terribly Average, It Is Only The Diction That Drives Up The Big Bang Theory Season 3!

The Good: Vocabulary, Some nice character aspects, Decent use of guest characters
The Bad: No superlative acting, Largely not funny, Predictable
The Basics: While The Big Bang Theory may have started fresh and different, by its third season, the show is remarkably predictable and almost stale.

I'm not sure what the curve is on a new blog - i.e. how long before people usually discover a new blog and decide to "follow" it - but I've been happily moving my reviews to my new blog for two months now (as well as writing some brand spankin' new reviews to keep my old readers interested!), but so far I only have a few followers and I am hoping November is a growth month for me as far as followers and sales through the Amazon links I associate with each of the reviews I write (please feel free to click and buy when a review strikes you!). Regardless, some of my loyal readers noted that last week, I had a bit of a sabbatical. That was because I went with my wife on vacation to her native Michigan. While that might not seem relevant, there is actually a point to this. While we were in Michigan, I started out quite happy because the day we left, my local library managed to get in the third season of The Big Bang Theory on DVD. My wife and I had watched season one (review here!) and season two (reviewed here!) earlier this year and were quite excited about the third season DVD set and when we had evenings free in Michigan, we sat down and started watching this season.

The best way I can describe how unsatisfying the third season of The Big Bang Theory is is this: my wife and I periodically stopped watching this season to watch the third season of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which we had bought before for the friend we were staying with. And my wife, she fell asleep during at least two episodes (granted this would have been around one or two a.m. after a lot of drinking and a few episodes) and she did not want to go back to them to see what she missed. I can't blame her; the third season of The Big Bang Theory is not nearly as fresh as the earlier seasons and she didn't miss much.

Picking up three months after the second season finale, with the men of The Big Bang Theory returning from their arctic adventure together, the third season of The Big Bang Theory is predominately preoccupied with the new relationship between Leonard and Penny, along with Sheldon's continual inability to get along with any of his colleagues and friends. And while the show continues its tradition of presenting characters who use a remarkably extensive vocabulary, the plots seem more pedestrian and "done," the jokes fall flatter more often and the overall arc of the season is less satisfying than in prior seasons.

When Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard return from the arctic bearded and Leonard instantly runs for Penny's apartment. As it turns out, she has been waiting eagerly for him and the two soon hook up and things seem to be going well for Leonard. Episodes then follow with remarkable predictability as Leonard and Penny have their first fight, Penny has buff male friends over who watch football with her and she gets jealous. As Sheldon competes for Leonard's attention, he finds classic conditioning works perfectly on Penny, though Leonard soon sees through his scheme. Leonard is appalled when Howard comes to him and makes him honor a promise from long ago wherein Leonard has to ask Penny to hook Howard up with one of her hot friends. This leads Howard to start dating Bernadette and the two of them have their ups and downs, which allows Penny and Leonard to play off them and for Raj to express his feelings of abandonment.

Raj is threatened with deportation and Sheldon, of all people, comes to his aid by offering Raj the opportunity to come work for him. But even as Sheldon takes solace in a friendship with Leonard's mother, he is cursed by Wil Wheaton, who Sheldon attempts to exact revenge upon during a card game. And while Leonard is away, Penny slips in her tub and dislocates her shoulder. This forces Sheldon to drive her to the hospital, a regrettable act which has consequences on the day Stan Lee comes to visit the local comic book shop! And even as Leonard and Penny overcome many obstacles, their unlikely coupling is threatened by old jealousies which turn their relationship in a surprisingly predictable direction.

Chuck Lorre's arguable masterpiece, The Big Bang Theory grabbed the attention of geeks like me by offering a sitcom that was smart and different, but the third season of the show suggests that it has jumped the shark. The series does not challenge the audience and it seldom takes real advantage of the guest stars. So, for example, Stan Lee's appearance is truncated to a single scene, making for a much less funny scene with Sheldon in jail. The exception to this misuse of guest cast - the usually great Christine Baranski's return is a surprisingly blase episode focused around Leonard's not telling his mother that he and Penny are dating - is Wil Wheaton. Wheaton has the opportunity to step out of his nice guy persona - a guise he maintains exceptionally well at conventions, as once several years ago my table was next to his and I had the opportunity to meet him! - and create the persona of a strange, maniacal manipulator and the result is remarkably funny. One has to ask themselves why Wheaton isn't performing more, he is so good in the two episodes he is in.

But even those episodes are plagued by a sense of predictability that leaves seasoned television viewers more bored than thrilled. Wheaton's character has an evil subtext to him and anyone who knows how to recognize a manipulative character will see where he is going in both of his episodes.

Unfortunately in the third season of The Big Bang Theory there is very little real character development. Indeed, the most positive character change comes from Howard, who learns that Sheldon merely considers him an acquaintance (while he considers Penny a friend). Once he learns this, his character openly expresses a lot more loathing for Sheldon and that actually makes him seem more realistic. But elements like Howard treating Raj like he would a wife (in a neglectful, if not outright abusive, relationship) fall a lot flatter and one has to be happy that they are only maintained for a single episode.

Sadly, there is also a sense of repetition that fails entirely in third season. Viewers are expected not to notice that Leonard being tutored on football so he can relate to Penny (and spend time with her when she is surrounded by other guys) mirrors the way Sheldon tutors Penny on physics when she notices Bernadette conversing with Leonard on his day at work. Lorre, apparently, figures that an audience which is smart enough to follow jokes that make obscure references to physics and science fiction culture would not observe plot and character repetition. Sigh.

Usually, I explore how characters grow and change during a season, or highlight the challenges of specific characters, but in the third season of The Big Bang Theory, the ensemble is plagued by more generic events which have limited comedic results. While It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia develops whole shows with audacious, if entirely limited, concepts like "the gang finds a dumpster baby," The Big Bang Theory errs far too frequently on the side of the family-friendly and mundane. Unfortunately, because humor is based on surprise and there is little surprise to basic plots like "Leonard tells Penny how he and Sheldon met" and "Sheldon and the gang build a security system after Leonard and Sheldon's apartment is robbed." Jokes which were initially hilarious - like Sheldon explaining why his spot is his spot - dull with repetition, in this season having Penny explain to Bernadette the reason and seeing Sheldon work it out in another episode. Arguments between Leonard and Sheldon over the roommate agreement seem similarly dull.

The season is not entirely without humor, though. While many of the jokes do make the viewer smile, I only laughed aloud when the formulas that have been built for multiple seasons were upset. So, it was no longer funny when Sheldon knocked on Penny's door and repeated her name over and over again, but it was laughable when Penny opened the door, knocked on it herself and said her name to Sheldon. Similarly, late in the season, when Sheldon's brilliant visiting colleague turns out to be a complete nymphomaniac, there was a decent laugh generated.

But more often than not, the third season of The Big Bang Theory is plot-driven instead of character-driven and the result is more often unsatisfying and not particularly funny. In the third season, the show is not unenjoyable, it is just not particularly laudable or as audacious as prior seasons. In other words, it becomes entirely familiar and that is the death knell of original works.

On the acting front, by this season all of the actors have honed their characters.  Jim Parsons is predictably cold as Sheldon and the scene where he is drunk mirrors his scenes where he is ill, so there is no real stretch for him there. In the same way, Jimmy Galecki and Katie Cuoco do not have much new to play off of, despite their characters getting into a relationship. The sexual chemistry they bring to the work has been there for seasons, showing them kissing does not add much to their performances.

On DVD, The Big Bang Theory is graced with a blooper reel and two featurettes, one of which has the whole cast talking about the season and their thoughts and feelings on it. None of the bonus features are particularly groundbreaking and they offer very little to the fans who are shelling out so much for the boxed set.

That said, The Big Bang Theory works against itself most frequently in the third season by conforming to the conventions of the sitcom, as opposed to defying it. Howard's relationship, for example, is not given a full arc and it pops up late in the season as an afterthought, a footnote. So, just as the producers seemed to have little regard for the audience, this season of the show seems to show little regard for their characters and it leaves one wondering what is truly left for the four men and one woman of The Big Bang Theory. Sadly, I'm left wondering why they didn't quit while they were ahead.

For other contemporary programs to this, please check out my reviews of:
V Season 1
30 Rock Season 3
Family Guy Volume 8


For other television program reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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