Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Big Bang Theory Works Hard To Develop The Characters And Stay Funny In The Complete Fourth Season!

The Good: Decent character development, Still funny, Replays well, Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch are good additions to the cast mix.
The Bad: Nothing superlative on the acting front, Plots are pretty blasé, Light on DVD bonus features.
The Basics: On DVD, The Big Bang Theory Season Four remains very funny and actually progresses the characters fairly well.

The fourth year of a sitcom can be devastating for a television series. By the fourth season, most of the actors know their character well and they know their castmates well enough to have gotten the timing down right for interactions. Usually, sitcoms go one of two ways in their fourth season. They either plod along doing the same thing that made them successful for the prior three years (and the show begins to die fast) or it finds some way to retool. Sometimes, the retooling is forced upon the show, like when the actor who played Coach on Cheers died after the third season or when Phil Hartman was killed after the fourth season of NewsRadio. But less drastic retooling works sometimes as well, as it does for the fourth season of The Big Bang Theory. After a third season that was strongly plot-based, the fourth season of The Big Bang Theory returns with a real push to develop the characters in new and interesting ways.

The Big Bang Theory accomplishes much of its goal of keeping the popular show fresh in the fourth season through the addition of Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch to the main cast. Bialik plays the socially-awkward Amy Farrah Fowler, who is a female counterpart to Sheldon, introduced in the third season’s finale. Rauch returns as Bernadette, Howard’s ex-girlfriend who gets back into a relationship with him and gets serious about him. Aarti Mann recurs as Priya, Raj’s sister, and her addition gives Kaley Cuoco a surprising number of chances to reach for Penny’s dramatic potential. And she sells it.

Picking up months after Howard and Raj introduced Sheldon to Amy, Sheldon has developed a weird friendship with Amy Farrah Fowler where they video conference frequently, but Sheldon refuses to consider her a “girlfriend.” When Penny gets wind of Amy, she insists on taking them out on a date together. Amy finds herself interested in a friendship with Penny and she begins to associate more with Sheldon, Penny and the guys. Around the same time, Howard runs into Bernadette at the Cheesecake Factory, having broken up with her under mysterious circumstances. When Howard works to convince Bernadette that he is a changed man (via Penny), she gives him one more chance.

In advance of New Year's, Penny is lonely, so she hooks back up with her dumb-as-a-rock ex-boyfriend, which leads Leonard to get jealous and the guys to mock Penny’s boyfriend, much to Penny’s dismay. In trying to right things with Penny, Leonard works to restore his friendship with her and largely succeeds. He succeeds to the point that when Raj’s sister, Priya, returns, Leonard and Priya rekindle their romance. And as Sheldon and Amy get a bit closer, they explore the effect of gossip on the group as Howard moves his relationship with Bernadette to a whole new level.

The appeal of The Big Bang Theory prior to the fourth season has largely been the glorification of geek culture and the pretty incredible level of diction (and jargon) for physics presented in each episode. While the fourth season continues to impress viewers who are infatuated with geek culture – Wil Wheaton makes his annual appearance and the show features guest shots from George Takei, LeVar Burton, Katee Sackoff, and one of the founders of Apple Computers – the show tones down the jargon quite a bit. In that way, the fourth season becomes a bit more accessible and, sadly, a bit more common.

What fills the gap in the way The Big Bang Theory used to challenge its viewers with the complexity of the language is a real sense of character development. In this season, the fundamental characters actually grow and change. Here is how the fourth season finds and affects the principle characters:

Leonard Hofstadter – Working to get over his emotional attachment for Penny, he finally moves on. While living with Sheldon continues to grate on him, Leonard soon takes comfort in the arms of Priya who is just passing through. When she comes back to stay in the area for an extended period of time, Leonard is delighted to discover an ally in combatting Sheldon’s demanding ways. When Priya effectively challenges the roommate agreement, Sheldon leverages Priya’s discomfort with her parents finding out about the relationship against her and Leonard, for a time, moves into Raj’s apartment,

Penny – Feeling remorse over dumping Leonard, she tries to find someone new to love, but spends most of the year strengthening her friendships with Bernadette and (of all people) Sheldon while getting to know Amy. She is frustrated when her father comes for a visit and she uses Leonard to convince him that she has found a good man, a situation Leonard uses to his advantage. While continuing her work at the Cheesecake Factory, she is frustrated by Priya when Priya and Leonard start dating. The most acting she does this season is teaching Sheldon how to act after Sheldon has a disastrous lecture experience,

Howard – Quiet for some time on why he and Bernadette broke up, the truth comes out and he works to make it right with her. Soon, the two are dating, but when Howard asks Bernadette to move in with him, his relationship with his mother almost ruins their relationship. As the two try to figure things out, Howard continues to live with the indignity of not being a doctor, surrounded by friends who all have their Ph.D.s. He takes a bold step forward with Bernadette, which causes a bit of a rift between him and Raj,

Raj – Still unable to talk to women (without alcohol), Raj remains Howard’s sidekick (though the two prepare to fight over who is the hero and who is the sidekick). As the season goes on, Raj is frustrated when Priya begins dating Leonard against his wishes and Howard spends and increasing amount of time with Bernadette. While the others begin so suspect he may be gay, Raj actually begins to develop an attraction for Bernadette, which he refuses to act on because of his friendship with Howard. When Priya and Leonard begin having terribly inaccurate Star Trek sex in his apartment, Raj relocates to Leonard’s room and temporarily becomes Sheldon’s roommate,

Bernadette – having felt unloved by Howard the first time around, she is more willing to challenge him when they renew their romantic relationship. She becomes furious at the idea of simply taking over the niche Howard’s mother had and refuses to let Howard use her that way. At the climax of the season, she gets her Doctorate and is offered a fantastic job, which makes Howard deeply uncomfortable,

Amy Farrah Fowler – Socially awkward, she is a neurologist who enters into an arrangement with Sheldon to keep her mother off her back about dating. She has ups and downs with Sheldon – like when a philosophical disagreement leads them to terminate their friendship (inspiring Sheldon to get twenty-one cats) or when she gets very drunk and kisses Sheldon – but seems genuinely compatible with him. Despite her offputting nature, after a slumber party with Penny and Bernadette, she begins referring to Penny as her “bestie” and emotionally defending Penny as Leonard and Priya get closer. She delights with Sheldon in experimenting on the group by spreading rumors to see how the information flows between their mutual friends,

And Sheldon Cooper – Less baffled by human behavior, the brilliant physicist now gets tips on how to interact better from Amy. With Amy, he learns to massage himself and delights in experimenting upon his friends. He refuses to consider Amy his “girlfriend” (in a romantic sense) and continues to enjoy Leonard’s friendship, though Leonard pulls away from him quite a bit. After he is challenged by Wil Wheaton, Priya, and a roomful of graduate students, Sheldon begins to adapt to try to both restore control in his personal life and develop professionally. He also develops a three-person chess board and takes in Raj when Leonard de facto moves out.

In the fourth season, the actors who have been around offer very little that is new, even as their characters change. Kunal Nayyar is still compelled to play Raj awkward around women, Jim Parsons still has Sheldon as awkward (made even more so as Sheldon loosens up and releases sneering laughs from time to time), and Johnny Galecki shows no real new direction for Leonard, in terms of performance.

Rather surprisingly, Kaley Cuoco gives Penny greater depth in season four. As Leonard moves farther away from Penny, Penny begins to pine for him. Cuoco, then, is able to infuse Penny with some real sad moments and she sells them with a look of quiet desperation in her eyes that she has not revealed to viewers before. Sure, she still plays silly well – as she does in a hilarious scene in the season’s first episode wherein Sheldon calculates the number of men Penny has been with -, but for the first time, Cuoco is able to stretch dramatically and make Penny into someone who is something more than just a hot girl who lives next door.

Mayim Bialik steps right into the role of Amy Farrah Fowler and plays off Jim Parsons expertly. While there are a few times when it is clear she is trying not to laugh at lines delivered by her costar, Bialik adds a real zest to the cast that helps to flesh out the world of The Big Bang Theory better. Scenes with Bialik, Cuoco and Melissa Rauch become some of the freshest scenes of the season.

Now on DVD, The Big Bang Theory Season Four comes with remarkably few bonus features. There is a behind-the-scenes featurette featuring Rauch, Nayar and Helberg (Howard) where they ask one another questions about the season and share stories. This is a neat-enough few minutes as it includes some shots of filming the scenes, which is cool. The only other bonus feature is a gag reel and it is amusing once.

Fortunately, the primary programming on The Big Bang Theory Season Four is of such a quality that it is easy to recommend, despite the weaker bonus features. If you’re looking for funny and different, with a very human sense of heart, this is the season of The Big Bang Theory that is best for you!

For other seasons of The Big Bang Theory, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3


For other television reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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