Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Big Bang Theory, "The Killer Robot Instability": Mecha-Wolowitz attacks

Spoilers for last night's "Big Bang Theory" coming right up...

I'm still never going to love this show remotely as much as the one that follows it, but fair is fair: I laughed louder and longer at the robot crashing through the door and frightening Penny than I did at anything in last night's "How I Met Your Mother."

Wolowitz has always been the show's most problematic character, the easiest one to point to in the debate over whether the show laughs with or at the nerds and say that the answer is "at." This episode was obviously an attempt to humanize him, and while I appreciate the effort, the execution felt thin -- not quite A Very Special "Big Bang Theory," but not far.

Now, I have a very high standard for this type of episode. There's an amazing episode of "Taxi" where the Danny DeVito character -- an obnoxious bully whose come-ons are every bit as frequent and gross as Howard's -- finally goes too far with the Marilu Henner character when she catches him peeping on her getting changed in the locker room. She threatens to have him fired unless he can humiliate himself in front of her the same way he made her feel. So he tells her this long, mortifying story about the shopping trip he takes every year to the Husky Boys section of the department store, which is the only place that has clothes his size. And by the end of it, you understand why he's such an ass, and she understands it too, and while she never forgives him for his disgusting behavior after that, she now lets it roll off her back because she's gotten a glimpse of what's behind the creepy facade. It's an amazing episode -- changing not only her, but the audience's, perception of the guy -- and one that has an emotional of truth to it that the comparable Howard-Penny scene didn't.

Obviously, it's not fair to compare "Big Bang Theory" to one of the best sitcoms ever made. This is a much lighter, sillier show, one that's sometimes funny, sometimes not. I suppose I should give the writers some credit for making an effort to show a different side of Wolowitz, but the execution didn't do much for me, and I imagine I'll still be annoyed by him in future episodes.

What did everybody else think?

32 comments:

Tim said...

Well, he's our favorite character, so hopefully he doesn't change. I still don't get your objection to the show. Sure Wolowitz is more a laugh "at", but usually Leonard and Raj are very sympathetic characters, with Sheldon kind of a wild card. I think it's more of a character by character thing as to where the laughs come from.

Toby said...

I'm sorry Penny's first encounter with MONTIE was available to be posted as a preview, because that was a killer joke to lead into the credits.

I also was hoping for a "Brave Little Toaster" line from one of the guys - it seems the type of book they'd read as kids.....

BigTed said...

It actually kind of bugs me that the one Jewish character (out of a group of urban scientists? Come on!) is both the most obnoxious and is basically an oversexed infant right out of "Portnoy's Complaint."

Pamela Jaye said...

He's Jewish? Well Raj is Indian... I probably wouldn't have noticed at all, if nit for his mother.

I haven't seen the Taxi ep, so I was not spoiled and rather liked both the ep and Moist, er.. Wolowitz, for a change.
(and who plays his mother?) (seriously, I would have thought Russian or Polish, but my brother mentioned that he's named after someone (that apparently my brother knows) so my assessment of the character isn't "Jewish," it's "annoying" - even moreso than Sheldon, (due to the creepy sexual thing) and I think I could find him as annoying as John Laroquette on Night Court, but I only watched that a few times.

Pamela Jaye said...

then again, I've never seen Portnoy's complaint.

Crispy said...

I like Wolowitz more than I like Raj. He might be inappropriate with women (you don't have to be a nerd to do that, lol!) but at least he's able to speak to them.

This wasn't my total favorite episode (Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock anyone?), but it wasn't bad.

I thought "horribly mean Penny" seemed somewhat off for her character, especially after she's spent so much time with the guys. It was one thing to blab it all out at first, but to stick by what she said and say that "someone had to say it" just didn't seem to fit her.

That First Andrew said...

I was a little dissapointed by the fellow Battlebotter being given a speech impediment rather than be given anything actually funny to say. If not for his trouble with Rs, he wouldn't have had a single line that was funny in its own right. To me, that is the same as some of the nerd jokes. You are laughing AT the characters rather than with them.

erin said...

As usual, I laughed throughout this episode. And I saw the preview with the robot scaring the crap out of Penny, and I STILL laughed the second time.

I agree the nemesis with the speech impediment was to be laughed at...but...I laughed. Maybe I'm a bad person. He just amused me.

As for Penny's hulk-ness...she strikes me as a person who has a bit of mean-girl in her, so I wasn't surprised when she went all bitchface on Howard. I didn't think their resolution was that deep, but it worked well enough for me. I also enjoyed her making Sheldon cry at the end and having to chase after him too to apologize. At least she knows when she's being an ass.

I enjoy the major differences between the 4 nerds, and they all make me laugh in their own ways. This is still my semi-guilty pleasure.

Steve said...

I share your mixed feelings on this show, and I've always hated Wolowitz's character. (Even more than the uncomfortable episodes where the humor comes from Sheldon acting like he has Asberger's Syndrome.)

Leonard and Raj are lovable losers. They try their best to socially interact in a healthy manner, but are limited by their lack of ability and general cluelessness. And Sheldon simply doesn't care about social niceties. The writers and audience can have affection for those three characters.

But Wolowitz is a creepy jerk, and has no excuse for not knowing he's a creepy jerk. So I was glad when Penny finally told him off.

Really, my big disappointment with this episode is that everything returned to normal by the end. I would have greatly preferred to see Wolowitz learn something from the experience and change his behavior. And I think there could have been a lot of humor derived from a multi-episode arc of Penny trying to teach him how to interact with women.

Steve said...

And Big Ted, I always assumed that Leonard was Jewish as well. Although obviously Howard has a much more stereotypical Jewish mother, and Leonard isn't particularly religious.

Kensington said...

See, I adore The Big Bang Theory usually but thought this was one of the weaker episodes. The rival with the speech impediment was an interesting choice, but the plot crossed the line when the robots spilled out of the arena. Any self-respecting nerd would honor the rules of the game. It wasn't clever, and that's what puts this episode firmly in the "laughs at" category, which I don't care for.

As for the Wolowitz story, how much more interesting would it have been if he actually did seem to learn something and grow, however slightly. Unfortunately, the episode ends with more or less a reset of his relationship with Penny, although that might be down to a bad performance by the actor, who presumably could have chosen to let us see that his line about being "halfway to pity sex" was merely face-saving bluster.

That may have been what was intended, but if we don't get to see some evidence of that there's little choice but to take it at face value, which means the whole plot was nothing but wheel spinning. Danny DeVito, for example, in that episode was a good enough actor to let us see that he really was sincerely affected by humiliating himself in front of Marilu Henner.

Kensington said...

Oh, and I love the subtle intimations that Sheldon has Asberger's. To me, it gives the character an element of pathos that makes him far more endearing than he would be if he were merely strange.

If he has Asberger's, then I ache for him as he struggles to make sense of the fact that, for example, Penny is sleeping in the place on the sofa where he watches Dr Who. If he's just an inflexible weird guy, it's much more difficult to root for him.

Jeff Martin said...

I regularly defend the show to my friend who is bothered by the "laugh at nerds" aspect of the show, but I was really bothered by the rival with the speech impediment. Save for Raj's wondering what part of American the "accent" came from, there was nothing redeemable about that gag.

Bryan said...

I wasn't bothered by the speech impediment gag at all but I was kind of surprised to see it on network tv this day and age. I was kind of waiting for a Monty Python Life of Brian reference with one of the robots being name "Bwian" or "Woderick".

Anonymous said...

It's "Aspergers".

And I don't think that Sheldon just "doesn't care" about social niceties as much as he just has no clue what they are (a common issue for many high functioning autistics).

Sheldon, to me, does care about them - whether he wants to make sure he reciprocates Penny's Xmas gift with the most appropriate gift, or wants to help Leonard keep his Dr. girlfriend - his idea of "appropriate" just isn't always the same as most everyone else's. To me, that makes Sheldon the most lovable character on the show.

Steve said...

I've watche a couple episodes of this show, and while it's not my favorite, I have to tip my cap to the actor that plays Sheldon. He is terrific. Just like NPH in HIMYM, the actor that plays Shelton has mastered the art of timing.

"Also, I'm given to understand that your mother is overweight"

Todd said...

Alan, what's the name of that Taxi episode? I saw it long ago (when the show was still running on Nick at Nite) and would like to revisit on DVD. A cursory scan of most Taxi episode guides finds they're not complete enough to let me know the name.

Anonymous said...

"Save for Raj's wondering what part of American the "accent" came from, there was nothing redeemable about that gag."

Funny you should mention that, because last month I was at the taping of the show, and something I said almost made it on ...

As most of you know, the way these tapings work is that they usually have to shoot a scene two or three times, and at the end of this scene, after Raj asks what part of the country that accent is from, they had like five extended seconds of a reaction shot of Sheldon and Leonard that just fell really flat--since they just kind of shrugged.

Anyway the perfect place for the accent occurred to me. So after they finished filming the scene the second time, and Raj asked his question again, I yelled out (after the scene-ending buzzer sounded) from the studio audience, as loud as I could:

"Wode Island"

At first, the MC who tells jokes when they're not filming berated me, but after he figured what I actually said, he repeated it, and then they filmed the scene the third time, they actually used what I said! Johnny Galecki said my words! It was awesome!

Obviously, I didn't make the final cut. But I'm telling you, the line killed at the taping :>

oz

p.s. I mentioned that they shot the scene three times: in the first two, the actor with the speech impediment was A LOT funnier, because he had many more lines and just nailed the delivery. but i guess they had to cut his scene for time reasons.

p.p.s. he did have one non-impediment joke-- when he pointed out that they were all pathetic and creepy and can't get girls, that's why they battle robots.

Alan Sepinwall said...

It's "Louie Goes Too Far," from season four.

Karen said...

I imagine I'll still be annoyed by him in future episodes.

What sucks is that I imagine Penny will be, too. Or, in other words, that no actual growth will have occurred.

Anonymous said...

While I can justifiably understand the focus on the guy's social foibles when reading comments on this show, I am somewhat amazed that no one ever really comments on Penny's social shortcomings. In this episode (no matter how justified she may have been) she clearly crossed a line in dressing down Howard and having to be bribed into apologizing makes her behavior seem even worse.

This is not the first time she's done this sort of thing to one of the guys on the show either. An episode I can recall that aired recently is the one with the time travel machine in which she says something that makes Leonard feel like a children for collecting toys, comics, and memorabilia. Of course, she had an easier time apologizing then because the person whose feelings were hurt were Leonard's but I can't help noticing throughout the course of the show that she is in many of the same ways as socially challenged as the guys.

Anonymous said...

First of all, Sheldon is clearly our favorite charactor. Ok he is my favorite charactor. He always says things I wish I could say.
Second of all, I agree that Penny just seemed to be an especially mean mood this show. Normally she is, ahh sweetie, or ahh honey. She just was not acting like herself. I wonder what was bothering her.

Pamela Jaye said...

Leonard and Raj are lovable losers. They try their best to socially interact in a healthy manner, but are limited by their lack of ability and general cluelessness.

I love them for trying - except when Raj is drunk of course.

But Wolowitz is a creepy jerk, and has no excuse for not knowing he's a creepy jerk. So I was glad when Penny finally told him off.

best description I've heard yet and so was I.

Really, my big disappointment with this episode is that everything returned to normal by the end.

reminds me of something Joss said about reset TV. at the end of the ep, things are just where they started, and no one has grown.

these are slightly less annoying than the shows/movies where the whole conflict could have been solved by one sentence 5 minutes after the problem -
"Jenny, it's all better - I got the childrem returned to their mother's custody and I drove them there myself" (so you don't have to hate me for being late for court cause I was at my offce trying to keep their apartment building from being razed to build a parking lot)

those drive me nuts. just never start an explanation with "you don't understand" or "let me explain"

bettyd said...

I always enjoy this show. It is more b/c I work in a high tech company in the engineering department, and know many geeks there. I also loved That 70s show, b/c I could totally relate to the time (when I was also in high school).

I think Sheldon is over the top with the lack of cultural references, but I kinda get it with him - and it is a comedy. I HATE it on Bones to the point where I stopped watching the show.

I actually like the Wolowitz and Raj characters a lot. Gotta love those retro belts! I admit that Wolowitz at home with mussed up hair, and a robe on looked much more inviting that his 70s looks.

Mike said...

I've always read Sheldon's sexlessness much more as an aftereffect of his fundamentalist upbringing than a consequence of his Asperger's issues.

My sense from the two autistic adults I know is that they're acutely interested in pretty girls, but resigned to their inability to make a connection.

But the psychological neutering of a fundy adolescence seems to persist long after the religious observance or churchly ties are gone.

Am I totally off base here?

BTW, if I were Jewish I'd be much more offended by the portrayal of Howard's mom than by Howards. Could we handcuff her to Ky;e's mom from South Parth and ship them both off to Boca Raton forever?

shlomo said...

i am Jewish and i am NOT offended by wolowitz.

Anonymous said...

Was Sheldon brought up in a fundy household?

I don't remember that, but there were a few episodes I missed in season 1.

I would have just assumed parents who pushed him academically more than religious freaks.

So Cal said...

I met Johnny Galecki and Kelly Cuoco last night at a bar here in the San Fernando Valley.

Two of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Even did some kareoke together! They were very appreciative that i knew the show as well.

erin said...

Aww...I love it when you meet (semi) famous people and they're friendly and appreciative. It's the best!

Gob's Hermano said...

I agree with Betty--I was actually shocked when Wolowitz was at home without glasses and messed up hair, minus those low-slung pants and white belts. "Hey, he's actually sort of cute."

Anonymous said...

"Fundy"?

LoopyChew said...

@ 1:11 Anonymous: Sheldon's mother came to visit sometime in Season One (1x04, "The Luminous Fish Effect") and while she really isn't a fundy per se, she definitely has deep-rooted faith.

"Leonard, the Lord never gives us more than we can handle. Thankfully, He blessed me with two other children who were dumb as soup."