Over the past few months, I’ve heralded The Big Bang Theory for boldly exploring new territories without actually jumping the shark. And yet, despite my happiness for this development, tonight the show pulled a complete 180-degree turn, making all the changes for naught.
Tonight’s episode seemed eerily reminiscent of the first season: Penny was dating the latest in a series of interchangeable, boneheaded musclemen, the four lead geeks were involved in a very geeky hobby, and Leonard was sheepishly trying to find an opening to sweep Penny off her feet. Even new cast members Bernadette and Amy are nowhere to be seen. I honestly don’t know whether this episode was cryogenically frozen and thawed for tonight’s purposes, or if the writing staff simply chose to ignore the prior three seasons of development.
Penny’s blank-slate boyfriend is Zack, last seen in the Season 3 episode “The Lunar Excitation.” Zack was quickly made the butt-monkey of Howard, Raj, Sheldon and Leonard for his slow wit and vocal ignorance. Memorably, he was unable to tell the difference between laser beams, death rays, and telescopes. The chiding continues in tonight’s episode as Zack’s intelligence is frequently likened to a dolphin’s… with the dolphin always coming out on top.
Penny puts the kibosh on the barbs and zingers, commenting on the hypocrisy of the four nerdy individuals shamelessly bullying someone inferior. Apologetic, Leonard makes amends with Zack, discovering they actually share a common interest: comic books. Sure, Leonard prefers standard superhero-based action stories and Zack leans towards the lighthearted adventures of Archie and the Riverdale gang, but it’s a start.
Pretty soon, the pair begins sharing other interests, such as the desire to cream the competition at a New Year’s costume party. Leonard practically drools at the opportunity to perfect his long-coveted Justice League team costume with Zack, an authentically muscular individual, playing Superman. Even better, if Penny would dress as Wonder Woman, they could win by default for bringing the only woman under 200 pounds.
But Penny isn’t interested. Leonard has forgotten all his interpersonal skills and is incapable of recognizing how deep a divide is forming between them. Penny wasn’t dating Zack for emotional reasons. She doesn’t love him, and can barely stand being around him. She just wanted someone to be with on New Year’s. Very humble plans, and yet, Leonard has single-handedly uprooted them entirely. Feeling obligated to stay behind, Zack bows out just hours before the party, reducing Leonard’s Dream Team of superheroes to “Skinny Flash, Indian Aquaman, near-sighted Green Lantern and a teeny-tiny Batman.”
Eventually, after a heart-to-heart with Penny, Leonard convinces her to come out and be sociable. Even more impressive, Leonard convinces her to do so in full Wonder Woman regalia. As I said, the entire episode is an unintentional callback to a simpler time. A time when the writers and producers of The Big Bang Theory didn’t know where to take their characters, or how to get them there. As such, the characters were free to stumble around and do whatever until something finally struck a chord with the audience. This explains why we are having such a formalist departure here and now. Once again, Leonard and Penny are back to their season one states with no apparent direction.
Where would they go from here? Either Leonard and Penny get back together, or they stay separated. Either way, we’re sailing charted waters. The Big Bang Theory may not have jumped the shark yet, but I hear the Jaws theme, and I see The Fonz trying on water skis.