Season 9 of The Big Bang Theory is six weeks away and over the last week Boyfriend and I have been marathoning Season 8 to prepare. I only started watching the show last December and now I’ve watched every episode in fairly rapid succession. While Seasons 1 through 7 are lighthearted and hilarious with only a few hiccups, Season 8 was uniformly depressing. I’m not sure why, but the show seems to be taking a How I Met Your Mother approach to ruining a sitcom by making everyone have super sad “real life” stuff to worry about. Spoiler alert: if I wanted to worry about real life I would be worrying about my real life and not watching a sitcom. To put it another way: if I wanted a show about adult people being sad I’d watch a drama or listen to my neighbors fight through the walls. I wanted to grab Season 8 by the collar and shake it while yelling “Be a comedy!” at it’s stupid face.
One of the major issues is that this season centered around Howard’s mom dying. The actress who voiced her did die in real life and the show made the decision not to re-cast, unusual for a comedy. They even let you know that they could have re-cast her in the episode where Bernadette yells at Sheldon and Leonard off camera. Strangely, there was no fade-to-black-no-music-in-memory-of-credits which would have been much classier considering they got rid of her character. The death of a parent also happens in HIMYM and signals the big down turn in that show as well. The only successful comedy with dramatic character maturation that was still successful that comes to mind is Frasier.
Frasier is, in many ways, a similar show, chronicling the romantic plights of the misfit brothers Frasier and Niles Crane. Like BBT’s Raj, both brothers are mistaken for homosexuals frequently, with Frasier once accidentally dating a man (Patrick Stewart), and considering continuing to do so after he realizes what’s happening. Frasier and Niles are both lovable misfits, and both struggle, mature, and end up in love. Their foil is their father Marty (Martin), who experiences similar growth, and ends up with a significantly younger wife, Ronnie, the brother’s former babysitter. While all three of these characters go through conflict and change before finding true love, they are also all doing it at different points in the show. While Niles is going through his upheavals, Frasier and Marty are relatively stable. When Frasier undergoes his major crisis at the end of the series, Niles and Marty have both happily re-married and are in healthy relationships. This is, I believe, the secret to Frasier’s success, and the reason that Season 8 of Big Bang Theory is a failure: all of BBT’s characters are having major issues all at the same time.
Penny and Leonard are the “main” couple of the show and they are the most archetypal with Penny, the blonde next door, never being given a last name. Because she’s not a fully realized person, get it? Laffs. Seriously, think about that for a second. You might not remember Stuart’s last name (Bloom, a possible reference to Finnegan’s Wake) or Emily’s (Sweeney, like Sweeney Todd), but they have them. Penny is the only person on the show so far who is so poorly realized and/or insignificant that she has no last name. It’s symbolically important because Penny is largely an archetype: party girl, bleach blonde, wannabe actress, girl next door. She is the stand-in for the girls that the nerdy Leonard couldn’t get in High School. Moving on.
Penny and Leonard’s on-again-off-again relationship is as trite as it gets, and yet this season managed to drive home what we already know: Penny and Leonard are fundamentally incompatible. Penny still wants to be an actress and will always live knowing she’s given up on her dreams; Leonard is becoming more renown for his research and is living his dream. Penny has a boy haircut, only wears pants this season (notice that?), and makes more money than Leonard; Leonard is the submissive and is symbolically marrying his castrating mother. Penny and Leonard both actively try and sabotage their pre-wedding drive with Leonard implausibly confessing to kissing another girl, and Penny saying she only cared about the timing of the comment. That’s one of those things ladies get grief for, nit picking the timing of comments, that’s not a thing, it’s the comment and the timing. Penny wants to be an actress and Leonard wants to be the lead scientist on the paper he co-authored with Sheldon, but Penny is wearing the pants (literally) and Leonard is holding Penny back. They should not be together and we all know it.
Sheldon and Amy are the second most significant couple on the show and my favorite. They are a far better couple than Penny and Leonard because they are shown constantly pushing themselves in the name of respecting the other one’s needs. Amy lives a chaste existence because Sheldon is extremely uncomfortable with physical contact, and Sheldon now says “I love you” and kisses Amy to meet her need for intimacy. Amy is patient and Sheldon is making progress, as a viewer of the show you can see them meeting in the middle. But they don’t. As Amy has gotten away from her robotic early character, she has become more stereotypically feminine. Not in a growth way, but in an insulting way, like by ending fights by walking away and having to be chased down. After dating for five years it is not realistic that Amy would be angry with Sheldon for asking an off-topic question while they are kissing, she would just re-direct him. Instead, to make us sad, the writers of the show had Amy take “a step back,” and we get the reveal that Sheldon was considering proposing. Also, because the internet needs help on this, “a step back” means between an hour and three days to think about what you want without your partner being near you confusing your logic with their handsomeness. They did not break up in the season finale, stop making it more interesting than it is. Or I’m wrong. Either way, while the other characters experience their upheavals, Sheldon and Amy should have been the stable couple. On a show that, on the surface level, celebrates diversity (nerd culture, being smart, social anxiety is cute, etc.) a much more interesting approach would have been to make either Sheldon, Amy, or both of them asexual. It would have been in line with character, innovative, and provoked real discussions. Instead Amy had a lady interrupting maybe breakup, real original.
Bernadette and Howard are the only married couple and have become the least interesting. With the death of Howard’s mother, Bernadette is now living in Howard’s childhood home (didn’t she say she’d never do that?) and is the surrogate mother for Howard, Raj, and Stuart. Bernadette as tiny angry lady has been developing for a while, but it’s a stereotypical marriage, with Bernadette getting meaner as she has to deal with Howard’s selfish incompetence. Men are babies and are stupid! Women have to take care of them and become wife mommy! This is not original. The Oedipal issues are strong with Howard, and his inability to bond with a woman who isn’t his mother led to Raj as his real life partner. I guess it’s supposed to be funny? Now that Howard’s mother is gone it’s way darker, like without Bernadette he would live in his mother’s house forever and become a hoarder. Howard’s character did experience changes in other seasons, going from being a creep to being funny, but this season he’s busy being depressed, and it’s a downer. Again, I blame all this on their decision not to re-cast, which was a mistake, for reasons I will expand upon later.
Raj and Emily are useless. Emily is just an upsetting character: obsessed with violence and gore, potentially wishing to enact it on real people (remember her saying she liked being a dermatologists because she got to cut people), and wanting to have sex on graves. Worse is that she isn’t just desensitized to violence, she finds horrifying violence to be a turn on. Emily is a character that can only be female, because if this was a male character he would be too real. I worked in an office with a guy who watched horror movies because he (paraphrasing) “Liked to see women scared,” no woman in the office would work with him, and after two years he was finally fired. Emily is the guy I worked with, except thin and red-haired (just make it blood red, we know you want to), because she’s a girl it’s … cute? Funny? Nope. When Raj finally considers breaking up with her he confesses his love instead, meaning he’s done no work on his crippling codependency issues that Sheldon pointed out previously. This means Raj is not making any progress as a character and, were the genders flipped, I guarantee the relationship would be abusive. I don’t care about any of this because Raj’s character should be gay. It’s been teased for seasons and it’s 2015, why can we not have a gay character on this show?
Stuart. Didn’t expect Stuart, did you? Stuart is the almost-realistic character on the show; crippling depression is hard to make funny, but is a real part of the BBT comic world. Stuart has the potential to be a very interesting character: he has an art degree, owns a small business, has a professional rival, and, having dated Penny, could also be a romantic rival. It was hinted that Stuart was having a romantic relationship with Howard’s mother, Debbie, but with her passing the show dropped it. Had they re-cast Howard’s mother they could have shown or had an off-screen relationship between Stuart and Debbie that would be far more interesting.
Big Bang Theory could be growing it’s characters, keeping most of them stable while others had conflict. Stuart and Debbie could deal with ageism, Raj could be openly gay, and Amy and Sheldon could be asexual. All of these things are huge arcs that would take time to develop, and they’re all interesting, with a tremendous amount of situations possible. As one conflict is happening other relationships stay stable. Instead we just have Howard making fun of Raj for being “feminine” and Raj dating a serial killer. That’s not comedy. When you watch a comedy you love these messed up characters and, in the end, you want to see them happy. As they age, most comedies take their flawed characters through these growth points. Instead, when Season 8 of BBT ended, we had a ton of sad, screwed up people to deal with when we come back. Will Raj keep dating Emily because he can’t be alone/gay? That’s a real life problem. Will Amy leave Sheldon after “wasting” five years of her life then they both die alone? That’s a real life problem. Will Penny be a boring woman with a dumb haircut who emasculates Leonard, but they stay together anyway? You see where I’m going. I mean, at least Penny’s not an alcoholic anymore.
In summary: Big Bang Theory, maybe consider being funny in Season 9, if you need to put the characters through drama to make them grow, not all of them at once, please.