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The Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory is a comedy about two physicists Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper who live and work together in Pasadena, California. They live a comfortable geeky existence until attractive wannabe actress Penny moves in across the hall. CBS 2007-???

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Episode 13 - The Friendship Algorithm

27 March 2012

Synopsis: Sheldon needs access to the open science grid computer and Kripke controls access to it. So Sheldon attempts to befriend him. He also asks his existing friends to fill out exhaustive surveys about why they like him. As he is having trouble he heads out to buy a book which will teach him how to make friends. He joins Kripke rock climbing and faints but is able to bring Kripke home for dinner. There he evicts Raj from his friendship circle to make room for Kripke before returning things to the status quo when he discovers Kripke doesn’t control access to the computer after all.

The Good: I do admire the writers of The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is a truly unique creation and practically everything he says is carefully crafted to fit his highly intelligent, selfish, arrogant and single minded way of behaving. Of course much of the credit goes to Jim Parsons whose delivery of those lines is often exquisite.

The story here becomes almost a backdrop for a one-man show all about Sheldon Cooper. Some of the lines he delivers are so clever and fitting. When Penny asks whether he really thinks that filling in questionnaires is the best way to learn how to make friends he says “I agree.” It’s the tone of a colleague recognising her point and acknowledging the accuracy of her intelligent observation. But of course what he is thinking is what comes next “The social sciences are mostly hokum.”

Then at the book store he politely gives a grieving woman his condolences. When she says it was a family member who has passed away he comments “Too bad. If it had been a friend I’m available to fill the void.” As if to prove his single minded responses can fit the young as well as the old he then approaches a little girl and chats to her about various topics. He says he likes monkeys, she is reading a Curious George book and comments that he is a monkey. Sheldon looks dubiously at her and says “Somewhat anthropomorphised, but yes.” It’s such consistent writing.

Having learnt how to make friends from a book, Sheldon distils that knowledge into a flow chart and campily follows its directions as he conducts a phone conversation with Kripke. Each step he follows so deliberately with his arm outstretched so that he won’t make a mistake and allow this process to diverge from the proper scientific guidelines. Finally at the foot of the rock climbing wall, one of the employees ties Sheldon’s harness up. While preoccupied with his fear of heights Sheldon still has time to ask this man “So is this your entire job?”

Those are just samples which I enjoyed from the buffet of Sheldon laid out before you in this episode. It's writing and acting of an amazing synergy – believable, consistent and entertaining (but see The Bad). Leonard’s affection for whistling is played up nicely and Howard has a nice moment showing off to Penny that Kripke even makes him look good.

The Bad: The actual story is pretty irrelevant. Kripke is the problem here. The actor cast in this role doesn’t look like one of the geeks. He doesn’t even act very unlikeable for most of the time. His terribly put on lisp still fails to convince and the writers have really done a poor job casting him as a villain. His character is paper thin.

Of course one could argue the bigger problem here is Sheldon. Despite the relentless tide of witty jokes, there are no belly laughs. There is nothing here which can elevate the show into realms of humour which could attract an audience looking for top quality comedy. I contend that the main problem is that Sheldon is essentially the bad guy or the fall guy in this story. It’s as if The Office had Dwight as its main character, or Seinfeld was all about Newman or Scrubs was all about the janitor or Frasier was all about Bulldog. Well, you get the idea. I believe that the biggest comedy laughs come when the audience can sympathise and relate to the main character. That way the audience puts themselves (to some extent) in the shoes of that character. They want and will that character to succeed. They become emotionally invested in their stories week to week. When you have that bond then that character’s struggles and conflicts become much funnier because you sympathise with their intentions or at least relate to or understand them. Then when they succeed or are dashed the humour flows from the natural emotional reactions of disappointment, frustration, anger or indeed joy, satisfaction and happiness.

Sheldon is a character created so that we can’t relate to him. He is engineered to be different to normal people. His character is built on being socially apart from the world. His conflicts and struggles are not relatable to because we don’t really care if he succeeds or fails. Whether he gets to use the open computer doesn’t really matter and so his attempts to woo Kripke are largely irrelevant to us. Our emotions aren’t engaged and so no matter how witty his conversation is, it just isn’t funny enough.

Comic Highlight: Take your pick of Sheldonisms. I enjoyed his attempt to get out of rock climbing: “You know I am a fan of ventriloquism. Maybe you, me and your dummy could go get a hot beverage. He could talk while you drink.”

In Conclusion: Those writers love Sheldon. He is the reason this show is on the map in many ways. At present he is also the reason it will never become more than it.

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  • Thanks for commenting. Please check out other reviews to get a more in depth perspective on what I think of Sheldon. I don't think he is devoid of all empathy. But I do stand by the fact that his struggles in life are not something the audience is really engaged in. Sheldon's struggles are based on being selfish and contrary, not on being a sympathetic protagonist.

    Posted by The TV Critic, 26/11/2010 10:13am (10 years ago)

  • While I see how some people feel that way, I must disagree with this reviewers opinion about Sheldon. I find him entirely relatable. He's just an outcast who doesn't really belong in the world he finds himself in but has no choice but to stay. From his own perspective he's no different from any other character surrounded by zanniness. I find there's plenty of empathy for a character like that.

    Posted by Matthew, 26/11/2010 7:06am (10 years ago)

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