Leonard finally gets a showcase episode when a benefactor (Jessica Walter!) takes a shine to him. So why must everyone be so unpleasant?

By Adam B. Vary
Updated February 11, 2011 at 08:59 AM EST
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Will Leonard Hofstadter ever catch a break this season? After spending episode after episode on the margins, The Big Bang Theory‘s least quirky, most levelheaded geek finally took center stage last night. And yet, while we were treated to the unforgettable sight of Leonard macking on Lucille Bluth (!!!), the episode was ultimately marred with an off-putting streak of mean-spiritedness that started in the very first scene and endured to the very last one.

The problems began with the introduction of Dr. Seibert, the university president, played by a miscast Joshua Malina (The West Wing), who exudes neither the gravitas needed to play a credible head of an esteemed institution of higher learning nor the smarm required for a man whose main job is glad-handing for cash. Although I shouldn’t be too hard on Malina; I’m not sure if any actor could have figured out how to threaten to blind Sheldon and Co. “with a hot spoon like they did to that little boy in Slumdog Millionaire” without coming off like he walked in from the set of Dexter. I get that the line was a set up for Raj to remind us that he’s from India for the umpteenth time, but the moment was just so oddly harsh and unpleasant, I’m not sure if the episode ever fully recovered from it.

The threat was an attempt to force Sheldon to attend a university fundraiser, and, obviously, it didn’t work. So Leonard, Howard, and Raj braved the party without him, and were quickly hit with the withering derision of a university benefactor named Mrs. Latham — but since she was played by the inestimable Jessica Walter, my notes only referred to her as Mrs. Lucille Bluth. After first laying into Howard about his lack of a Ph.D., she had Leonard babbling about the coffee maker, and forced Raj to need to tinkle. As she explained later to Leonard, “There’s nothing I like better than making smart people feel ill at ease.” And there’s no one better than Walter at pulling off that kind of put-down comedy and not making me want to cuddle up with my puppy afterwards to make the cold pricklies go away.

But the rest of the cast, as terrifically talented as they are, struggled to give the episode’s odd cruel streak the light zip Walter can pull off while blinking — especially, I’m sorry to say, Jim Parsons. When Mrs. Lucille Bluth Latham called Leonard up the day after the fundraiser to ask him to dinner, Sheldon cracked, “An entire dinner to talk about your research? Where are you going, the drive-thru at the Jack-in-the-Box?” When Mrs. Latham subsequently made a tongue-heavy pass at Leonard after strongly hinting she was going to give his department enough money to buy a cryogenic centrifugal pump (yep, it’s a real thing), Sheldon encourage Leonard to pimp himself out by declaring, “This may be your only chance to make a real contribution to science!” (This after he’d said to Penny, “You’re an expert on trading sexual favors for material gain. Walk [Leonard] through this.”) And when Leonard refused to give his body over to Mrs. Latham’s checkbook, Sheldon screamed, “Given how much time you spend engaging in pointless self-abuse, you might consider just this once using your genitalia to actually accomplish something!”

NEXT: Amid all the unpleasantries, some genuine laughs!

It goes without saying that Parsons is a gifted, nuanced actor, but in a way, he was almost too good last night; Sheldon’s lines had real, lasting sting. He wasn’t alone, either. At the posh fundraiser, Kunal Nayyar as Raj declared with studied indifference, “In India, we don’t make the mistake of letting our poor people have dreams.” Ouch. And upon seeing a sex-discheveled Leonard stumble home after a rockin’ night with Mrs. Latham — turns out she was always going to donate the money; she just wanted to give Leonard a night he’d never forget — Kaley Cuoco as Penny greeted her ex with catty relish: “Good morning, sllllllut!” Oof.

I mean, I’m sorry, all of that is just mean. And, more to the point, it’s not the kind of comedy I like from my Big Bang Theory. (If I wanted a half-hour of unbroken sitcom cruelty, I’d watch Rules of Engagement.) I like it much better when, say, Sheldon tells the handsy president Siebert, “It’s not a touch phobia, it’s a germ phobia. If you put on a pair of latex gloves, I’ll let you check me for a hernia.” Or the sight gag of Penny’s lopsided job of tying Leonard’s tie. Or this exchange between Sheldon and Amy Farrah Fowler:

Amy: If your friends are unconvincing [at the fundraiser], this year’s donations might go to, say, the geology department.

Sheldon: Oh dear, not the dirt people!

That’s the kind of nerdy guffaw I can usually count on my Big Bang buddies delivering throughout an episode, instead of moments like the one in the odd final scene when Dr. Siebert led the entire cafeteria in applause for Leonard because “he took one for the team!” Why spend all that time getting us to root for Leonard to let Mrs. Latham rock his world just to make the notion of sex with any older woman into a sneering punchline? Blech. The only Big Bang costar who escaped completely unscathed was, ironically, Johnny Galecki, who weathered the evening’s ridicule with just the right touch of weary acceptance — a talent borne, I’m sure, from spending six seasons as the chronically put upon David Healy on Roseanne.

So tell me, Big Bang theorists, how many of you also felt “The Benefactor Factor” left a bad taste in your mouth? How many of you think I’m just in a grumpy mood and letting that get the better of me? How many of you took note of the meanness but didn’t really care because Jessica freaking Walter was in an episode of Big Bang Theory? And how many of you can explain what does happen when zombies can’t get human flesh to eat?

Episode Recaps

The Big Bang Theory

Sheldon, Leonard, Penny, Raj, and Wolowitz, Amy, Bernadette—the gang keeps growing. Bazinga!

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