Sitcoms can be funny, sweet, or popular, but never more than two of those things at once. CBS’s The Big Bang Theory has long been an exception to this rule of thumb: Every episode is good for several laughs, at least one awwww, and monster ratings. It’s the most popular comedy on television, and its older episodes make it the No. 1 sitcom in syndication.
Four episodes into the sixth season, though, something feels off. The decision to send Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) into space (he served as a payload specialist on the International Space Station) seems to have disturbed the show’s planetary rotation.
The childlike selfishness and condescending self-absorption of Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is too bitter if it isn’t offset by other, less irritating characteristics. In the past, equilibrium has been achieved by mixing in the patient tolerance of Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), the loser desperation of Howard Wolowitz, and the affable awkwardness of Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar). In recent seasons they’ve been joined—with fabulous results—by Wolowitz’s girlfriend (now wife) Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch) and Sheldon’s tireless suitor, Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik).
Wolowitz’s space time didn’t completely remove him from the show, but his appearances—he was shown chatting with his friends, mom, and new wife via Skype—were too disconnected from the rest of those episodes’ flow. And his stint as an astronaut was a total downer—his fellow astronauts picked on him, and he went a little dotty in zero gravity. Back on Earth, everyone started acting a little strangely without Wolowitz around: Leonard’s fretting about his relationship with Penny went so far as to become tiresome, Penny got testy, and lonely Raj turned to comic-book-store owner Stuart for homoerotic (but, blessedly, not homophobic) friendship.
In Thursday night’s episode, Wolowitz’s anticlimactic return to the fold would’ve made anyone whine. Bernadette came down with a cold, leading to a terribly disappointing bedroom scene. (I usually hate the Liz Lemoning of smart female characters—when smart, attractive women are made dumb and/or ugly for laughs—but when Bernadette passed out after a brief, nasty make-out session, Wolowitz had the grace to say: “Well, that was quick and a little gross. Now I know how she feels.”) His usually overbearing mom (she put the mother in smother) was too busy having sex with the family dentist to answer his knock at the door, and his pal Raj was bonding with Stuart. At least Wolowitz didn’t crash his signature scooter.
The Big Bang Theory has always been a bit of a miracle. As the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff observed in a Bloggingheads conversation with Alyssa Rosenberg back in August, the increasing segmentation of American society means mainstream audiences share little in common, so broad, popular comedies tend to stick with the single aspect of life that unites us all: sex. Sex jokes can be hilarious, but they can also be gross. (Exhibit A: CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, whose raunchy references regularly send me Googling—I’m pretty sure Max’s recent mention of a “string of pearls” wasn’t a reference to China’s port strategy.) There’s a little sex in Big Bang Theory but, these days at least, it’s always in the context of loving relationships. It never seems exploitative, as it often does in creator Chuck Lorre’s Two and a Half Men. (Lorre’s other current comedy, Mike and Molly, is oddly bipolar; the relationship between the titular couple is incredibly sweet, but the supporting characters supply so much salt and sauce that the show often turns my stomach.)
The Big Bang Theory’s creators deserve praise for their willingness to shake things up. After five incredibly successful seasons of nerdy laughs, it would’ve been easy to coast. Instead, they chose to press the reset button and disrupt the familiar friendships. Still, I hope things settle down soon, because so far this season, it’s all been a bit of a bummer.