Friday, July 1, 2011

The Big Bang Theory Theory (Part Three)

The Raj/Howard Continuum

Kunal Nayyar as Raj Koothrappali;
Simon Helberg as Howard Wolowitz
If Leonard and Sheldon represent conflicting impulses about human relationships and belonging on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, their friends Raj and Howard represent another root human conflict.  On the surface they seem to struggle with their desire to have sex, coupled with their powerful will to sabotage themselves.  But on closer consideration, both want something deeper than sex: they want fulfillment.  And they achieve that simple human desire in ways that subvert every expectation.

From the first episode, when Howard and Raj are thunderstruck by Penny’s beauty, both characters declare their obsession with having sex.  Yet that same first episode establishes that they accept, in advance, that they will not have sex.  Therefore, Raj turns mute, while Howard becomes bombastic and odious.  This gives them advance insurance that they don’t need to expect much; going in, they know they will fail.

We can read this two different ways.  In the first reading, this makes a statement about science, and the ways people create limits for themselves according to their expectations.  As Rampton & Stauber demonstrate, the scientific process is complex, time-consuming, and expensive, so many practitioners create ways to abridge the process.  Note that at colleges like CalTech, where these characters work, “hookup” culture has done something similar for sex.

But the second reading says less about them than about us.  Audiences come to television with certain learned expectations, and often rebel when they're disregarded.  In particular, we expect to see couples circle one another in a tightly choreographed dance that can last years, like Ross and Rachel on Friends.  We think we know how couples behave on Planet Sitcom, and who rightly belongs together, like Leonard and Penny.  These two remain blind to these rules.

Thus they subvert not just our expectations, but the language of sitcom writers everywhere.  These two fail to make significant connections outside their narrow circle, at least until Howard meets Bernadette in the middle of Season Three.  The Ross/Rachel dynamic of circling, coming together, flying apart, yet remaining ultimately in one another’s orbit, ultimately doesn’t apply to these characters.

But it precisely describes their bromance.    These two have the kind of arguments which sitcom lingo tells us couples have, because they displace their psychological drive away from girls and onto one another.  There’s nothing notably homosexual about either character, and on the rare occasions when the slightest sexual tension arises they recoil; but they have the relationship courting couples always maintain on Planet Sitcom.

Leonard’s mother points out, first in Season Two and again in Season Three, that Howard and Raj have an ersatz homosexual marriage.  Though both characters reject that reading, and their intricate arrangements keep each other’s bodies at arm’s length, when they need the emotional satisfaction of another human soul, they seek each other.  So their continuum isn’t really about sex, despite surface appearances; it touches much deeper needs.

Like all married households, theirs develops its own esoteric traditions.  Though they keep separate apartments, they’ve learned to speak each other’s language and anticipate each other’s actions.  And they’ve learned to key off one another regarding their shared, yet fruitless, desire for sex.  Going through the motions has become their equivalent, in a traditional marriage, of Thanksgiving dinner or board game night.

Humans can live without sex, but we can’t live without connection to another soul.  In that way, we might reject homosexual interpretations and regard Raj and Howard as a faux monastic community.  Like Benedictines, who choose a task within the monastery, they’ve chosen applied physics, while games and comics comprise their liturgy.  Note that both characters have rejected their family’s religious heritage; they share a secular orthodoxy of alternating insight and frivolity.

In a way, despite their constant sexual frustration, they are happier than either Leonard or Sheldon.  Where those two want something they cannot have without a price they will not pay, Howard and Raj have let their wants become a public mask.  They certainly have what they need.  And while they may work themselves into the occasional tizzy over their need for common sexual release, they share a bond that would make most married couples jealous.

It’s actually reassuring to see such a happy couple on network television.  Since happy people tend to be kind of boring, the media spotlight people wracked in misery.  Though these two suffer their setbacks, and often get shelved behind Leonard and Sheldon’s humorous bumbling, they have a wealth of connection that few stars can touch.  And good for them, too.

Part One: The Leonard/Sheldon Disjunction
Part Two: The Penny Polarization


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