Largely beloved CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory will be ending its reign on cable television in spring 2019 after 12 seasons. I can understand the broad, easy appeal of the show, with it’s predictable jokes and familiar comedic setups, but it’s just never been my personal cup of tea. And while there’s a lot I could pick apart about why I don’t like The Big Bang Theory, the one aspect of this show that really gets under my skin — and not in a good way — is Leonard and Penny’s relationship. Yes, you read that right: I can’t stand Leonard and Penny’s relationship on The Big Bang Theory and yes, you’re darn right I’m about to tell you why.
It’s not that I think Leonard and Penny are bad people or that I think their characters are made to be disliked. I clearly get that they’re both inherently good, nice people. But the problem is twofold with Leonard and Penny. First, there’s a power imbalance that their relationship is based on that makes me feel, on a fundamental level, unsettled. Add to this the fact that so much has happened over the course of their relationship on the show that leads me to constantly wonder exactly why they’re together. By the time I take a moment to sit and really think about it, I wonder why this coupling ever started in the first place. Heck, even their first date happened under false pretenses!
It’s no great secret that Penny has always been at a disadvantage in terms of the way her character has been written (e.g., never given a last name; treated like a “dumb blonde” archetype; given bland, subpar career aspirations, initially being a struggling actor who works at The Cheesecake Factory). Compared to Leonard, who has had season upon season of character-building story arcs written in so we have always had a full sense of who Leonard is as a person, it feels imbalanced. The implication here is that Penny is someone that Leonard can upload his own personality into and make her a whole, valuable person. When he is with her, he can take up space with his personal life and she is there to accept it all and participate in it completely because she implicitly has nothing else going on in her life. Despite the fact that her professional aspirations have evolved throughout the series, I can’t accept that. I also can’t accept that Penny somehow becomes a more complete person when she begins dating Leonard and later marries him, further being defined by his own life and achievements.
From this shaky foundation comes an entire relationship that, even when you hit the big beats, makes it clear these two never should have been together. For one thing, Leonard (and many of the show’s leading characters) have a tendency to belittle Penny because she isn’t (in their opinion) as smart as them. Cracks about Penny’s intelligence have been made through TBBT’s run, and no, I’m not exactly over here laughing along with the studio audience.
That’s not to say that, when it comes to the more pedantic side of TBBT and arguing about the quality of someone’s intellect, Penny’s nose is entirely clean; she’s gotten in her cracks about Leonard’s work in experimental physics more than once. She’s made fun of him and his friends about their niche interests and teased them for liking things outside the perceived social norm. The mutual interest, respect and support Penny and Leonard should be giving one another as romantic partners just isn’t fully there.
Penny has, at various points in the series: not been supported by Leonard for pursuing acting; been borderline slut-shamed for the number of people she’s been with compared to Leonard; endured criticisms from Leonard’s mother about her character; cast in an semi-shame-y light when she and Leonard discussed having kids and she wasn’t ready because she wanted to focus on her career. Never mind that Leonard cheated on her or that Penny’s commitment to the first phase of their relationship didn’t feel as pronounced as Leonard’s. On paper, these two people with entirely different interests, beliefs, career paths, social circles and so on don’t appear to have the footing to get them past a third date. I remain confounded as to why TBBT has pushed all their chips to the center of the table on this couple.
Simply put, Leonard and Penny don’t work to me. When the credits roll for the final time this spring, we’ll no longer have a show that, in my eyes, never quite managed to fully represent a dynamic, unique and collaborative relationship between them, and instead, prioritized depicting a “nerdy guy” getting the “dream girl.”
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