I remember how devastated I was when Ted Kennedy died. He was sick for a long time, so it wasn’t exactly a shock when he died, but I was still very sad because for so long I looked to him as a bastion of liberal ideals. He was a hero of mine, and I was wrecked when he passed away. I know I’ll feel the same way when Jimmy Carter passes, too. I didn’t know Kennedy, yet his work inspired me.
I thought of Kennedy’s death when I watched last week’s The Big Bang Theory‘s “The Proton Transmogrification.” Sheldon’s hero, TV scientist Dr. Arthur Jeffries (Bob Newhart) dies, and it forces Sheldon to not only deal with loss but also, he’s forced to appreciate what he has in his life. For seven seasons, we’ve watched Sheldon try his friends’ patience – he’s not an easy guy to get along with, but for some reason, the gang still loves him, despite his oft-cold and brusque demeanor. And sometimes, the guy can be a real asshat. So it’s interesting that the show has Sheldon go through the kind of introspection rarely explored – it fits in neatly with his quest for professional fulfillment as his faith in string theory (his life’s work) is severely tested.
So it’s disappointing that the writers but Jim Parsons and Newhart through a gimmicky dream episode that obscures what could potentially be an uncommonly deep episode. It’s Star Wars Day, and the guys decide to celebrate by putting themselves through a gluttonous marathon of Star Wars movie watching. Unfortunately, Leonard finds out that Prof Jeffries has died, and is shaken up by the experience. He tries to engage Sheldon, even offering a one-sided, unrequited hug, but Sheldon doesn’t reciprocate.
At Jeffries’ funeral, Leonard and Penny share some regrets – he wishes he traveled more, took more risks, and he also regrets turning down his proposal. Even though both know that they’re in no place to get married at the moment (in fact, I’m not so sure they need to get married), they laugh about it, until Leonard realizes that he’s proposed twice to Penny’s one time. To even the score, so to speak, she proposes, and he teases her by stalling his refusal, which annoys Penny. It’s interesting that Leonard jokes with Penny like this, because even though it’s obvious that she loves him, she still has some commitment issues, and his little game makes light of those issues as well as forces her to confront them. Also, it’s rare that Leonard has the “upper hand” – emotionally, at least – in the relationship, so whenever he finds himself on top (like when pretty girls flirt with him), he revels in it.
But Sheldon doesn’t go to the funeral. Instead, he insists on spending Star Wars Day with Howard and Raj (Bernadette and Amy get an inconsequential minor plot that I’ll get into in a moment). Getting upset at Raj over a seemingly innocuous, trivial matter (something about which film in the Star Wars franchise they’ll see first, I think – to be honest, when they overload with the sci-fi trivia, I start to blank out a bit), Sheldon storms away and locks himself in his bedroom, and takes a nap.
In his dream, Jeffries appears wearing a Jedi robe, because he’s Sheldon’s Obi-Wan Kenobi (I had to google that to make sure I was spelling it right). Frankly, it cheapened the episode – despite the pretty cool graphics (courtesy of Lucasfilms, which gets a buttload of free publicity by having its films mentioned every other minute). The sight of Newhart dressed in a Jedi robe, wielding a light saber was good for a few laughs (he looked like Yoda), but it was disappointing that the writers chose this hacky way of drawing Sheldon out of his emotional closet. We learn that Sheldon’s had to deal with death a lot at an early age: his grandfather died when he was 5 and his father died when he was 15. It’s obvious that the feeling of abandonment Sheldon had to go through, affected his relationships with those around him – his friendship were always based on his terms – Leonard and Penny, probably two of the closest people to Sheldon, had to adjust their expectations of friendship and love when dealing with Sheldon – and he rarely felt the need to change for them. Having this control probably gave Sheldon a false sense of security – if he controlled his relationships, then he’d be in control of his feelings and emotions, if they ended. Pretty deep stuff. When Jeffries reminds Sheldon to appreciate his loved ones, he simply answers “I do appreciate them.” And it couldn’t be truer – Sheldon does appreciate his friends – he just has to show in his way, on his terms.
Sheldon wakes up to Leonard checking in on him. Before Leonard could go into the funeral details, Sheldon jumps up and hugs him – it was a beautiful moment – and The Big Bang Theory is able to have a few. And Parsons played the hug perfectly: it was gangly, quick, and impulsive. It was similar to Sheldon’s hugs with Penny. The audience’s too-gooey “awwwwwww” was a little much, and unnecessary: Parsons and Johnny Galecki played the scene wonderfully.
And because this was a Sheldon-heavy episode, some of the other characters got the shaft: this is most true with Bernadette and Amy – both of whom were relegated to a dinky little subplot that had the two women bake a Death Star cake to cheer Sheldon up. This minor story line showed the show at its best and its worst. Ever since the show introduced the women, it felt as if the show could take off with just the girls: some of the strongest scenes of the show had Penny, Bernadette, and Amy. This could be because both Penny and Bernadette aren’t jokey caricatures of nerd cliches (and the writers are doing better by Amy in slow, glacial increments). So it’s a shame that we’re treated to a potentially fascinating exchange between Bernie and Amy: the two discuss what made them go into the sciences, but instead as is often the case with TBBT, the scene is ridiculously short, only written to set up either a punchline or a sight gag: in this case it’s the fact that the girls baked a spherical cake that rolled off the table. I would’ve loved to hear more about the roads the two had to go on to become scientists – a very male-dominated field.
If it feels like I’m down on this episode, it’s only because there was so much potential: Bob Newhart is always great, and I love his halting delivery – but really? You had to dress the guy up in a Jedi robe? I find the more soulful Sheldon to be interesting, and I hope that the writers choose explore his insecurities with less goofiness and more reality. As shown in flashes in “The Proton Transmogrification” the writers – and the cast – are more than up to it.
Some random bits:
- I love the guys’ pun for Star Wars Day’s date: “May 4th…May the 4th be with you.”
- I love Penny’s reaction even more: “Oh, no, this face wasn’t because I didn’t get it”
- Sheldon’s tightly scheduled agenda for Star Wars Day allows one hour for Sheldon to complain about The Phantom Menace
- Penny’s a lot more fluent in Star Wars lore than she thinks…
- “Watching CSPAN with monsters” – I actually did get that reference, and I thought it was funny…
- I didn’t like the dream sequence, but Jeffries’ befuddled response to Sheldon’s references to Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Is that…an Internet?”
- Amy’s backstory was good for a few laughs: she was a Girl Sprout, not a Girl Scout because her mom didn’t want her to stand on the corner, selling cookies “like a whore.”
- Again, Sheldon’s hug was beautifully done. Parsons really nailed this episode, and elevated the sometimes so-so material.
- I liked Penny shitting on Jar-Jar Binks, and getting scolded by the guys who are protective of the awful character – they’re saying that only nerds can shit on Jar-Jar Binks, but at this point, isn’t Penny an honorary nerd? I mean, look at her social circle…
- Amy and Bernadette bring the cake, hoping that they missed the movie viewing, only to find out that the guys have restarted it all (“Crap,” Bernie seethes).
So what did you all think? Am I expected too much from a show like The Big Bang Theory? Did other people think that the Star Wars guesting worked?