Fine cast, top-notch guest stars, a super-couple, a super bromance, and a penchant for jokes that are funnier than the show’s broad comedy audience might suggest: That’s what The Big Bang Theory brings to the table. Still, haters gonna continue to hate on the CBS sitcom, whose ratings and Emmy recognition rankles plenty of TV fans.
In the midst of the show’s 12th and final season premiere week (after debuting earlier this week, it resumes in its regular time slot tonight), though, we’re making an argument for why TBBT is not the prime-time scourge so many claim it is. In fact, we’re offering up a batch of episodes — just a few hours of total viewing time — that will illustrate for you the ways The Big Bang Theory is better than you probably think it is.
“The Friendship Algorithm” (Season 2, Episode 13)
We have to start with a Sheldon-centric episode, for while there’s no denying the sharp performances the rest of the cast have brought to the series all these years, it’s still Sheldon’s show. Four-time Emmy winner Jim Parsons has skillfully, subtly, and appealingly crafted an organically evolving character who has retained many of his more annoying traits, but who strives for more understanding of and from, and connections with, his fellow humans. In “The Friendship Algorithm,” it’s early days for that evolution, as the episode opens with Raj, Leonard, and Howard tormenting Sheldon by thwarting his need to spill his thoughts on the dangers of tapioca pudding.
Despite that unpleasant exchange with those who are his friends, Sheldon embarks on a project to gain a new friend: Barry Kripke, his jerk of a colleague whom Sheldon believes controls access to the university’s supercomputer he needs for his research. But because, again, Sheldon’s in the naïve stages of his understanding of sarcasm and how to forge a friendship (a relatable situation even the most friendly among us occasionally tangle with, I’d suggest), he goes about it in a most counterproductive manner. He thinks it’s a good thing to offer his friendship to Barry, in spite of his reputation for being “altogether unlikable” … but mentions Barry’s reputation to him during the proffer of friendship. And when making his current companions fill out a 211-question survey on his most likable qualities also fails to help him, he goes shopping to “acquire a book that summarizes the current theories in friend-making.”
It is a sweetly weird idea, Sheldon’s complete inability to see friend-making as a social exercise that isn’t best circumnavigated by an algorithm of some kind. That turns into something completely different when he innocently bonds with a little girl at the bookstore, while trying to learn lessons in friendship-making from Stu the Cockatoo Is New at the Zoo. (Luckily, Leonard is there to prevent the disaster Sheldon’s about to find himself in when he asks young Rebecca if she wants to go to the zoo with him.) Sheldon’s last-ditch effort at befriending Kripke involves going indoor rock-climbing. It’s an exercise that ends with Sheldon passed out and swinging from the safety ropes, many feet off the ground. It doesn’t end with him getting time on the Open Science Grid Computer, though. That Kripke butt-kissing was for naught, because supercomputer access is controlled by an official schedule, not the whims of Sheldon’s co-worker. But maybe Sheldon has edged just a little bit closer to the idea that he needs to be kind to adults, not just little girls who also are creeped out by cockatoos.
“The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (Season 2, Episode 11)
Aside from Sheldon Cooper’s solo exploits, the most consistent laughs to be found on TBBT come from the relationship between Sheldon and Penny. The supergenius thinks he’s much smarter than the infrequently employed actress and Cheesecake Factory waitress turned pharmaceutical sales rep. But her street smarts leave his lack of social smarts glaringly obvious, and the comedy chemistry between Parsons and Kaley Cuoco is often at the center of the show’s best episodes.
“The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” is my pick for the best of the series’ 255 installments heading into the final season. It’s Christmastime, and Sheldon’s social anxiety about gift-giving is whipped into a frenzy when he finds out Penny has a wrapped package for him. His theory is that the gift he gives in return must be “a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift” given to him. This obligates him, as he sees it, to cover all his bases, so he purchases half a dozen gift baskets of bath and body products — baskets of various sizes and monetary value — and plans to give Penny the basket closest to the value of the gift she gives him. He couldn’t have planned for just how out-of-this-world special Penny’s gift would be, though. (No spoiling that delicious little detail.) After trying to reciprocate with material goods, Sheldon feels the only thing he can do is offer Penny something even more rare than a Sheldon Cooper compliment: a Sheldon Cooper hug, the most physically awkward, but genuine, hug ever given.
“The Love Spell Potential” (Season 6, Episode 23)
By season six, most viewers probably would have said they knew the characters of The Big Bang Theory so well that it would be tough to throw out any major surprises about any of them. But welcome to the scene-stealing, nay, episode-stealing impersonation skills of Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg, whose performance has been underrated throughout the series). The guys are assembled at Sheldon and Leonard’s pad for a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Howard’s taking over for Leonard with Dungeon Master duties for the night, and while Sheldon at first questions whether or not Wolowitz is up to the task (specifically, carrying out the task to Sheldon’s exacting standards), Howard soon blows them all away with instructions and play-by-play using spot-on impersonations of Nicolas Cage, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Raj, who leaves the game early to go on a date.
Leonard, to Sheldon: “See, Howard’s just as good a Dungeon Master as I am.”
Sheldon: “As good? You just got pantsed in the schoolyard, Four Eyes.”
“The Proton Resurgence” (Season 6, Episode 22)
Stephen Hawking, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, LeVar Burton, Regina King, Carrie Fisher, James Earl Jones, Billy Bob Thornton — plus the guest stars who’ve become recurring characters, like Laurie Metcalf, Christine Baranski, John Ross Bowie, Kevin Sussman, and Wil Wheaton — have all been used for great comic purposes by The Big Bang Theory writers. But this mid-series gem, which began the Emmy-winning recurring role of comedy legend Bob Newhart as former kids’ science show host, Professor Proton (real name: Dr. Arthur Jeffries), is the epitome of how the show successfully injects heart into its often mocking humor.
Sheldon and Leonard are so thrilled to meet their childhood hero — who now does a live show for children’s parties — that they hire him to perform at their apartment. Arthur takes the gig, but the fact that he is performing for a roomful of adult physicists highlights for him how his science colleagues never took him seriously, even if his young TV viewers loved him. That Sheldon and Leonard became scientists because of him cushions the career slight. But when Arthur gets sick and asks Sheldon to sub for him at a children’s party, the undying loyalty (i.e. obsessive fandom) that Professor Proton earns from Sheldon may be something he comes to regret. “What an honor! This is like being asked to ascend Mount Olympus and dine with the gods,” Sheldon says. “Or a Korean family in Alhambra,” Arthur quips.
“But they’ll know I’m not you. Should I call myself Professor Proton Jr.? So, in a way it’s like I’m your son?” Sheldon asks.
Arthur: “Sure, what the hell.”
“The Tangerine Factor” (Season 1, Episode 17)
Amy Farrah Fowler once said to those reaching her voice-mail, “We out dropping science, son,” which is something TBBT has done throughout its run. There has been all manner of scientific terminology dropping, some of which most viewers will probably never really understand in the first place, let alone remember after the fact. (And let’s not get started on Sheldon’s many, many jargon-laden rants.) But it’s a good bet that a whole lot of TBBT viewers can not only offer a pithy explanation of Schrödinger’s cat, but can apply the thought experiment in relatable, practical ways. It has popped up in several episodes over the course of the series, but Sheldon first mentioned it in this season-one finale. While trying to help Penny figure out if she should risk her friendship with Leonard by going on a date with him, Sheldon told Penny her problem was like Schrödinger’s feline friend. “Your potential relationship with Leonard right now can be thought of as both good and bad,” he said. “It is only by opening the box that you’ll find out which it is.”
The series offered up a very special will-they, won’t-they couple in Sheldon and Amy. With “Shamy” (yes, that’s their couple name) the question was whether or not coitus-ambivalent Sheldon would ever want to have sex, with Amy or anyone else. Sheldon and Amy were introduced to each other in the season-three finale, and by the third episode of season four (“The Zazzy Substitution”), they’d grown close enough that Sheldon was crushed when they had a fight that led to a breakup. They reconciled by that episode’s end, but faced more problems — and one serious breakup — across the next five seasons, as Amy waited and hoped for Sheldon’s feelings and emotional maturity to catch up to hers.
They’re married now, and it’s probably true that she’s still waiting for that full level of emotional maturity on his part. But not long after reuniting from that big breakup, they took an epic step forward in “The Opening Night Excitation,” when Sheldon skipped the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to spend the night with Amy on her birthday. Well, not just spend the night: He surprised Amy with plans for them to lose their virginity together. Spurred on by a visit from the ghost of his friend and mentor, Newhart’s Arthur Jeffries (who died in season seven), Sheldon decided that the best way to show Amy how much he cared for her was by sacrificing something important to him. The writers carried out this pivotal moment in perfect fashion and tone, with sweetness, humor, and even a touch of randiness on Sheldon’s part. He told pals Penny and Bernadette what he was planning for the Amy’s special day: “It’s settled. Amy’s birthday present will be my genitals.”
“The Panty Piñata Polarization” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Another fine instance of Sheldon-Penny chemistry comes in this stellar episode, which also provides one of the best examples of how Penny should not be underestimated — something even Sheldon would have to admit after the neighbor war that ensues here. Sheldon bans Penny from his apartment after a series of infractions, including sending the “internet banality” of the “I Can Has Cheezburger?” cat meme to his email address. She responds by refusing to take his order at the Cheesecake Factory. When he blocks her from piggybacking on his internet access, Penny escalates the feud by blocking his ability to do his laundry on his regular Saturday night schedule. More laundry shenanigans ensue, but with a tip from Leonard, Penny gets the last word (and the return of her missing underwear) after she reports Sheldon’s behavior to his mom.
There’s a reason this Reddit thread — which posits that Penny is actually an undercover spy sent to keep tabs of Sheldon and Leonard — is not only ridiculously fun, but not so ridiculous in its reasoning.
Bonus points to this episode for having one of the best jokes of the series, again with a nod to Penny for a Sheldon-worthy comeback:
Sheldon, after Penny ruins laundry night: “Woman, you are playing with forces beyond your ken.”
Penny: “Your Ken can kiss my Barbie.”
Shamy’s the main duo of the show, and the next runner-up is neither Penny and Leonard, nor Bernadette and Howard. It’s Howard and Raj, whose bromance is a go-to for great B-story adventures. The best: the creation (and near dissolution within the same episode) of Footprints on the Moon, the Filk (folk-meets-sci-fi) band Howard and Raj create when Stuart is looking for musical acts to entertain his comic-book shop customers. The enthusiasm, and sincerity, with which the wannabe rockers perform their one undeniably catchy song, “Thor and Dr. Jones” — an ode to the Marvel hero and Indiana Jones — is hilarious and endearing.
“The Staircase Implementation” (Season 3, Episode 22)
Early-aughts hair, a guest appearance by pre-Walking Dead Steven Yeun (as Sheldon’s ex-roommate), and the surprising story behind why there is no elevator in Sheldon, Penny, and Leonard’s apartment building are but a few of the delights in this fantastic backstory episode. A frustrated Leonard spends an evening drinking with Penny after a crazy thermostat fight with Sheldon, and as part of his rant against his roomie, Leonard reveals how he came to be hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. We see Sheldon and Leonard’s first meeting then, as well as the origins of the official apartment flag, how Howard and Raj became regular visitors, why Sheldon has “permanent dibs” on his sitting spot, and the restrictive and very specific set of rules known as the Roommate Agreement. (“Screw the Roommate Agreement!” Leonard yells to Sheldon during the pre-flashback thermostat tiff. “You don’t screw the Roommate Agreement!” Sheldon counters. “The Roommate Agreement screws you!”)
All of these details are to paint a picture of Leonard’s long suffering under Sheldon’s dictatorial reign, but two key events help explain why Leonard has remained in Apt. 4A. First, Sheldon intruded upon Leonard’s frisky time with a woman named Joyce Kim. Leonard was working on a top-secret military project at the time, and only after the coitus interruptus perpetrated by Sheldon did Leonard learn Joyce was a North Korean spy, who’d shown quite a bit of interest in his military rocket-fuel work. Later, when Leonard tried to show off his rocket fuel to Raj and Howard, a miscalculation led to an explosion. Quick-thinking Sheldon tossed the mess into the elevator shaft of their apartment building, destroying the elevator, but saving Leonard’s life. He also didn’t “didn’t rat me out to the landlord … or the police … or Homeland Security,” Leonard tells Penny, making two times Sheldon likely spared him from federal prison.
That backstory on Sheldon and Leonard’s enduring friendship, in fact, is a good example of why so many Big Bang Theory fans have remained loyal to the series through more than 250 episodes. There have been some clunkers; try to make more than 20 episodes a season and not have some missteps along the way. But just as Sheldon has been a reliably irritating presence in his friends’ lives since the beginning, so has he been capable of wonderful surprises, much like the series itself.