Not every single episode of a sitcom is going to move its characters forward in a way that makes an impact, either emotionally or in terms of the overall narrative. In fact, most sitcoms only wave at the idea of character progression from one episode to the next. Typically, there are two or three “event” episodes in a year where something big happens, and that’s meant to make up for all the previous stagnation. Think of how Howard and Bernadette’s relationship was dead in the water early this season, up until it was revealed Bernadette was pregnant in one of those “event” episodes. Still, it’s rewarding when sitcoms manage to sneak in low-key character moments in episodes that are otherwise mostly reserved for comedy. “The Line Substitution Solution” is one of those episodes.

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The episode begins with a rather standard Big Bang Theory setup. The guys hear about a screening of The Avengers where Joss Whedon will be showing deleted scenes from the movie and doing a post-screening Q&A. Because it’s a first-come-first-served screening, the guys have to get their early to stand in line. It’s a premise the show itself (and plenty of other sitcoms) has done before, but there’s a change in the delivery that makes it feel at least a little more original. Essentially, Sheldon can’t attend the screening because he’s agreed to go shopping with Amy. However, Howard lets him know that you can now hire people to stand in line for you. Sheldon seems against the idea though, but he does decide that he’s going to hire Stuart to go shopping with Amy in his place.

What’s interesting about this is that it allows the show to once again explore Sheldon and Amy’s relationship, but in an indirect way, as their story dovetails with Penny’s. She’s picked up Leonard’s mother from the airport and suggests a girls night in. That gives Beverly the opportunity to act as an observer, to see and comment on the relationships that we’re familiar with, and perhaps shed a new light on them. The Beverly character is still a little too much of a caricature rather than a three-dimensional person, but her presence does shake things up, offering up new insights into the group.

For instance, when Stuart shows up at the movie theater to scold Sheldon on Amy’s behalf, Sheldon turns around and hires him to go back and apologize. It’s a good comedic bit—for once Stuart doesn’t drag the episode down—but what really makes it shine is the fact that it garners an emotional response that’s grounded in the season’s significant character work. What I mean is that Amy isn’t just upset that Sheldon blew her off. She’s upset that he’s exhibiting the same lack of empathy that they’ve spent so long overcoming. He didn’t think about her feelings when he decided to hire Stuart to go shopping with her, and after all the progress they’ve made his neglect stings that much more. The presence of Beverly allows this psychology to come out more than it perhaps would have in other episodes, as she even comments on Sheldon’s behavior before him and Amy make up.

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When Sheldon does finally show up at the apartment to apologize in person, it’s a rushed, halfhearted apology. It would have been nice to see Sheldon once again reckon with his behavior, but there’s also the sense that Amy understands that this is a process with him. She jokes about how slow that progress can be—“He’s come a short way very slowly”—but in that joke is understanding and compassion. It’s what makes their relationship so strong. She knows that Sheldon has his issues, and that they’re largely due to his brain chemistry and not purposely hurtful behavior, so forgiving him comes easy this time. It’s one step at a time, and she knows that.

The rest of the episode doesn’t quite have the same emotional heft to it. Everything at the move theatre involving line cutting is rather forgetful. There are funny moments sprinkled through the storyline. The guys pick on Raj for his collapsible stick chair, and Sheldon misguidedly evokes Rosa Parks in his battle against the line cutter, who’s played with appropriate nonchalance by Blake Anderson. Those moments are fine, but the whole situation is more about Stuart acting as a go-between for Sheldon and Amy, so most of that stuff can’t help but feel tangential.

What’s worse is that the episode doesn’t do much with Penny and Beverly. It constructs a scenario where Penny tries to bond with her and Beverly won’t let her in, all before revealing that she’s upset that she didn’t get an invitation to their spontaneous wedding (which she wouldn’t have attended anyways). It’s perfectly understandable conflict, but the build is so similar to every single interaction that Leonard has with his mother that the novelty of Penny experiencing the same thing wears off quickly, and the beats once again become familiar. There’s a tidiness to the resolution too that’s off-putting. After Beverly opens up a bit and says that she’s never seen Leonard happier, Penny offers to hold a small ceremony while she’s in town in order to make up for the lack of an invitation. It’s a resolution that feels like a cop out. The Big Bang Theory has never really dealt with any issues stemming from Leonard and Penny’s surprise wedding, and this seems like the perfect opportunity squandered.

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Stray observations

  • “Who is Mike Drop?”
  • That opening bit was a lot of fun, with Sheldon trying to remember faces of celebrities and Penny trying to remember scientific symbols.
  • “I can do 40 minutes on your posture alone.”

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