There’s a certain amount of familiarity and comfort that creeps into a show that’s been on the air as long as The Big Bang Theory has. Sitcoms especially breed that familiarity because the narratives they constrict aren’t constrained by episodic storytelling. Sitcoms have the potential to age gracefully, in a sense, if the character work is good enough. The sitcom can become a hangout show, one where it’s just pleasant to check in with the characters week after week. There’s comfort in that, in knowing that a version of the thing we enjoy will be there for us week after week.

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The Big Bang Theory has done a pretty remarkable job this season of making at least part of its show a comforting experience. I don’t know if the show is aging well necessarily—it’s lost some of its step along the way, but also not as much as some other sitcoms from the same period—but it is showing that it has the ability to adapt. Sheldon and Amy, and their ever-evolving relationship, have been a real highlight this season, and a perfect example of how a show can age its characters without resorting to more and more ludicrous plotlines. There’s always the danger of an aging sitcom running out of ideas and then just piling on the crazy until the show is a shell of its former self, but with Sheldon and Amy, The Big Bang Theory is showing its maturity.

“The Solder Excursion Diversion” begins with a relatively simple setup. Sheldon is seen stubbornly holding on to his dying laptop while Amy urges him to finally get a new one. The picture and sound continue to cut out until the laptop dies, allowing for Sheldon to hold a hilariously morose memorial service. Then, Amy surprises him with a new computer, and after an initial round of questioning about the specs, Sheldon is on board with the gift. Still, he doesn’t want to recycle his old one, which leads him to reveal a dark secret to Amy: he’s a hoarder, and he has a storage unit filled with everything he’s ever owned, from broken electronics to an old golf ball that made a dent in his skull.

It’s a simple, low-stakes storyline, but that’s where this “golden years” version of The Big Bang Theory really shines. Sheldon’s reveal leads to a meaningful discussion between Sheldon and Amy. Amy is clearly thrown off by the hoarding, but her first instinct is to tell Sheldon that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. She knows him, and she knows this is hard for him, so she supports him immediately. After all, it’s so unlike the “old” Sheldon to be so vulnerable. Then, when he goes further and says how his hoarding goes against everything he stands for, emotionally and intellectually, she once again shows her support by revealing the weird things she’s kept over the years, by relating to him and showing him that they’re a team.

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The story of Sheldon and Amy’s relationship has always been about two socially awkward people learning to be vulnerable and open, and learning to be confident in who they are. Over the years they’ve gotten closer to one another, found comfort in each other’s otherness. This season has really doubled down on that though, showing the push and pull, the give and take, that comes with any relationship. Sheldon and Amy are growing closer to one another in small but meaningful ways, and it’s kind of beautiful.

In order to show just how remarkable such a progression actually is, take a look at how Leonard and Penny are treated now that they’re married. They’re hardly even allowed to be a couple anymore. There’s no conflict, no emotion, not even that much love. Instead it’s just assumed that since they’re together now, everything is fine. It’s the show getting complacent, or perhaps not knowing how else to explore that relationship dynamic after years of “will they or won’t they?” storytelling. Howard and Bernadette, and even the toxic, obnoxious Raj to an extent, are plagued with the same problem. The story of the guys leaving their wives doing work in the lab while they secretly see an early screening of Suicide Squad is fine, but it hardly has the depth and nuance that’s been a highlight of Sheldon and Amy’s subplots this season. In fact, the whole subplot basically skirts any conflict whatsoever. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means that it hardly makes any sort of emotional, or even comedic, impact.

Essentially, the subplot involving Penny, Bernadette, Leonard, Howard, and Raj is an example of The Big Bang Theory failing to find new ways to grow these characters, to push them to more personal and emotional revelations. That stands in stark contrast to Sheldon and Amy, who are growing into this admirable, flawed, supportive team week after week, episode after episode. The former storyline shows that The Big Bang Theory is hitting a creative wall in its ninth season, while at the same time Sheldon and Amy’s continual growth points to a way forward. As the end of the season approaches, here’s hoping the show can find some inspiration in the way Sheldon and Amy have evolved as characters.

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Stray observations

  • Have I mentioned lately that Raj is the worst? Oh, yes I did.
  • Penny actually calls Raj on his bullshit and it’s wonderful: “I know you think jokes like that are funny…”
  • “Emotional outhouse” is not a phrase I thought I’d ever hear, but it actually kind of makes sense here? I’ll allow it.
  • Note to The Big Bang Theory: you don’t have to make gay jokes about Raj.

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