Mayim Bialik, Jim Parsons

Human existence is a heavy thing, man. We essentially live in a constant state of existential crises, completely aware of our own mortality and yet helpless to really do much to fend it off. How do we make a lasting impact with the short time we’re given as humans? Is one’s influence measured in friends, money, family, Criterion Blu-Rays? The easiest answer might be: it’s subjective. We all measure success differently, and have varying perspectives as to what constitutes living a “meaningful” life. Such existential musings are probably too heavy for a network comedy to tackle head on, but with “The Champagne Reflection,” The Big Bang Theory turns out a wonderful episode centered around ideas of loss, impermanence, and how we derive meaning from our existence.

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More on that later though. Let’s start with the episode’s weakest, but still confidently executed, storyline: Bernadette, while at a workplace gala with Penny, learns that her colleagues fear her. They’re intimidated by her brash personality, and her boss thinks she’s flat-out mean spirited. Insulting a seven-year-old’s three-legged race skills at a picnic will earn one such a reputation. Bernadette initially defends herself to Penny. She talks about how her father raised her, making sure she didn’t take any bullshit from anybody. In this sense, Bernadette’s mean-spirited behavior these last few episodes makes sense. Bernadette, a tiny woman who entered into a field dominated by men, would certainly have to develop a thick skin and a no-bullshit attitude to gain the respect she deserves. It doesn’t excuse her actions towards Howard as of late, but it does provide a bit of character insight that humanizes Bernadette. Couple this with the fact that Penny essentially confronts Bernadette with a few anecdotes about how hurtful she can be, and suddenly the show is addressing one of its most glaring issues of late; Bernadette has always been confident and audacious, but never as overbearing as she’s been this season. Ultimately, by episode’s end, Bernadette cries her way to getting what she wants rather than forcefully demanding it. It’s a regression compared to everything that came before, but it doesn’t undercut the insights and continuity the storyline explores.

In the episode’s other two storylines, the characters deal with ideas of loss and permanence; Sheldon and Amy record the last instalment of ”Fun with Flags,” while Raj, Howard, and Leonard clean out the office of a professor who has recently passed away. Both storylines find a balance between humor and drama, cracking jokes when necessary, but also finding time for tenderness. The “Fun with Flags” segment provides the most laughs. When Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik share the screen, they’re magnetic. Typically, comedy comes from the pairing of opposites, which allows the actors to play off of the differences in each character. That’s not true with Parsons and Bialik though. When together, they have this kinetic energy, a sense of pacing and timing that’s integral to selling and elevating the awkward-nerd schtick. There are plenty of great jokes peppered throughout the segment–Sheldon in period drag evoked a welcome belly laugh–but it’s the underlying sadness that adds an emotional heft to the proceedings. Amy’s sheer enthusiasm for the show, and for Sheldon and his hobbies, is endearing. She’s been a rock for Sheldon ever since they started dating. Her dedication is amped up to 11, and Bialik injects the character with copious amounts of heart and empathy. Those are traits that ground the Sheldon and Amy as characters, that stop them from devolving into empty caricatures. I can’t praise her performance in this episode, and most episodes since her debut, enough.

The same can be said for the performances of Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg, and Kunal Nayyar in this episode. When clearing out a dead colleague’s office, and observing that all of his research was for naught, they begin to contemplate those BIG questions that plague us all. What am I doing with my life that’s meaningful? Will people remember the work I did, the effort I put in? Is a life dedicated to a single pursuit noble, or ridiculous? The Big Bang Theory doesn’t answer these questions (and it doesn’t have to), but it does spend some time considering some weighter themes, and it gives the guys a few moments to evaluate their own lives. Raj and Howard are a bit busy laughing at how Roger Abbot sounds a lot like Roger Rabbit, but eventually, they all can’t help but see Abbot’s failure reflected in their own lives. These are all men working towards academic goals of some sort, and the idea that an entire life, meaningful to the one living it, can be reduced to a few boxes of papers is momentously frightening. The last scene of the guys standing in Abbot’s office reminds me a lot of a moment during the first season finale of Six Feet Under. Nate Fisher, while comforting a grieving niece, is asked why people have to die. ”To make life important,” he says. It’s simple and cliché, but it’s undoubtedly resonant. There’s that same resonance here, as Leonard discusses how some people just don’t achieve something great. But there’s meaning somewhere, as Howard points out; you have to “find meaning in the little moments that make up life.” Simple and sweet is a good look for this show.

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Stray observations:

  • That was some of the best “Fun with Flags” stuff we’ve seen. The little montage worked perfectly. I wanted to see more!
  • Bernadette’s pretty sure she’s the sweetest person she knows: “I should be in a tree baking cookies.”
  • Sheldon apparently dressed in blackface at one point in his life. Thankfully, that was all kept off camera.
  • “Fun with Flags” viewers are affectionately known as Flagateers.
  • Like Wil Wheaton, LeVar Burton needs a gate.

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