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“The Clean Room Infiltration” continues The Big Bang Theory’s current streak of jovial episodes. It’s an episode that isn’t looking to get into messy narrative details, or touch on some of the heavier themes the show occasionally pulls out. And yet, even with all the lighthearted cheer that comes with a Christmas-themed episode, it all feels unbalanced and tone deaf, the two contrasting storylines failing to gel with one another.

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In one storyline, Leonard and Howard are conducting experiments in the University’s clean room. When they fail to close the loading dock doors, a pigeon gets into the room, therefore contaminating a space that isn’t even supposed to have dust in it. What follows is like the horrendous network version of Breaking Bad’s “Fly.” The containment of the room should theoretically allow for some solid comedy, especially with Simon Helberg and Johnny Galecki, always reliable in terms of timing and punchlines, as the principal players. They have so little to work with here though. The premise behind every “joke” is that Howard is a screw up who isn’t as smart as Leonard (and Raj, once he shows up to help them). I put “joke” in quotation marks because much of the storyline is just bickering, and while it’s not necessarily cynical or mean-spirited like the worst arguments on The Big Bang Theory, it boasts a tone that’s at odds with everything else going on in the episode. I mean, over in the other storyline, Amy is throwing a traditional Victorian Christmas (a great premise, by the way), and yes, it’s awkward, but it’s light and fun. Everything with Leonard, Howard, and Raj feels redundant at this point. How many times do we need Howard to be the punchline because he isn’t as academically decorated as the rest of the group? This is stale comedic territory, and it shows. The one great laugh comes from a great edit at the end. When on the phone with Penny, she suggests that they just erase their names from the sign-in sheet and get lost; nobody even knows they’re there. They show trepidation at first, but then: “we couldn’t possibly…” smash cut to all three of them singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of their lungs while driving home. The fact that such a simple smash cut can produce a genuine laugh only proves how rote the rest of the storyline is.

Thankfully, Amy’s Victorian Christmas is a little more lively in terms of laughs, even if the guests aren’t having any fun. Raj’s dad, who’s in the process of getting a divorce, is in in town and attends Amy’s dinner. His sole purpose in this episode seems to be to provide horrifically dated jokes about traditional gender roles. What are the two most sexist and overused topics used to make jokes about wives (and especially ex-wives) on sitcoms? If you guessed money and cleaning, you’d be right! Thankfully he spends the rest of the episode mostly silent, any jokes about the frequency of sex he was receiving from his villainous wife stored away for another day.

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Sheldon and Amy are wonderful here though, a stark contrast to everything involving Raj’s dad. The show has done a good job of slowly changing the dynamic of their relationship over the years. We’ve seen Amy grow into a patient, caring individual who understands Sheldon to his very core. And we’ve seen Sheldon do his best to adapt to the intimacy-related needs of a romantic relationship. Sure, a lot of their differences can be played for laughs, but for the most part, there’s a tenderness there that’s earned due to the fact that we’ve seen these characters grow. I loved watching Amy get excited about her parlour games. I loved watching Sheldon describe, with great detail, the things he knows Amy adores. I loved watching them exchange meaningful presents, Parsons truly playing Sheldon like a kid on Christmas morning. He lights up when he sees that Amy has baked his Mema’s cookies. But more importantly, he lights up because he realizes how much he loves her.

Stray observations:

  • I can never figure out the logic behind the network’s fall schedule. You take two weeks off then come back with a Christmas episode on the 11th?
  • I loved Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting in this episode. She’s so bored at the party, but also so used to it–and cares about Amy–that she easily makes the best of the whole situation. No hysterics, no cheap punchlines.
  • Raj, right before Howard attempts CPR on the dead pigeon: “If you pop him, I will vomit.” Ok, maybe that storyline had two good laughs.
  • I’ve had figgy pudding on Christmas, and I’m with Sheldon. It’s terrible.
  • I desperately want to attend one of Raj’s Tom Hanksgivings.
  • Howard, on the blue jay that he tried to revive with electricity as a child, only to set it on fire: “The worst part is it smelled delicious.”

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