Melissa Rauch, Kunal Nayyar, Simon Helberg, Jim Parsons
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Since she’s been bumped up to a regular cast member, Mayim Bialik’s portrayal of Amy Farrah Fowler has consistently been the best part of The Big Bang Theory. She’s the character with the most depth and the most heart. She’s the one who you can rely on not only for laughs, but also for the moments of compassion that are integral to this series. Without those moments, there’s no emotional core to the show, and all that’s left is a bunch of stale jokes about how “nerds” are weak or weird.

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The compelling and grounding nature of Amy Farrah Fowler has never been more evident than in last week’s “The Communication Deterioration” and this week’s “The Graduation Transmission,” because every main character is involved in a story except for Amy. She’s nowhere to be found for most of the former episode and all of the latter, and her absence highlights the fact that when present, the show has a comedic and dramatic confidence that’s otherwise lacking. Most of that boils down to the fact that Bialik is a wonderful performer, managing to exaggerate Amy’s more ludicrous and humorous character tics without devolving into parody, all while making her character the most obvious voice of reason.

For the most part, last week’s “The Communication Deterioration” is a fine episode of The Big Bang Theory, one that pushes along a few central storylines that are proving to be integral to the end of the season while also adding in some inconsequential B-stories. After Penny’s talk with Kevin Smith in the previous episode, she’s torn between going to the audition and continuing her sales job. She seeks advice from Sheldon, but after Raj and Leonard lambast him and Howard for always taking on a leadership role and steamrolling other people, he remains silent on his advice for Penny.

This is Sheldon we’re talking about though, so he only stays quiet for so long. He advises Penny to see how the audition goes, but to not close the door on her sales job just yet. Once Penny arrives at the audition, and stumbles into a room full of women who look like her, she understands why she left acting behind in the first place. It’s because she couldn’t stand out, that she never really had that X factor that’s necessary to succeed in show business. It’s a weird revelation to be having eight seasons into the show, especially considering Penny’s acting career has mostly been treated as a joke throughout that run, but it’s a perfectly suitable way to refocus Penny’s character, to establish her role as an individual, which, with any luck, will open up possibilities for a further exploration of her relationship with Leonard.

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While the failed audition is a nice (if redundant) bit of character closure, the other storyline in the episode feels like forced conflict. When Raj is granted a project to build a space probe that could carry a message to extraterrestrials, he chooses Leonard as his partner, stating that Sheldon and Howard often implement their ideas without acknowledging the ideas of others. It’s the kind of faux conflict that doesn’t suit the show and feels totally contrived. When Raj and Leonard start to work on the probe, and can’t decide how to even begin the project, it’s a character flaw that feels disingenuous. After all, both Leonard and Raj are academically esteemed in their own right, and while they both display characteristics that could be considered passive, they certainly know how to get things done. Leonard is just coming off theoretical breakthrough, making this conflict seem particularly contrived.

While Bialik was certainly missed in “The Communication Deterioration,” where she only had a single scene near the end of the episode, her complete absence from “The Graduation Transmission” is practically devastating. Sure, the majority of the episode focuses on the guys, as Leonard is preparing to give a commencement speech at his old high school while Raj, Howard, and Sheldon try to fix an extravagant remote-controlled helicopter that Raj bought with his parents’ money, but even Bernadette finds time to pop in and criticize the guys for being childish (that’s her entire role on the show now, in case you had forgotten).

Amy has long been the counterbalance to Bernadette’s shrill critic; she’s the one who empathizes with the guys (because she’s just like them), but also wants to see them become better people. For instance, she obviously wants Sheldon to get over his intimacy issues, but she doesn’t make fun of him or yell at him for being stubborn or childish. Instead, she uses empathy to create trust, and therefore intimacy. That kind of heart is something the show needs, something that’s missing with every story that doesn’t include Amy.

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That kind of heartfelt moment instead goes to Leonard here, as he changes his commencement speech on the fly to address the outsiders, to speak a few words of wisdom to the “weird” kids. He tells them that for every moment they spend doing things that the popular kids think are lame, they’re just making themselves more interesting. It’s a touching perspective, one that’s clearly coming from a place of experience. It’s a view of “nerds” and “outsiders” that this show should keep in mind during those times when it makes nerd culture the butt of so many cheap jokes.

What I mean is that the view presented in Leonard’s speech is one that should be extended throughout the episode and the series. As Raj, Howard, and Sheldon work on the helicopter, doing what they can to fix it and balking at Bernadette’s suggestion that they call tech support, there’s an understanding there that this is what these guys do. They are problem solvers; their entire identity is wrapped up in being able to figure out solutions to any problem sent their way. Even if Howard can’t totally fix the helicopter in the end, the central thesis still holds, that they should always embrace who they are.

That’s why it’s so frustrating to see Raj continually demoralized, reduced here to someone playing his parents against one another so that they don’t cut him off financially. Raj may be spoiled, but watching him grovel, and then actually sabotage any relationship his parents might have, feels like a betrayal of Raj’s core goodness. He’s always been the sensitive one of the bunch, so this kind of greed and exploitations ends up feeling misguided. Again, the presence of Amy is missed, as she’s always the one to keep the guys on the right path, to call out their bullshit behavior in a way that’s not mean-spirited, but rather comes from a place of love.

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Both “The Communication Deterioration” and “The Graduation Transmission” present storylines that are rather inconsequential to any overarching story (ie: Leonard and Penny’s relationship, or Leonard and Sheldon’s paper). They’re good for a few laughs, but each episode is missing an integral emotional element. Amy Farrah Fowler usually provides that element, and the giant hole created by her absence across these two episodes proves that she’s the show’s most versatile, layered, and reliable character.

Stray observations:

  • A rare The Big Bang Theory combo review this week because I was out of the country last week, as was Amy Farrah Fowler apparently. (Update: It should be noted that Mayim Bialik’s father recently died, and that this review is meant to reflect strictly on Amy’s absence from the show, not Bialik’s).
  • Leonard and Raj are right, that scene where E.T. is dying is one of cinema’s most reliable tearjerkers.
  • Leonard’s advice for when encountering alien life: “the key thing was to not sit in its spot.”
  • Raj referring to E.T. as “a little brown MacGyver” is pretty charming.
  • According to Sheldon, Leonard has the group’s “most veal-like consistency,” making him a perfect meal for any invading extraterrestrials.
  • Raj’s dad wants to know if he’s still dating that dermatologist; don’t we all! His reply: “If you could feel how soft my skin is, you wouldn’t have to ask.”
  • As much as I hate to admit it, I laughed when Howard called tech support and Raj’s phone rang. It’s an easy joke, but it worked for me.
  • Props to Leonard for owning the “sexy graduate” costume. Flaunt it if you’ve got it, baby.

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