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The Big Bang Theory: “The Hofstadter Isotope”

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Any lingering doubts over whether the creators of The Big Bang Theory are mocking their nerd characters or sharing their pain should’ve been quelled by “The Hofstadter Isotope,” which may have been the most deliriously geek-friendly-reference-filled episode in the history of the series. Sheldon name-checked the Deep Space 9/Star Trek: TOS “Trouble With Tribbles” tribute episode. He talked about playing Zork. (The buggy beta version). He answered Penny’s question about whether a comic would be appropriate for her nephew by saying that it would, “provided he has already read Infinite Crisis and 52 and is familiar with the establishment of The DC Multiverse.” Some shows, when they do “geek,” do it in the broadest way possible, with non-specific mentions of Star Wars and made-up super-heroes. The Big Bang Theory folks know that you’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore.

Just about everything was clicking in “The Hofstadter Isotope,” right down to the layout and stock at the comic book store. (Since I know the store's just a set, I can’t help but think about a prop room somewhere in Los Angeles that has stacks of DC Showcase volumes and Vertigo collections. Can someone loan me a key? And a get me a few weeks off?) Granted, the rest of the patrons at the store were a little stock—especially the tubby dude everyone's nicknamed “Captain Sweatpants”—but I loved the little back-and-forth litany of “Got it. Got it. Got it. Got it” between Sheldon and Howard as they flip through the back issues. It was exaggerated, but true. Heck, even Stewart The Store-Clerk’s description of Hellblazer is deeply informed. And though accurate references alone can’t make a show funny, they do help create a secure space within which talented actors can do their thing, with added veracity.

As for why our gang—Penny inclusive—were at the comic book store when it wasn’t a Wednesday, well don’t be concerned that you’ve “fallen down a rabbit hole and into a world of madness.” It’s just “Anything Can Happen Thursday,” a let’s-break-out-of-our-rut concoction of Leonard and Howard and Raj, who are getting a little sick of living their lives on Asperger time. Penny throws herself into the spirit of the day too, by developing an unexpected interest in Stewart, a funny, not-bad-looking dweeb with an art degree from The Rhode Island School Of Design. (Famous alums: Gus Van Sant Chris Frantz. Tina Weymouth. Seth MacFarlane. Shepard Fairey. And to stay in the “fly your geek flag spirit” … one Mr. Walter Simonson. (If you don’t know who that is, you may be watching the wrong show.))

“The Hofstadter Isotope” is cleverly structured, with the prelude introducing the concept of “Anything Can Happen Thursday,” the first act taking place at the comic book store, and the second act split between two out-of-character events: Penny dating Stewart, and Leonard and Raj accompanying Howard to a singles bar. Howard has forwarded a theory—The Wolowitz Equation—that with the proper application of alcohol in the right locale, even he and his buddies can get laid. (The equation includes the calculation “neediness times dress-size squared.”) Other variables include wearing the right underwear—no Aquaman briefs, in other words—and going after “the weak and the old and the lame.” Oh, and avoiding girls who eat peanuts, since one kiss could send Howard into anaphylactic shock. Unfortunately, despite Howard’s promise to show Leonard the ropes, neither of them have much luck, no matter how many magic tricks Howard does. Sure, the ventriloquist bit might’ve worked, but Leonard won’t let Howard sit on his lap. (Howard: “You can’t sit on my lap; you don’t know the routine.”)


Meanwhile, Penny accompanies Stewart to his art show, where Captain Sweatpants has apparently been hanging out by the refreshment table, “touching all the cheese.” Penny invites Stewart in for coffee, but like George Costanza in that old Seinfeld episode “The Phone Message,” Stewart doesn’t quite understand that “coffee doesn’t mean coffee,” so when Sheldon shows up in the hall wanting to debate the logical successor to Batman should Bruce Wayne ever perish, Stewart’s all-too-eager to chat. While Stewart’s accusing Sheldon of having “a pre-Zero Hour” mentality, Penny dozes off. “Coffee” means “coffee.” At least this time

But will there be a next time? Well, this is Big Bang Theory, so who knows? I’d read somewhere that the showrunners were bringing in a geeky love interest for Penny, but they never indicated whether he’d be long-term or just a one-off. (Certainly no mention was made of Howard’s “girlfriend” tonight while he was out on the town.) Sometimes I like the floating, unresolved structure of BBT, but tonight, when everything else was so thoughtfully assembled, I found the lack of an ending—aside from some comic business between Raj and his hook-up—a little deflating.


Then again, I’ve been well-trained to handle stories with no continuity and no set ending. I’m a comic book fan.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-Speaking of “The Phone Message,” just this past week I was reviewing a movie called Lemon Tree and I was thinking about George and Jerry’s secret code, used while sneaking around George’s girlfriend’s apartment. (“Lemon tree! Tippy-toe!”)


-Lots of great throwaway Sheldon business tonight, including him grooving on his own detailed knowledge of The Drake Equation, and him taking umbrage at Stewart saying, “You couldn’t be more wrong.” And though I can’t replicate his entire mockery of the very concept of “Anything Can Happen Thursday,” I did like his suggestion that it consist of “29 hours of 17 minutes apiece.”

-Two great dialogue exchanges:

Howard: “You can’t just tell a falcon when to hunt.”

Leonard: “Actually you can. There’s a whole sport built around it.”

Stewart: “You can throw all the French around you like, it doesn’t make you any more right.”

Sheldon: “Au contraire.”


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