Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Jim Parsons

What is it exactly that makes people fall in love? A mix of circumstances, common interests, and some sort of chemical reaction perhaps? Or maybe it’s inexpicable, even if there is some science behind it. Maybe there’s something that’s intangible, something that can’t quite be explained. These questions, and the nature of love, are central to “The Intimacy Acceleration,” an episode of The Big Bang Theory that pairs a bunch of the characters off and sees them musing on variations of love and relationships.

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The reason everyone is paired off is because Amy has discovered a study that suggests a certain test, involving a set of intimate questions and a period of creepy staring, can make two people fall in love. The study sets off a debate amongst the group. For the most part everyone agrees that it’s a ludicrous hypothesis–Leonard is particularly doubtful, as he think its takes 3-5 years of shameless begging to get someone to fall in love with you–but they also think it would be fun to test out the theory. The only one wary is Raj, who, while invoking lessons learned by bullies that went to high school with Bruce Lee, states that he never tests fate like that. Sheldon, to the surprise of everyone, volunteers to take part in the study. When Penny realizes that study involves answering revealing questions, she jumps at the chance to get some dirt on Sheldon.

Thus, Sheldon and Penny spend the episode doing the test while Leonard and Amy go out with Raj and Emily, who’s name I totally looked up on IMDB because she’s never on this show. The four of them go to an escape room, where they have to solve a bunch of puzzles in order to get out of a room with a zombie in it. This storyline is the weakest of the episode, mostly because it doesn’t give the characters much to do. It’s fun to see Leonard and Amy working so well together, but a little insight or look into Raj’s relationship with Emily would have been nice. We know so little about her that when she shows up, she just feels like an inconsequential part of the narrative, a reminder that pops up every 8 episodes or so letting us know that Raj does indeed have a girlfriend. The punchline at the end of the story, where it’s revealed that they solved the whole room in six minutes, is a solid touch, but the whole arc is fleeting, pointless, and surprisingly joke-less.

Howard and Bernadette’s storyline isn’t much better. They’re confined to the lost luggage area of the airport because this is The Big Bang Theory and that means the aftermath of a funeral wouldn’t be complete without missing ashes. After so deflty handling the death of Howard’s mother in last week’s episode, it’s a shame to see the show deny us any sort of meaningful follow-up. The entire storyline can be boiled down to the fact that Howard is too close to his mother, even in death, and that Bernadette has very little patience for that. They do get one moment of honesty and intimacy, where Howard beats himself up for making his mother take a cab to the airport on the day she flew to Florida. It’s a genuine regret and continues last week’s wonderful insight into how the relationships that challenge (and sometimes annoy) us the most are often the most rewarding. It’s not long after that though that Bernadette is yelling at the baggage claim attendant, telling her that she better find the ashes because, either way, they’ll be leaving with one dead woman tonight.

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Thankfully, much of the Penny and Sheldon intimacy experiment is rewarding in its simplicity and earnestness, a far cry from the episode’s other storylines. It’s clear from the moment that Sheldon and Penny begin the test that they’re not going to fall in love, but rather grow closer; however predictable the beats may be, they’re still touching. When Penny answers a question jokingly, and Sheldon accuses her of using humor to remove herself from being vulnerable, it’s a moment that could only be shared between good friends. These people have been together for eight years, and they know each other inside and out; Sheldon even knows how much money Penny owes him for all the food she’s eaten over the years. Intimacy is the byproduct of empathy and time, and while Sheldon may not always be the most perceptive, and Penny may not always be the most empathetic, they’ve spent a lot of time together. Intimacy was created between the two sometime over the past eight years, but their only discovering it just now.

The intimacy test is the kind of low-stakes, but emotionally honest storyline that The Big Bang Theory thrives on. It’s just a shame it’s surrounded by a lot of unfunny, inconsequential exposition.

Stray observations:

  • If Sheldon could choose anyone in the world to have dinner with, he’d choose himself, because of course he would.
  • Penny would choose to dine with Robert Downey Jr., much to the chagrin of Sheldon. “I didn’t even think of Iron Man,” he laments.
  • More Sheldon insights: psychology is still the doofus of the sciences.
  • Hard to tell if Sheldon always calls wine “Bible juice” or if he was just making fun of Penny, but either way, I like the terminology.

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