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The Big Bang Theory: "The Proton Displacement"

Illustration for article titled The Big Bang Theory: "The Proton Displacement"
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Sheldon Cooper is annoying. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. Hell, even he knows it. At two points in this episode, Sheldon begs people to tell him to his face what we all already know, but only one of them actually has the guts to tell him just how annoying he is. That man is Arthur “Professor Proton” Jeffries, M.D., Sheldon’s childhood idol turned horny old man, who just wants this irritating tall kid to stop bothering him. The Big Bang Theory creative team clearly enjoyed having Bob Newhart guest star on the show last season, so it brings back Professor Proton for another episode of old person jokes, but in this week’s story he’s used as a tool to explore the relationships between the characters on the show.

When Sheldon, Leonard, and Amy run into Arthur in line at the pharmacy, the poor man finds himself pulled into Sheldon’s obnoxious orbit. The former TV personality doesn’t do himself any favors when he e-mails Leonard asking for his help with a paper about nano-vacuum tubes, bringing down the full wrath of a jealous Sheldon who is desperate to prove that he’s better than everyone at everything. Bob Newhart fits incredibly well into the world of Big Bang; his stammering, deadpan delivery creates an awkwardness that is perfect for an elderly nerd character, and the rest of the cast members always look like they’re having the time of their lives when hanging out with the TV legend.


Most of Arthur’s scenes involve jokes about his age—Sheldon guessing that he’s filling a prescription to speed up the flow of fluids, Sheldon waking him up at 7:30 p.m., Arthur saying he sees a white light when he has to climb three flights of stairs—but when Arthur is alone with Leonard, the episode becomes surprisingly poignant. After Sheldon shows up with Bill Nye The Science Guy to make Arthur jealous, Arthur asks Leonard why he puts up with Sheldon. Leonard tells him that Sheldon is his friend, but Arthur replies with a tough follow-up question: “Why?” What follows is perhaps the best explanation of the Leonard-Sheldon dynamic to date.

Leonard tells Arthur that Sheldon can’t control his behavior; it’s just how he is, and while he can be irritating, he’s also loyal and trustworthy and a lot of fun at times. Arthur tells him that he’s just described a dog, but Leonard understands that their relationship is more than that. “You know what? Sheldon is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Leonard says. “And he’s a little broken, and he needs me. Guess I need him too.” Leonard doesn’t have anything more to say when Arthur asks, “Why is that?”, but the candid confession that these two roommates are broken people that need each other is a touching display of Leonard’s devotion to his friend.

So just how broken is Sheldon? For one, he only thinks there are only three social skills: coy smile, friendly chuckle, and vocalization of sympathy. This is likely due to his (unconfirmed) Asperger’s, so it’s not fair to say that he’s “broken,” per se, but beyond his trouble understanding social cues, there are deeper emotional problems at display in “The Proton Displacement.” When Amy suggests that Arthur didn’t seek out Sheldon’s help because he can be a little “much,” Sheldon becomes obsessed with hearing her say the word he’s heard all his life as a descriptor: “annoying.”

Sheldon clearly didn’t have the easiest childhood, and he’s never really recovered as an adult. He’s a scientific genius, but he’s incredibly juvenile in everything else, and when he fixates on something, he can’t let it go, even if it’s something that will ultimately hurt him. Amy won’t say the word he needs to hear, so he goes to Arthur’s front door and pesters him until he gets what he’s aching for, and when he hears the word, he’s surprised at how much it still pains him. Leonard may occasionally taunt Sheldon, but at the end of the day, their apartment is one of the few spaces where Sheldon feels safe.


In this episode’s Raj and Howard subplot, Howard pokes fun at his best friend for ditching him to hang out at Bernadette’s girls’ night (with a jewelry making theme suggested by Raj). Howard questions Raj’s masculinity, but when he sees how much fun the group is having, he decides to join in by offering his high-tech gadgets to make bigger and better jewelry pieces. Eventually, Raj lashes out at Howard for butting his way into girls’ night, compromising the place where he is able to indulge his feminine side without criticism. Howard comforts him and apologizes in a scene that builds to a fantastic punchline from Amy, “They’re going to have sex before Sheldon and I do. I knew it!”

That line blows up the Raj/Howard gay subtext, but not as much as what follows: Raj uses the new jewelry-making techniques taught to him by his best friend to make them matching lightsaber belt buckles, so now they can swordfight whenever they want. For a genius, Raj sure can be an idiot, and I find it very difficult to believe that he wouldn’t know the slang meaning of “swordfighting.” But knowing what we know about Raj, it’s entirely possible that he’s just playing ignorant and using this as an opportunity to rub crotches with the truest love he’ll probably ever have in his life.


Stray observations:

  • Man, that laugh track sure does get excited when Bob Newhart shows up.
  • Horny Old Man may be a tired stereotype, but I really love Bob Newhart’s interactions with Kaley Cuoco. He’s just the right blend of adorable and lecherous when confronted with a gorgeous young blonde.
  • It was inevitable that Bill Nye would make a cameo on this show, and he doesn’t disappoint in his cameo role this week. Arthur’s venomous reactions to the guy who stole his act are great.
  • Sheldon: “I’m not going to bother him. I’m going to talk to him.” Leonard: “He thinks there’s a difference.”
  • Sheldon: “Sheldon Cooper does not cry.” Howard: “That’s right. You rust.”
  • “Look who’s here to put the ‘Jew’ in jewelry night!”
  • “Raj, cool it! He’s going to make us hair diamonds.”

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