Relationships, in their many different forms, are central to any successful episode of The Big Bang Theory. That’s not to say that just about any exploration of relationship dynamics of varying kinds makes for a solid episode; after all, most sitcoms are built around certain relationships and exploring how they shift and change over time. What I mean is that, far too often, The Big Bang Theory forgets to treat its characters like human beings. The more cynical tendencies of this show tend to fall into episodes where character motivation, insight, and development are completely ignored, and the show’s central relationships are put into difficult situations that ring false. “The Space Probe Disintegration” isn’t the show’s finest half hour, but it is a relatively honest and meaningful look at the many deep-seated feelings of its main characters as they continue to go through a time of transition.
It’s a transition that’s been happening at least since Amy and Bernadette were introduced into the main cast, but even more so since the romantic pairings have become more serious and committed. If there’s one thing The Big Bang Theory has established over its years, it’s that Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard don’t really deal with change that well. It’s part of their DNA, manifested in their lives through routine and a reliance on pop culture. They seek familiarity and comfort–Sheldon much more so than the others. It’s refreshing, then, to see an episode of the show that builds off the idea that the women, specifically Amy and Penny, continually compromise in their relationships in terms of how they spend their time. They are always appeasing the needs of their more insecure and anxious men, and while that shows love and empathy, it’s also toxic for any relationship meant to last more than a few months.
So, Amy and Penny, having just barely avoided a night of playing Lord Of The Rings-themed Risk, get to decide on the evening’s activities. After Sheldon brainstorms a few ideas that would really see he and Leonard suffer–he can’t help himself, he’s a problem solver by nature–the girls decide to take the men shopping with them. It’s probably too much to expect a mainstream network sitcom to not build an episode around regressive gender roles, but that doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating to see. Thankfully, the more obvious gendered punchlines are avoided, and what’s left is a mostly poignant look at how easy it is to take the people that mean the most to us in our lives for granted.
Those feelings come to a head between both Sheldon and Leonard, and Amy and Penny. While Amy and Penny resolve their relationship imbalance rather swiftly–Amy will do anything to keep a friend because she’s never really had any, but Penny tells her she’s not the same woman she used to be–the tension between Sheldon and Leonard is more deeply rooted. Sheldon believes that he constantly compromises for Leonard. Leonard is obviously aghast, reminding Sheldon that he drives him everywhere and can’t touch the thermostat in his own house. Then he really lays into him, and says he’s not living with the woman he loves because of Sheldon. It’s true, but that doesn’t mean it needed to be said in such a hostile fashion, and Sheldon knows it. “You’re mean to me,” he says to Leonard, and he’s right. Leonard often views Sheldon as an emotionless robot that he has to take care of, but that’s simply not true. Despite his more annoying tendencies, Sheldon is still a person, and he has feelings that can be hurt. It’s touching to see them hash out a plan for Leonard to move in with Penny, one night at a time, and reveal some of the feelings they’ve kept bottled up for who knows how long. It’s the type of passionate but reasoned argument that has to happen in any meaningful relationship, and the low-key nature of the execution here is charming and absorbing.
The episode’s other storyline, where Raj worries that a space probe he worked on months ago will return with unreadable data, feels inconsequential in contrast, but it also boasts a low-key approach that keeps things light. Raj’s life has always been underdeveloped compared to the other characters, so it’s nice getting a bit of insight into the world he occupies. In particular, the brief look into his (relatively lapsed) practicing of Hinduism, which provides him perspective and a sense of comfort and connectivity with other people, falls beautifully in line with the themes of the episode. It’s the kind of light thematic cohesion that brings substance to the more rote storytelling elements of “The Space Probe Disintegration.”
- Raj loves Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, despite understanding that it’s an “imperialist fantasy.”
- The way Jim Parsons played Sheldon with such a straight face during his conversation with Leonard was wonderful. He couldn’t, for the life of him, understand how Leonard couldn’t see the many compromises he’s made for him.
- “My hips don’t open wider than 22 degrees.”
- “I will literally race you to the car.”
- Amy at least understands that she’s very impressionable: “I’m lucky you found me before a cult did.”