Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting

I’ve said a few times before that critiquing an episode of The Big Bang Theory, or really any episodic sitcom, is a much different exercise than analyzing a “prestige” show. Usually, there aren’t overarching themes or nifty choices in terms of direction to tie into a critique, and usually the consequences of plot decisions can be discarded or used based on the whim of the showrunner and writers room. It’s with that in mind that I’ve said the most enjoyable episodes of The Big Bang Theory tend to be the ones that feel loose, never shooting for emotional heft that it can’t earn and never slipping into misguided, tone-deaf cynicism. Just like last week’s strong “The Anxiety Optimization,” “The Troll Manifestation” finds great humor and humanity by streamlining the episode, by isolating the guys and the girls and allowing their storylines to unravel at a natural, unforced pace.

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Both storylines this week deal with, to some extent, the notion of public identity. Each narrative asks what it means to be present online, whether that’s through the publication of a physics paper or an old video of an embarrassing beauty pageant appearance, and how such a presence can change how we view ourselves. The episode doesn’t go too deep into exploring the tension between the necessity and downsides of being online in 2015, but it does do a nice job touching on a bunch of ideas about insecurity and the ever-present past as shaped by a digital culture.

In many ways, the episode’s B-story, which sees Amy, Bernadette, and Penny gathered for a movie night at Penny’s apartment, boasts all the best qualities of a bottle episode. Essentially, the entire narrative arc is contained to the apartment and is fueled by the kind of banter that the show does well. The movie night begins with Amy and Bernadette asking Penny if they can watch that ape movie she was in awhile back. Despite Penny’s initial protestations, they find it on demand and dive into the B-movie schlock. “Bananas, get your fresh bananas” is the first line of the film, so one can assume it doesn’t get any better. The film is a jumping off point for the rest of the storyline, which presents an “embarrassing” moment, forever cemented online, for each of the characters. We get a look at Bernadette taking part in a 1999 beauty pageant, where she retools the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” for her own campaign to be crowned the champ. The video looks a lot more ‘80s than 1999, but whatever, it gives us a “talking cupcake” punchline which is okay.

The best reveal though is that Amy writes Little House On The Prairie fan fiction and posts it online. As if that’s not embarrassing enough, the stories are largely about Sheldon–or Cooper, a time-travelling physicist. The way the show initially sets this premise up as a joke, and then subtly moves it into charming territory, is wonderful. It gives us insight into Amy’s feelings for Sheldon and even humanizes her. Art, no matter how hokey, is often personal, and it’s clear that Amy is invested in her story. The fact that Bernadette and Penny get completely absorbed in the story, even to the point of screaming at Leonard when he interrupts them, is a lovely touch.

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The episode’s main storyline involves a research breakthrough from Leonard (don’t ask me to explain it; it involves something called super fluid helium and has implications about the universe as we know it). Leonard brings his idea to Sheldon, who, after agreeing that it’s great research, takes it upon himself to complete the math and write a paper about it. “You wrote a paper on my idea?,” says Leonard, to which Sheldon replies, “I wrote a paper on our idea.” The brief conflict is a nice misdirection; Leonard quickly realizes that of course he needs Sheldon to help him with the research, and that getting it published and potentially making a huge breakthrough is more important than a personal squabble over credit. Essentially, they can share.

What’s most rewarding about this storyline is that it’s a rare moment where Sheldon and Leonard work together as honest, equal colleagues. Watching them click the mouse button to publish the paper together was silly but also heartwarming. It’s not long after the publication though that a message board troll is lambasting their theory. Sheldon and Leonard take it upon themselves to respond, which leads to them bringing the confrontation into real life, as the troll attempts to video chat with them. The guys are left wondering if such a face-to-face confrontation is necessary, or if they should just be satisfied with creating something and seeing all the positive feedback. Eventually, they decide to call the troll back, he’s revealed to be Stephen Hawking, who thinks their paper is promising, but wants to troll them anyways because he gets bored just sitting in a chair all day.

It’s a testament to the strength of the episode that the appearance of Hawking feels inconsequential. I mean, it’s great that he thinks their paper is promising–that’s a huge stamp of approval–but what’s more rewarding as a viewer is seeing the bond between Leonard and Sheldon. This show has often put the two at odds with each other for the sake of comedy. “The Troll Manifestation” allows them to be open and vulnerable, and gives us meaningful insight into why their friendship has endured all these years.

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Stray observations:

  • I kind of want a “me-WOW” sticker for when I accomplish something.
  • Sheldon thinks having his name on a paper is a pretty good indication of quality work: “It might as well say ’Directed by Joss Whedon’.”
  • Bernadette apparently learned to tear down other women in her beauty pageant training, so now we know where that comes from.
  • “I can’t think of a single thing I wouldn’t say to someone’s face.” Yes, we know, Sheldon.

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