When a sitcom is nine seasons into its run, it can be hard to find fresh ways to tell a story. More often than not the show ends up relying on slight variations of previous storylines, especially if the show refuses to move its characters in new and interesting directions. The Big Bang Theory has done a decent job of keeping things fresh this season by introducing some new areas of conflict. There’s Sheldon and Amy breaking up and then finding their way back together, Howard and Bernadette’s worries about becoming parents, and Raj’s low-key “player” lifestyle. Those are all new ways of exploring familiar characters, but the success of those new storylines all depends on the execution.

So, the question becomes is The Big Bang Theory invested in making sure it continues to push its characters into unfamiliar territory, or is it just hinting at those changes while keeping the status quo in place? Judging by the way this season has shaped up—we’re only two episode away from the end—and by looking at “The Fermentation Bifurcation,” it’s clear that the show is only invested in some storylines. The episode begins in an interesting place, as Penny tells the group that she’s won a wine tasting night out from her work and that they should all go together. Of course, not everyone wants to go. Sheldon is opposed to the whole idea, and Bernadette can’t drink because she’s pregnant. Still, she tells Howard to go and enjoy the night out, which allows Sheldon to jump in and plan a night for just the two of them.

It’s a good setup because it forces the characters into pairings that we don’t often see. That’s evident in the pairing of Sheldon and Bernadette (more on that in a minute), but it’s also evident in the way the rest of the group spends their night. There’s a brief moment when Howard and Amy are the only two at the wine tasting, as everyone else hasn’t shown up yet. Their interaction is appropriately awkward for two people who largely converse with each other while around other people. It’s a shame the scene isn’t longer, because there’s fruitful material in there, as the two share some common ground, which is their experiences with Sheldon. Sometimes all it takes to shake off the cobwebs is the introduction of a new character pairing.

Eventually though everyone else shows up, including Claire, who Raj has invited along as his “friend” who he’s keeping things casual with. Again, this seems like an opportunity for the show to explore a shift in dynamics. After all, it’s not often that the group welcomes in a new member, even for a single night. They’re so insulated, so used to one another, that they hardly ever have to consider anyone outside of their social circle. The Big Bang Theory even pokes fun at the insularity of the group, as “ The Fermentation Bifurcation” commits to a running gag about Sheldon having two friends that nobody else knows about. “Who are these people?” asks Leonard after Sheldon mentions confiding in them about some work troubles, namely the potential for their new technology to be used by weapons manufacturers. It’s a nice bit of meta commentary on the nature of the sitcom, which inherently must keeps its characters living inside a bubble of sorts. Familiarity and comfort is the name of the game when it comes to a sitcom being on the air for years, so seeing The Big Bang Theory subtly joke about it is a nice touch.

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Unfortunately, there’s not much beyond that joke, as the show once again fails to really capitalize on the fresh pairings and new characters. For instance, Claire’s presence at the wine tasting doesn’t do much to move her or Raj’s character arc forward. Claire is seemingly there just so that she can find out that Raj is dating other people, which happens after Raj tries to micromanage the whole night. From policing the way his friends can talk to Claire, to trying to remain distant and casual, Raj ends up spilling the beans about his dating situation on his own. Claire literally has nothing to do in this episode, and while I appreciate the show’s attempt at fleshing out the relationship between her and Raj by showing Claire’s hesitancy to attend the night and make things too serious, it ultimately leads nowhere. Hell, even Zack shows up again and his presence doesn’t change a thing.

It’s a shame that the show is so unwillingly to shake things up with Raj and the rest of the group (but mostly Raj) because “ The Fermentation Bifurcation” shows that there’s the possibility of real rewards in exploring new dynamics within the group. Sheldon and Bernadette’s night starts out as expected, with Sheldon giving detailed talks about trains and the various types of toast while Bernadette tries to seem interested. Things take a turn though when she asks him why he loves trains so much. He goes on to detail how in the confusing and chaotic world of his childhood, trains represented order and comfort. Then, after that personal reveal, he tells Bernadette that he’s made a special edition of Dungeons & Dragons just for her. The whole story is about a powerful warrior woman named Bernatrix who’s beautiful, strong, and, much to Bernadette’s liking, tall.

What’s charming and affecting about the interaction here is the sense that it’s rooted in relatable, real feelings. Bernadette loves Sheldon’s game because it treats her like an individual, not “pregnant Bernadette,” as she puts it. She’s sick of being seen as only “pregnant,” like it’s some sort of medical condition, so for Sheldon to dedicate a night to making her feel normal is touching. Plus, that sense of empathy is part of Sheldon’s ongoing growth after his breakup with Amy. He’s had to become a more empathetic, caring person in order to keep his relationship with Amy, and that attention to the feelings of others is starting to seep into his other (platonic) relationships. That’s the benefit of having fresh pairings and new situations. It allows the small character moments to shine through, the one’s that are built on episode after episode of character progression. It’s just a shame that “ The Fermentation Bifurcation,” outside of Sheldon and Bernadette’s shared moments, largely wastes the opportunities presented for a change in the group.

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Stray observations

  • I will say that despite the fumbled storylines, tonight’s episode was funny. A lot of good punchlines in the mess.
  • So, why is Howard in the field of science? “We’re in it for the groupies.”
  • I loved Bernadette’s reaction to Sheldon proclaiming they’d spend some time together, just the two of them: “Me? How? Why?”
  • “I like my grapes the old fashioned way…in a juice box.”
  • “Boy do I love restrictions.”
  • Mike deGrasse Tyson

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