A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Baby Steps: Love And 'The Big Bang Theory'

Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons star as Amy and Sheldon on CBS's <em>The Big Bang Theory</em>.
Michael Yarish
Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons star as Amy and Sheldon on CBS's The Big Bang Theory.

Note: This post discusses the events of Thursday night's episode. Be warned!

The Big Bang Theory is an odd show. It's an old-fashioned CBS multicamera sitcom that has thrived as everybody experimented with barely funny black comedy. But it's also weirdly modern, in that it captures a specific current cultural fascination with nerds and nerdy things and often engages with real movies, memes — with real popular culture that exists in the world. It can be charitably said to be clumsy at times with a whole gaggle of weird stereotypes, but it's also a rare show that legitimately turned around a terrible situation with the gender politics in its pilot and built three terrific female characters into its cast.

And although it can sometimes feel unnecessarily mean, it also has the capacity to suddenly bust out some very satisfying sweetness. Sweetness Part 1: the Season 2 episode in which Sheldon isn't sure what to get Penny for Christmas and then finds himself utterly overwhelmed by her gift to him.

Sweetness Part 2: the Season 7 episode in which Howard (the grossest of the desperate horn dogs in the early going) sang a song to his wife on their first anniversary — a song actually written by Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome, otherwise known as Garfunkel & Oates, both of whom had been guest stars on the show.

But where the show has gone the most slowly and been the most patient is in the development of Sheldon's relationship with Amy, the girlfriend he picked up at the beginning of the fourth season. The first time she was seen, Amy was written to be almost exactly like Sheldon — not expressive, reluctant about dating, barely interested in a romantic relationship at all. But, perhaps sensing that pairing two deadpan performances was going to make for some slow going, the writers pivoted pretty quickly to make Amy an eager oddball totally devoted to Sheldon and capable of understanding him as few other people did.

It was still slow going. In fact, Sheldon and Amy (played so, so well by Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik) had their first date at the beginning of Season 4 and their first real kiss midway through Season 7. That's ... a long time.

But for Sheldon, it made sense and felt not only normal but necessary. While Sheldon's precise mix of challenges has been carefully not labeled as anything on the autism spectrum, he certainly has a harder time than most with social cues, and with physical closeness, and with talking about his feelings. I highly, highly recommend critic (and parent) Noel Murray's marvelous essay on Sheldon's role in the ongoing development of cultural ideas about both nerds and autism. In it, Murray says:

"By not defining Sheldon, they've inadvertently captured an important aspect of autism, which is that the disorder has common tendencies, but flexible boundaries. Sheldon is an exaggerated version of a person with Asperger's, but his fussiness is very familiar to those of us with family members on the spectrum. His rare moments of joy are just as familiar—and welcome, after so many years of autists being depicted as emotionless. In 'The Bakersfield Expedition,' Sheldon reprograms his roommate's GPS to deliver facts and quizzes about the interstate highway system, and during the scene where the Sheldon-voiced GPS explains the interstate numbering system, my wife and I shook our heads, because we've heard our own son deliver that same monologue from the backseat multiple times during long car trips."

For all that The Big Bang Theory can seem clunky and bothersome, it can also be really compassionate with Sheldon, for lack of a better word, and great with a payoff, particularly when it comes to him.

And one of those payoffs arrived on Thursday night's episode, "The Opening Night Excitation," when the show — in an act of meta-genius, quite frankly — timed Sheldon and Amy having sex for the first time (not just with each other, but with anyone, for both of them) to the opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

See, with Sheldon, you have to read past the text and get to the subtext, because he's not going to give you a lot of text, emotionally. (Lots of text, but mostly facts.) What's the most subtext that Sheldon could provide, as far as demonstrating that he loves Amy? What's the most Sheldon-y thing he could do that would still be profoundly meaningful coming from him? He skipped the opening night of the new Star Wars movie to be with Amy on her birthday. The sex part is almost ... secondary to that, in terms of how she knows he means it.

At the same time, what is the only thing this particular show could do to adequately commemorate something that would mean as much in this universe as the new Star Wars movie? Well, it could mark a huge relationship milestone.

One of the nicest and fairest things about the episode is that this still doesn't all come entirely naturally to Sheldon and he's not swept away by strong emotion. His initial impulse is to do this because he knows it means a lot to Amy and it's her birthday. It's certainly not that he doesn't want to, he just doesn't have strong feelings one way or the other — at least that he recognizes — about sex specifically. But he has them about Amy.

Again, it's an odd show. A lot of the time, it's one of those things that is just sort of on a lot that's so minimally serialized (almost not at all, other than the development of romances) that whatever one pops up, it's as good as any other. But the specificity of the way certain characters are handled, particularly Sheldon, has the surprising ability to pack quite a punch.

As does, it must be said, the new Star Wars movie.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.