This review contains spoilers.
7.11 The Cooper Extraction
Christmas episodes of sitcoms are a simple, beautiful thing. All that’s required of them is to be as cute, sweet, touching and some more synonyms for vomit-inducingly adorable as possible. In addition to the obvious plots revolving around the exchange of gifts, family dinners, etc., there are two things that the writers of sitcom episodes find very hard to resist in Christmas-based stories: childbirth and pastiches of classic Christmas movies. Having already successfully mined the more prosaic fields of gift-giving and family visits in earlier seasons, it’s unsurprising that this episode features both, but with a couple of delightful twists.
Childbirth features in the B story, in which Sheldon has been forced to go to Texas to assist with his twin sister’s home birth. In most sitcom births, and especially in Christmas episodes, childbirth happens onscreen in the most ludicrously clean and speedy fashion possible – the direct opposite of real childbirth. Not so in The Big Bang Theory – we see nothing other than Sheldon’s face, but we’re treated to brief yet wonderfully squicky descriptions of some of the less pleasant and generally fluid-filled aspects of the process. You do have to feel sorry for poor Amy though; Sheldon has finally seen lady parts, and not only do they belong to his twin sister (ew) but, as Amy desperately tries to reassure him, “that is not the way they usually look!” You can see the mounting despair in her face.
While Sheldon’s away, everyone else indulges in playing around with the plot of the second-most spoofed Christmas story of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life. Usually, non-SFF versions of It’s a Wonderful Life feature someone idly wondering how everyone’s lives would be different without one person, and then the bulk of the rest of the episode takes place in an imagined parallel universe where this one thing is changed. Here, however, everyone wonders aloud how different their lives would be without Sheldon and shares a short suggestion with the others, who comment on and argue with each idea. It’s a nice approach to an old story, resulting in an episode that consists of a short series of vignettes that bear little relationship to each other, but work nicely in themselves.
It’s unsurprising that a Wonderful Life-style episode revolves around Sheldon; Leonard and Sheldon are, after all, the core of the group and Sheldon is the more extreme of the two, the character whose actions stand out in a more obvious way than Leonard’s (and the character everyone is most likely to wish wasn’t around – Howard and Sheldon in particular have been sounding even more bitter about each other than usual lately).
There is another reason to make Sheldon’s presence or absence the centre of the episode though, as the emotional heart of it is Amy and Sheldon’s relationship. It’s Amy, ever the loyal girlfriend, who points out to everyone how much they all owe to Sheldon, and Amy who worries that his life would be much the same without her. Caught between being fully aware of how much better her life has been since she met Sheldon, while at the same time frustrated by his apparent indifference (despite the incident with the cats), it’s Amy’s love for her boyfriend and all his foibles that drives the story.
The success of the episode ultimately depends on how entertaining the vignettes are, and for us, they worked well – some more than others, as is always the case with this sort of story-telling. The structure of the episode allows the imagined state of our heroes without Sheldon to be that bit more exaggerated than the more standard, sustained, logical take on the Wonderful Life plot, and our laugh-out-loud moment of the night had to be Howard slipping into Psycho territory. There’s a nod towards the Penny and Sheldon shippers in there, though that sequence does also demonstrate why that relationship would be unlikely to work – and it even makes sense that Amy would come up with that idea. The show has, thankfully, dropped the rather tired gag about Amy having a crush on Penny to focus on her relationship with Sheldon, but since that latent attraction is presumably still there, it makes a sort of sense that she would take time to imagine Penny and Sheldon going out with each other.
Not everything works, of course. You can hear the discomfort in the audience’s stilted laughter when Raj looks at a picture of a woman who’s just given birth and says “Now I’m gay” – the show has played about with Raj’s sexuality too much for anyone to be quite sure whether he’s joking or not (or to find the gag remotely amusing), even though it seems clear that this was a throwaway line that could have been given to any straight male character. And in order for the episode to work, our heroes have to fail to come to the obvious early conclusion that without Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj would be dead. We have to assume that none of them want to share the story about the rocket fuel and the elevator with Amy, Bernadette and Stuart.
Overall, though, this works pretty well. There’s a reason TV shows rip off It’s a Wonderful Life so often, and there are easily enough laughs here to sustain twenty minutes and leave viewers with that warm, fuzzy feeling Christmas episodes are supposed to induce. The Big Bang Theory peaked early, Christmas-episodes-wise, with The Bath Gift Item Hypothesis, but this is a solid and perfectly respectable entry into the canon.
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, The Discovery Dissipation, here.
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