The Big Bang Theory season 7 episode 20 review: The Relationship Diremption

Here's Juliette's review of the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory...

This review contains spoilers.

7.20 The Relationship Diremption

The Big Bang Theory splits itself down the middle in its latest episode with two more or less equally weighted stories, one focusing on Sheldon, the other focusing on Howard.

Technically the A-story (the story referenced in the title) is Sheldon’s and, typically, Leonard, Penny and Amy are essentially reduced to supporting players in Sheldon’s story. Sheldon has what is essentially a mid-life crisis when Kripke asserts that string theory, which both have dedicated their careers to proving, is in fact unprovable. Kripke isn’t bothered by this at all, for he is, as he puts it, a ‘string pragmatist’ and is quite happy to take the funding and run with it. However, Sheldon has genuinely dedicated the past twenty years of his life to proving it and is thrown into turmoil when suddenly confronted with the idea that such a thing is impossible.

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Sheldon confides in Penny about this problem, and as ever the pairing of these two is both sweet and effective. He ends up taking her advice and viewing the situation as a relationship break-up. He then reads up on how to deal with relationship break-ups from Cosmopolitan, resulting in him contemplating burning his books (an idea rejected because it is, he says, too reminiscent of East Texas picnics) asking Penny to re-style his hair, drinking and deciding to enjoy his freedom and wait for a new area of research to come to him rather than actively looking for one.

There are a number of academic nits we could pick with this story. For one thing, if this is Sheldon’s life’s work, could one off-hand comment from Kripke really convince him that something he’s always believed possible is, in fact, impossible? Okay, he was also bothered by the advances being made in other fields while he has made no progress over the two decades he’s been working on his own, but it still seems a bit abrupt. And how can Sheldon simply decide to drop string theory entirely and sit around waiting for a new idea or area of scientific research to come to him? It’s been established that Sheldon doesn’t teach at the university, because he’s terrible at it, which means he is employed and/or funded purely to do research – and funding granted by some kind of funding body is usually granted for a specific project with a specific goal in a specific field. Perhaps the university will employ him to research whatever he wants, but even if that is the case, he still can’t sit around enjoying his freedom and doing no work.

Now, we know what you’re going to say – this is a sitcom and we shouldn’t require it to be completely realistic. This is, after all, the show that sent Howard Wolowitz – a man who broke the Mars Rover trying to impress a date – into space. But there is a level to which we can suspend disbelief, and then there is a point at which it starts to get stretched a little. Still, in The Big Bang Theory’s defence, this is hardly the worst or most extreme example of sitcoms’ general tendency to have a fairly loose relationship with reality, especially when it comes to employment. Characters in sitcoms have always displayed a remarkable ability to pick up jobs easily, leave jobs and come back to them when they change their mind, get jobs they are clearly in no way qualified for etc., so perhaps we should go easy on the show in this case.

Whatever the reasoning, Sheldon’s concerns about wasting his life are certainly easy to identify with, making this a Sheldon story in which he is almost entirely sympathetic and not driving everyone else up the wall, which is always nice to see. The relationship-break-up analogy isn’t entirely convincing, but it gets Sheldon to where the writers want him, which is getting drunk and waking up next to a geology textbook (someday someone will have to write a sitcom about a geologist, just so they can get their own back for twenty years of mocking from first Friends, and now The Big Bang Theory).

In the B-story, Howard pesters Raj that he wants to meet Emily, only to discover that he once went on a date with her himself, embarrassed himself by blocking her toilet while suffering from food poisoning, ran away and never saw her again. Considering the fact he meets Emily again on a double date with his wife coupled with how badly some of Howard’s dates went earlier in the show, it probably could have been worse, but Howard is utterly humiliated.

The B-story does also provide some more for Raj to do despite being focused on Howard, as we learn that he tried the same ‘honesty’ tactic with Lucy that had worked so well with Emily, and that in Lucy’s case it didn’t go so well, which does at least mean he no longer has the problem of dating two women to worry about. He’s also quite concerned about Howard meeting Emily, telling him, “No jokes about how close I am with my dog. Or the truth about how close I am with my dog.” Bernadette is, once again, mostly reacting to things other people are doing, but her horror at Emily’s assertion that she likes cutting into people is not only nicely underplayed, but the fact that Bernadette, the quietly scary one, is so disturbed by it really underlines how disturbing it is. Whether this is a throwaway gag or something that will become a real issue remains to be seen.

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The episode culminates in Sheldon and Howard sitting down and commiserating with each other. It’s great to see the strengthening of their friendship over the last few episodes continuing to develop, though Sheldon’s comforting story over Howard’s ‘Number 2’ incident may be slightly barbed, since telling him ‘this too shall pass’ is surely a pun at Howard’s expense.

On another show, a crisis as serious as Sheldon’s here might be more deeply felt, but on The Big Bang Theory, it’s not given much more weight than Howard’s digestive embarrassment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, more a choice to use what could be a serious character moment as a set-up for a series of gags based on the relationship analogy instead, keeping the episode (and the show) light and consistently producing laughs. For example, the revelation that Sheldon drunk-dialled Stephen Hawking is funny enough in itself and the actual message, which plays over the tag, is brilliant. We would happily watch a show about Sheldon and Stephen Hawking solving crimes. It would be like True Detective with physics instead of psychoanalysis.

Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, The Indecision Amalgmation, here.

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