The Big Bang Theory season 7 episode 9 review: The Thanksgiving Decoupling

This week's episode of The Big Bang Theory is a Thanksgiving special featuring the welcome return of some old friends...

This review contains spoilers.

7.9 The Thanksgiving Decoupling

Sitcom episodes based around major family events can go one of two ways; tragic or heart-warming. More often they not they choose the second, since nobody really wants to be depressed by a comedy show on a holiday, and despite the title, this week’s Thanksgiving-themed episode of The Big Bang Theory ultimately embraces the softer side of the holiday season.

Like any show in its seventh season, The Big Bang Theory has been excavating its own former glories to revisit old jokes, reinvigorate some, and even address some its own issues, a trend that we’ve seen throughout this season and that continues here in Amy’s amusingly horrified reaction to Sheldon’s insistence that being taken to Howard’s Mom’s for Thanksgiving is equivalent to being sold into slavery. This episode also reintroduces us to several past characters and themes. Luckily, all of them are a pleasure to see again.

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Everyone goes round to Howard’s Mom’s for Thanksgiving dinner – not that we see Mrs Wolowitz of course, as she’s too unwell to come downstairs throughout the episode. We do, however, get to see Bernadette’s father – her mother is visiting their grandchildren, so he’s ended up coming to Howard and Bernadette for Thanksgiving.

Mr Rostenkowski is always a fun addition to the cast as his deadpan attitude and brusque (to the point of cruel) behaviour provides a nice contrast to the regulars, all of whom (even Sheldon) are warmer characters. His presence here reminds us of an old and little-mentioned fact about Sheldon, his comprehensive knowledge of 1990s American football, thanks to his late father forcing him to watch it. Mr Rostenkowski’s attempts to bond with Sheldon on the grounds of mutual sports knowledge are very funny, and Sheldon’s remarkably positive response is even funnier. Even before he’s had a beer he’s able to recognise that they’re ‘having a moment’ and after that we get the return of another always amusing side of Sheldon, drunk Sheldon.

Meanwhile, Penny has discovered that her Las Vegas wedding to Zack was, contrary to their belief at the time, a real wedding and they have, in fact, been married for the past three years. It looks like the de-coupling of the title may be a break-up of the Penny/Leonard relationship as they bicker over Penny’s dubious life choices and Leonard’s judgemental attitude and obsession with her mistakes (to be fair to Leonard, this one’s kind of a biggie). However, as it turns out, the ‘de-coupling’ in question is that of Penny and Zack, as they manage to get hold of some annulment papers extremely quickly and end their marriage (or they will on Monday, when they can get to a lawyer).

Much as we hate to say it, this storyline probably would have been stronger if Leonard and Penny had actually broken up. Sitcoms that drag out the will they/won’t they ad infinitum can become irritating, especially since they frequently Do before the end, often in the finale. There’s definitely something admirable about deciding to drop the endless repetition of the same beats and simply let the show change into a sitcom about a group of couples + Raj, rather than a group of young, single friends and neighbours.

But the trouble with the Penny/Leonard relationship is that the show is so desperate to continue to make fun of Leonard for being too geeky for Penny that we’ve reached the point where it’s hard to see why they’re together. Leonard really does seem to think Penny’s stupid sometimes (and again, to be fair to him, she has done something rally daft here), while the show has never been able to let go of the idea that he is more in love with her than she is with him. They started to address the imbalance a bit last season by showing us why Penny is attracted to Leonard and including more scenes of her demonstrating affection for him, but this episode takes us right back to her failing to understand why he’s upset that she’s married while Leonard whines and won’t let it go (which is understandable, but he probably could have dropped it for dinner at least).

Still, it’s all more or less worth it for the return of Penny’s ex-boyfriend Zack, a broad caricature but another nice counterpart to our main characters. Zack’s unique brand of logic is wonderful, and there’s an unspoken tragedy to some of his weirdly sweet pronouncements, like, “Penny told me we’re married and Thanksgiving’s a time to be with family,” and, “I’m starting to think you’re the kind of guy I don’t want dating my wife.”

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While all this is going on, poor Howard has nothing to do other than feel left out, but Raj, Bernadette and Amy all get in some decent comic reaction shots. Amy’s reaction to being slapped on the butt by Sheldon is a perfectly delivered character moment, as of course, Amy is thrilled rather than insulted, since this is probably the most sexual move Sheldon’s ever made towards her. We also loved Kunal Nayyar’s delivery of, “the plot, like my gravy, thickens,” which ought to be a terrible line but somehow he makes it hilarious.

All in all, the main disappointment of this episode is that there wasn’t more to it. Most of the time, The Big Bang Theory is a sitcom where nothing much of consequence happens most weeks, and that’s fine. But somehow, it feels like Penny being married, coupled with the Thanksgiving setting, could have added up to more. Perhaps the problem is just that this story exposed the inherent weaknesses in the way Penny and Leonard’s relationship has been developed. We’ve got no problem with them ending up together, but so far the writing just hasn’t quite convinced us that they should – or will. Perhaps a little bit more will they/won’t they might actually be good for them and help to convince us why they should be together. But still, this was an entertaining episode with lots of nice call-backs to hits of the show’s past, and any time we get to see drunk Sheldon and sweetly stupid Zack in the same room, we’re happy.

Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, The Itchy Brain Simulation, here.

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